Moving from the Stage to the Classroom: A New Theatre Teacher's Journey - Part 2

Darin Keesing

“So when a posting for full-time teaching position appeared in a Facebook group in early March, I felt like this might be my last chance.”



The link appeared in my feed, advertising an opening for a full-time, tenure-track teaching position in Design and Production. The school was Wittenberg University, located in Springfield, OH, about an hour drive from my home in Columbus. I’m embarrassed to say that I was not familiar with Wittenberg, but I visited their website to see if this was a job worth pursuing. I wasn’t optimistic, having seen so many postings over the years that didn’t quite match up to my needs or qualifications.

Wittenberg’s Department of Theatre and Dance is small, comprising of just three tenured professors and two adjuncts. The website didn’t tell me a lot, with just a handful of production photos and a course listing. I wanted more information, so I contacted Patrick Reynolds, the department’s acting and theatre history professor (and search committee chair). I explained that I was interested in the position, but was honest about my lack of recent teaching experience. He encouraged me to apply, so I started the process.

Anyone who has applied to work at a college or university can tell you that the requirements are numerous. As a freelance designer, I hadn’t “applied” for work in years; the closest thing to a job interview had been “Hey, I got your name from so-and-so, are you available to design our show?” So the process of requesting official college transcripts, building a CV (from scratch), and requesting letters of recommendation was daunting. I also quickly realized that I needed a strategy.

I worked off of the premise that everyone else who was applying was either currently or recently teaching at the university level, and that my background as primarily a professional, freelance designer needed to be central to differentiating me from the other candidates. At the same time, I needed someone with academic credentials to vouch for my abilities. After asking several friends and colleagues, I secured letters from an Artistic Director I frequently work with in Columbus, an Artistic Director I worked with extensively in Chicago, and a design professor at a major university who I know from graduate school. I contacted Professor Reynolds to let him know the application process was under way.

This is the part of the story where I almost quit before I was hired. A few weeks after submitting my application letter and CV, I had a feeling that I should call Patrick to check in. It was a Friday afternoon, and I let him know that I had turned in everything except the letters of recommendation, which were in process. He told me that the application deadline was that day, and was there any way to get the letters in? I panicked. One of my letter writers was in tech, one was out of the country, and one was attending USITT, and after sending out some text messages, all three said there was no way they could get the letters done that day. I was devastated, and emailed Patrick that due to the deadline, I would have to withdraw my application.

Less than ten minutes later, Patrick calls me, imploring me to reconsider. It seems that the application deadline had been removed from the job posting before going online, and that the department was willing to extend it for me. Encouraged by this response, I contacted my colleagues and asked them to get the letters in when they could.

The next week, I received an email saying I passed the initial round of application review and that a Skype interview would be scheduled. I had never had an online interview, and didn’t really know what to expect. When the time came, I logged in and five people appeared on my screen! After getting over the initial weirdness of the format, I relaxed and enjoyed the conversation. The big advantage of Skype versus the phone is that you can read body language and see reactions when you answer questions or explain ideas. I felt good about it, and prepared to wait.

Several days later, another email, this time congratulating me on being a finalist. The next step was an on-campus interview. This was very exciting, but also daunting. I was scheduled to spend a full day on campus, including a campus tour, interview with the search committee, interview with the Provost, and culminating in teaching a class to a group of students. I was the only “local” candidate, so I would be the first to visit.

I chose to teach a class on the fundamentals of lighting design. It was a lecture I had taught before and felt very comfortable with. I put together a slide show and set up my computer needs with the department administrator.

My day on campus was tremendous. The university is beautiful, and everyone I met was friendly and excited about the process. I was whisked from interview to interview, had a great lunch, and then taught my class. I gave the lecture without notes, and my confidence level couldn’t have been higher. It was during this mock-class that I realized something important; though I had wanted to teach for the past fifteen years, I don’t know if was ready. Until now. The difference I felt giving this lecture versus teaching in the past was night and day. I was now at a place in my life (and my career) when I had something to say, and the authority to say it.

The best part of the day was near the end, when the search committee left me with a group of students for an informal meet and greet. The thing I was struck with immediately was this: theatre people are theatre people, no matter where you go. It didn’t matter that these students were at Wittenberg instead of Yale, they loved theatre and loved learning. We wrapped up the chat, and after going out to dinner with a few of the professors, I headed home, confident that I had done everything I could to earn the job.

But first, there was waiting. Lots of waiting. As I said, I was the first candidate to visit campus, and the other two candidates would be visiting in subsequent weeks. It was nearly four weeks before I finally received the call I had been waiting for, offering me the job I had been chasing all these years. I was thrilled.

So here I am, less than two months away from the next chapter in my career. I’ve taken the summer off in order to clear my mind and prepare for the unknown. Classes start August 21st, but there is so much to do.


Photo: Seaver College - Pepperdine University