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

Darin Keesing


What happens when you have been pursuing a career in academia for nearly twenty years and finally get it? What opportunities (and pitfalls) accompany a move from freelance designing to full-time teaching? I’m about to find out.

My name is Darin Keesing, and I have been designing lighting and scenery professionally for two decades. Sometimes it has been a full-time job, sometimes I’ve had to put it on the back burner, but all told I’ve designed around 150 shows across five states. But since earning my MFA in Stage Design from Northwestern in 2000, I have wanted to teach. Wanting and doing are two separate things, of course, and the opportunities to teach design have been scarce. More than once I have resigned myself to the idea that an academic career may not happen for me. 

My design career started after graduating The Theatre School at DePaul University In 1996. I had no immediate plans to attend grad school (“a few years off and we’ll see what happens”), but I struggled to establish myself in Chicago’s professional theatre scene. Aside from a few low-paying gigs at upstart theatre companies, my main source of income came from assistant designing some shows at the Goodman Theatre. While working on a show in the old Goodman Studio, I met Linda Roethke, who was the show’s costume designer. She was (and still is) the Professor of Costume Design at Northwestern, and we chatted about the program. She encouraged me to apply, and though I knew the school only took two lighting designers per year, I gave it a shot.

I was their number three choice, but good fortune found me as one of their top two chose another school, so after a just one year off, I found myself back at school. It was at Northwestern that I caught the teaching bug; part of our requirements to earn our stipend included being a teaching assistant for a class in our second year, and then teaching that class in our third year. I learned two things teaching that Intro to Lighting Design course: teaching is really hard, but it was something I wanted to do. 

Thanks to some connections I made while at Northwestern, my design career really took off. From 2001-2003 I was working on 10-12 shows per year, and though the money wasn’t great, I was feeling established as a Chicago designer. 

During a light hang at Steppenwolf Theatre sometime in 2002, I met a young woman who had just graduated from Illinois-Wesleyan University. As we chatted, she revealed that the school was looking for an adjunct professor to teaching lighting design, and that she could give me a good word with her former professors. I secured an interview, and next thing I knew, I was on board to teach one class and design the main stage shows for the 2002-03 school year.

There were some complications from the start. First, the school is located in Bloomington, IL, which is about a two and a half hour drive from Chicago. I was a busy designer, and the school was very accommodating, changing the class from Tuesday/Thursday to a three-hour class on Monday (dark day in Chicago). My class was small, comprised of one design focused student, one technical theatre, one stage manager, and one actor. While my relationship with the students was good, I was basically regurgitating the class I taught at Northwestern, with a few tweaks. I was also off campus six days a week (except during tech weeks of the university productions), so office hours were limited, and keeping tabs on the students was challenging.

At the end of the year, I was told that my contract would not be renewed for the next school year. This wasn’t surprising. I wasn’t interested in moving to Bloomington to teach one class per year, and the school wanted someone local for a variety of good reasons. “No problem,” I thought, “there will be plenty of other teaching opportunities down the road.” I applied for a pile of teaching jobs that I found in ArtSearch, but usually didn’t get so much as a “thanks for your application” rejection letter.

Over the next fifteen years, my design career took many twists and turns, but teaching never reentered the equation. I continued in Chicago until 2005, when my wife’s job relocated us to Pennsylvania. She was consulting, which meant a lot of travel, and by this time we had a two year old and a newborn, so I became a stay-at-home dad. It was good for the family, and there weren’t many design opportunities where we lived. When an old movie theater in town was renovated as a live performance venue, I was hired as the Lighting Director, which meant mostly lighting live music and a few dance concerts. I only designed one theatrical show in three years, a production of “Little Shop of Horrors”. I kept my eye on teaching opportunities, but there weren’t many colleges or universities within commuting distance.

Another job relocation in 2008 landed us in Columbus, OH, where I’ve lived for close to ten years. Through a chance connection I had in Chicago I found design work here, and have been freelancing ever since, but always with an eye out for teaching jobs. There are many great schools in this area: Ohio State, Otterbein, Capital University, Ohio-Wesleyan, Columbus College of Art and Design, and many more within an hour drive. But here’s something I’ve learned: once people get a good teaching job, THEY NEVER LEAVE. In the decade I’ve lived here, I can count exactly one position that opened up, and I only learned about it after it was filled (and the person who was hired is terrific and deserves the job). 

In 2015 I turned forty years old and started to resign myself to thinking this wasn’t going to happen for me. I considered working at a high school, but even those opportunities didn’t surface. 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.


Photo: University of Arizona