Meet Kelsey Brennan

Posted May 23, 2024

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We caught up with the brilliant and insightful Kelsey Brennan a few weeks ago and have shared our conversation below.

Alright, Kelsey thanks for taking the time to share your stories and insights with us today. Can you take us back in time to the first dollar you earned as a creative – how did it happen? What’s the story?

My first dollar earned as a creative was at The Milwaukee Repertory Theatre as an Acting Intern. $50/week to be exact. This was over 15 years ago, but at the time we were paid bi-weekly, housed in a (very old) long-stay hotel, and encouraged to apply for food stamps through the state of Wisconsin. As interns, our primary focus was to understudy all of the roles in the 9-month rotating repertory season. We were required to attend each and every rehearsal, meet early in the morning to rehearse ourselves (thus began my caffeine addiction), and do the odd promotional job (pre-show dramaturgical presentations, caroling to promote the Christmas show, etc). It truly was a crash course in professional regional theatre– something that could never be replicated in the university setting from which I had just graduated.

It was late summer when I got a phone call from the director of the intern program. “Is this Kelsey?” he asked. I had been waiting a long time for this phone call. So long, that I had reason to believe it wasn’t coming and had planned instead to move to New York City with some friends and just “see what happens.” “Yes, this is Kelsey,” I replied to whomever was calling from the Milwaukee area code. “Well Kelsey, I owe you an apology. I just found your resume wedged between my desk and my filing cabinet. You literally fell through the crack. The good news is, I would like to offer you the job.”

It certainly wasn’t much money, (and I’m endlessly grateful for the support of my parents who made their own sacrifices to financially support me for yet another year of my twenties), but even today I can draw a direct line between every artistic relationship I value and that first year as an intern in the wings at Milwaukee Rep.

Kelsey, before we move on to more of these sorts of questions, can you take some time to bring our readers up to speed on you and what you do?

I’ve worked as a professional actor for the past 16 years, the majority of which has been spent in the Core Company at American Players Theatre, an 1100-seat outdoor stage in Spring Green, WI. APT is a strange and wonderful place. By the numbers, it’s located in a town of 1600. We produce nine plays a season in rotating rep and welcome roughly 100,000 audience members every summer to experience the plays of Shakespeare, current and future classics.

I started at APT as an Acting Apprentice in 2008, and with large helpings of rigor and humility, was invited to join the resident ensemble in 2015. Every summer since I have had the unique opportunity to play three diverse roles: everything from Dromio of Ephesus in The Comedy of Errors (a Shakespearean clown traditionally played by a male actor), to Huldey in the contemporary, Bronte-esque, dark comedy, The Moors by Jen Silverman. I’m proud of the range I’ve cultivated in my time on the boards at APT, and also grateful for the specialization I’ve developed by working within the confines of such a theatre. The mission and programming at APT centers “”dense, poetic texts.” Plays that often require “text work,” or a deep dive into the meaning, history, and context of the (sometimes esoteric) language. We work to make this language clear and dynamic for everyone who wants to listen. Additionally, there is no amplification on our stage, no microphones aiding us in reaching the back row of the 1100 seat theater. This requires an athletic use of the voice, and many, many hours attending to all the different elements of prime vocal performance required to bring vibrant, emotional, deeply human stories to life.

Somewhere along the line (perhaps 8 or so years ago), I began wondering how these special skills could be applied to aid in communication that didn’t take place on a huge outdoor stage. How do litigators prepare for trial? Or doctors to deliver a complicated test result? How do C-suite executives communicate sweeping change to major stakeholders within an organization? Turns out, it’s not so different from the way actors deliver complex language in high-stakes (albeit imaginary) circumstances.

I received my credentials from the International Coaching Federation in 2022, and have found unexpected joy and fulfillment in helping a variety of professionals hone their presence and performance skills. I’ve used my diverse background to approach this work with compassion, always holding space for the fear and vulnerability that is inherent in performance. I read somewhere that public speaking is the second most common fear in most Americans, second only to death. We can do something about that.

The answer for most is connection. Take the focus off of your own doubt and anxiety and think about your audience. What value are you bringing to them? What purpose do you have in common? What problem are you solving for them? How can you speak to their heart, appeal to their humanity, make them feel heard? When we engage with these types of questions, our body and voice tend to come along for the ride. Of course there is technique involved, (the age old question of what to do with our hands, where to look and when, how to move in a way that projects confidence and adds meaning to what we’re saying), but ultimately great presence is crafted with great purpose and unapologetic empathy.

Continue to read full interview here