Kitty Getlik, the artistic director and manager of Kelsey Theater at Mercer County Community College, figures that she knows by heart the first acts of almost all of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas.
Her theater-loving parents were members of Philadelphia’s Gilbert and Sullivan Society and would take her along, but since she was only a toddler young Kitty would fall asleep before the second act.
If that wasn’t enough to launch Getlik on a lifelong love for the footlights, she even had her own backyard stage for a time as a child growing up in Center City, Philadelphia.
“When I was about 6 or 7 my mom built me a backyard theater, and we’d put on plays that she directed, made costumes for, etc.,” Getlik says. “From a very early age, I saw everything that was involved in putting a show together, and also got to know the passion and family you create when you’re working in theater.”
Now marking her 23rd year with the award-winning Kelsey Theater, Getlik says she still gets a thrill out of live theater and wants to share that feeling with everyone. That’s why she steadfastly and lovingly plans an exciting season of plays each year.
She also seeks out excellent production companies and individuals to bring these plays to life, markets and coordinates the different works, and even greets the folks when they come to see the shows, to paraphrase her bio for MCCC.
“I strive to produce good shows at a reasonable price,” Getlik says. The Hamilton resident also does a handful of backstage tasks at the theater, such as makeup, and even sings and acts sometimes.
Kelsey Theater offers a variety of musical and dramatic theatrical presentations, as well as concerts, dance recitals, and lectures throughout the year, and yes, tickets are quite reasonable.
For example, at this writing, “West Side Story” just had a two-week run, and all seats were $20. Ticket prices for Ken Ludwig’s hilarious “Twentieth Century” ranged from $14 to $18, and “Kelsey Kids Shows” are regularly only $10 and $12.
“That’s quite a difference from paying $199 to see ‘Dear Evan Hansen’ on Broadway, or more like $400 for ‘Hamilton’” Getlik says. “This is one of the most important aspects of running the theater. I keep the price low so live theater is not something just for the rich.”
The audience enjoys these economical prices, but it is certainly not an inexpensive endeavor to put on any live stage event. Getlik says that some productions cost less to stage than others, but royalties alone still range from $3,000 to $6,000.
“It depends on the musical and what each company negotiated with its staff and musicians,” she says. “Some companies pay their directors, some don’t, for example. So depending on how many musicians the show calls for, whether there are period costumes, etc., the cost can range between $9,000 and $20,000.”
“The groups that do the shows are not really expecting to make money,” Getlik adds. “They hope to break even or at least make enough to pay for the royalties for the next show.”
Kelsey’s theatrical presentations normally open on a Friday night, plus performances on Saturday and Sunday that weekend, with the schedule repeating the following week. The second Sunday’s performance (generally a matinee) brings down the curtain on that play and its existing set, and that very same night a new theater company comes in and starts from scratch.
Each new production group follows a breakneck schedule — only four days of set building, lighting/sound/technical work, as well as dress rehearsals, before it’s another opening, another show on Friday night.
It might seem like madness to those of us with more mundane lives, but Getlik and her assistants at Kelsey thrive on it.
Musing on the unusually quick production turnaround, Getlik says it normally takes six to eight weeks put a show together, “and more like 10 to 12 weeks when you’re working with students. But by having different groups each is working on their own production, so we’ll have six or seven productions in rehearsal.”
“They’re all community production companies from Trenton, Ewing, and Hightstown, for example,” Getlik continues. These include Theater to Go, M&M Stage Productions, Forte Dramatic Productions, and Maurer Productions. “The people who audition for the shows come from the area, too, with some regulars from New Brunswick, but we sometimes even see people from Philly and New York auditioning.”
“For ‘The Man of La Mancha’ the lead actor traveled all the way from Allentown, Pennsylvania,” she says. “But it was worth it to him because Don Quixote was the role he always wanted do.”
Coming up later this month is another Ken Ludwig comedic gem, “Moon Over Buffalo,” starting Friday, February 23, through Sunday, March 4. Then it’s the beloved “Fiddler on the Roof” opening Friday, March 16.
“Spring Awakening” arrives in early April, followed by a special event presentation of “Titanic” starting Friday, April 20 (close to the April 15 date of the ship’s sinking). Kelsey then presents performances by MCCC’s dance ensemble Friday and Saturday, May 5 and 6.
Taking the schedule through June, you will find a little bit of everything at Kelsey, from A.R. Gurney’s “Sylvia,” to “Disaster: A Musical,” to David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” to “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”
In all the venue hosts more than 10 semi-professional theatrical production companies throughout the year, as well as the college’s own music, dance, and theater groups.
About once a year Kelsey also welcomes the Reock & Roll Revue’s excellent live rock shows. Next month Tom Reock and friends will pay tribute to the late Gregg Allman with the show “No Angel — the Life and Music of Gregg Allman” on Saturday and Sunday, March 10 and 11.
In addition to offering shows at exceptional prices, Getlik thinks being involved in Kelsey’s diverse productions is an outstanding academic and life lesson for the students she teaches in her “Introduction to Theater” course at MCCC.
