Some Pellissippi State graduates have jobs lined up after graduation. Some have plans to transfer to four-year institutions.
But for Katharine Wilcox-Chelimsky, Class of 2019, she had the opportunity of a lifetime.
Wilcox-Chelimsky, who graduated Summa Cum Laude on May 3 with her Associate of Fine Arts in Theatre Arts – Performance, reprised her role as Emily in “Soft Animals” in New York City on May 20.
“Soft Animals” is a play that premiered at Pellissippi State last fall. Playwright Erin Mallon wrote the play as part of a collaboration between Pellissippi State and the Farm Theater in New York. Wilcox-Chelimsky was excited to perform her role with professional actors.
“I am incredibly grateful to have been offered the opportunity to share stage with talented people who are currently living out my dream of leading successful lives in the New York theatre scene,” said Wilcox-Chelimsky, a native Knoxvillian who graduated from high school from the Dr. Paul L. Kelley Volunteer Academy. “This being my first professionally produced show, I made sure to observe what I could about the interactions between the cast and artistic staff as well as processes and methods everyone used to bring the characters to life and pull the reading together in such a limited amount of time.”
Having a Pellissippi State graduate chosen as the only student to participate in the professional reading was an honor, said Associate Professor Grechen Lynne Wingerter, who directed “Soft Animals” at Pellissippi State in November 2018.
“Students always are invited to attend, but for Kat to have the opportunity to perform …,” she said of Wilcox-Chelimsky, one of Pellissippi State’s first two graduates of the college’s new AFA in Theatre Arts. “She was really holding her own with the New York City actors. If you didn’t know she was a student, you wouldn’t know she was a student. She was great.”
Part of its College Collaboration project, the Farm Theater commissioned playwright Erin Mallon to write “Soft Animals” for Pellissippi State.
“I had to pitch the idea, as the play had not been written yet,” Mallon explained. “We discussed a question that has been swirling in my brain for a long time: Does the mind create the body? I felt like that was a worthy theme to explore in a play because I truly don’t know the answer, but the question fascinates me.”
“She took what the students had to say on the topic of body image and incorporated that into her writing,” Wingerter noted. “It’s a funny play, but it also has some depth, in that it deals with the imperfections/quirks we all have and learning what we can and cannot control.”
Wilcox-Chelimsky was one of two students cast in the role of Emily at Pellissippi State, as Wingerter double cast the play so that more students would have an opportunity to participate in “Soft Animals.”
“Even last year when I first got the script, I felt an immediate connection with the character of Emily,” Wilcox-Chelimsky remembered. “She has an innocence and this sense of naive bravery that reminds me of how I was feeling as I graduated high school and went on this brave new adventure that was college. Not only was I excited to get a chance to work in New York, I was also excited to get to spend some more time working on Emily.”
The playwright traveled to Pellissippi State to work with students in mid-October and was impressed with what she saw.
“This team of actors is brave and game to try anything,” Mallon said last fall. “The play is an absurd-ish comedy that carries some darker themes, but it is definitely comedy forward. The actors have to be bold and willing to try some weird stuff. This is a very funny and talented group.”
Mallon returned to Pellissippi State for the performances last November. At the time, Wingerter was hopeful that the relationship the students were forming with Mallon may serve them well later on.
“She’ll remember these guys because this is the first time ‘Soft Animals’ has been produced,” Wingerter said in October. “Maybe she will think of one of them in the future. Theatre is a lot of networking, and I want our students to have meaningful opportunities.”
That turned out to be the case, as Mallon reached out to invite Wilcox-Chelimsky to reprise her role in the first professional reading of “Soft Animals” on stage in New York City.
Wingerter and Wilcox-Chelimsky traveled to New York City for two days of rehearsal with the professional actors before the public reading on May 20, which was held in a small studio theatre near downtown. The reading, which was directed by Farm Theater Artistic Director Padraic Lillis, was followed by a post-show discussion with the playwright and the cast.
“One more experience that just seemed crazy and exciting to me was the fact that I was building this brand new character and created her within the world of the play,” Wilcox-Chelimsky said. “An acting choice that I made in rehearsal ended up in the stage directions of the final draft we worked with in New York. The thought that that decision I made on Pellissippi State’s stage could potentially end up in a published script one day and maybe even influence future performances of this character just completely blows my mind.”
That’s part of the reason Wingerter wanted Pellissippi State to participate in the College Collaboration project with the Farm Theater.
“This is unique for our students, to be the very first to bring a play to life,” Wingerter said before the November performances at Pellissippi State. “When you do the classics – say, ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘Death of a Salesman’ – there are preconceived notions of how those plays are supposed to be done, and there always will be comparisons. With a new play, our actors are allowed to experiment, to explore character development, and they’re focusing on applying what they’re learning in the classroom to the stage.”
Now Wilcox-Chelimsky is taking a gap year, spending her time researching colleges where she can finish a bachelor’s degree in Theatre. But she will never forget performing on a New York City stage less than three weeks after her Pellissippi State graduation.
“I am incredibly grateful to the Pellissippi State Theatre department for not only affording me this mind-blowing opportunity, but for preparing me to be the best actor I could be in the situation,” Wilcox-Chelimsky said. “My teachers and my fellow classmates have challenged me to grow not only on the stage as an actor, but behind the scenes as a human as well. They have pushed me out of my comfort zone and loved me through every minute of the growing pains.
“I would not have been the person who was able to jump into the epic craziness that has been my experience with ‘Soft Animals’ if it had not been for their acceptance, guidance and support over the last two years.”