“It’s good that the students can perform in a variety of different genres and work with people who have done shows for many, many years,” she says. “Also it’s important to me because Mercer County Community College is a huge, wonderful community resource — it’s not just the ‘13th grade.’
“We like to bring people onto the campus (to see a show), and hopefully they’ll pick up a course listing brochure and see what’s here,” she adds.
Growing up, Getlik reflects, her English-born mom was much more than a homemaker — she had those aforementioned theater skills, could play the piano, and possessed a talent for spellbinding storytelling.
Her father, an engineer for the Yale Lock Company in suburban Philadelphia, had a lovely singing voice, and both parents performed in musicals at their church.
Thanks to the backyard stage, the acting bug was already buzzing for Getlik, but she says watching “The Roy Rogers Show” on TV really put the hook in.
“I was about 5 or 6 and would dress up in my cowboy hat and boots, sit on my stuffed pillow-horse, and watch Roy Rogers — it was my favorite thing in the world,” she says. “People would ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I’d always say, ‘A cowboy!’”
Her mother, trying to be sensible, told young Kitty that she could not be a cowboy, because she was a girl — but she could be a cowgirl like Dale Evans, which was a deep disappointment.
“I cried!” Getlik says, amused at the memory. “Dale Evans didn’t have a beautiful horse like Roy’s, and she didn’t seem to have much fun. I really wanted to be a cowboy. Finally, to get me to shut up my mother said, ‘Roy Rogers isn’t a cowboy; he’s an actor, playing a cowboy!’ So I said, ‘OK, that’s what I’ll be then.’”
The family later moved out of Center City, closer to the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, and Getlik attended Philadelphia High School for Girls (Girls’ High). This was (and still is) a magnet school, focused on academics, not the performing arts, so Getlik had to postpone her acting and theater aspirations.
The seniors did put on a class play each year, but when it came time for Getlik’s class to perform, the budget had been cut. “What really solidified me going into (stage) tech was the announcement that ‘due to budget cuts, there will no longer be a theater club, and no class play,’” she says. “There was no money for royalties, no way to pay a faculty member, so those of us who had looked forward to it were really crushed.”
“So we said, ‘let’s put on our own play,’ but we still needed an (after school) advisor, and that turned out to be Mr. Fish, our senior class advisor,” says Getlik. “We begged him to help us and he agreed to do it. We wrote our own musical with original songs, we acted in it, we did the costumes, props, scenery, everything.
“Looking back, it was a much better experience than just being in another high school version of ‘Grease.’ We did it all ourselves, and that put me on a career path.”
Getlik attended Penn State for a while but transferred to Temple University, earning a bachelor’s degree in communications and theater arts in 1975. During her time at Temple she also became the school’s first undergraduate stage manager.
After college she sharpened her skills managing small shows in Philadelphia and New York, but these opportunities were few and far between, so Getlik decided to spend some time coordinating and managing outdoor theatrical dramas in the South.
“There are all these historical drama centers that run year long, and people come from miles around to see them,” Getlik says. “The most famous might be ‘Unto These Hills’ (about the Cherokee nation before the Trail of Tears).”
“There is a real love for these historical dramas, which employ many professional and community actors, singers, dancers, musicians, technical, and backstage/management people,” she says. “You’d do the same show every day with one day off a week, and it was great on-the-job training. It was also fun to live in different locations, like Georgia and North Carolina.”
Getlik realized that she really was an East Coast “city person” and returned to this area in 1978, taking a position as stage manager at Kelsey Theater. At that time only two or three student shows were being staged a year, with a few more professional music and theatrical offerings for the general public.
During the summer Getlik was also stage managing for the Washington Crossing Open Air Theater and observed how the venue and the various production companies performing there split the ticket sales.
She tucked this practical idea away, and after watching numerous artistic directors at Kelsey come and go finally decided to go for the job herself.
In 1995, when Getlik applied for and got the job of artistic director, she incorporated “the box office split” idea, bringing new life to Kelsey as well as more support for a variety of theatrical production companies in the area.
Unfortunately, while she was keeping all these balls in the air, as well as raising her baby daughter, Jessica, Getlik’s husband died suddenly. With a “show must go on” attitude she put her head down and moved forward, with considerable help and understanding from her theater family at Kelsey. In essence, little “Jessie” was raised at the theater, with special support from administrative specialist Amy Bessellieu.
In the process Getlik watched her daughter catch the theater bug and do a little bit of everything at Kelsey, and currently Jessica is working as an entertainment hostess on the Disney Fantasy cruise ship.
The Hamilton resident says she has also seen her “adopted” young actors pass through Kelsey on their way to the big time.
“For example, the lead actress who played Kim in our ‘Miss Saigon’ went on to play Kim on Broadway — she’s the alternate,” Getlik says. “We did ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ and the (young lady) who played Scout is now opening in ‘School of Rock.’”
Speaking of children, Getlik reminds us that Kelsey Theater offers a variety of shows for the little ones, too. Programming for children is so important, Getlik says, because “we want to keep the audience for live theater coming, and we want to ‘grow’ new audiences. We want them to see that ‘live is awesome.’”
Kelsey Theater at Mercer County Community College, 1200 Old Trenton Road, West Windsor. 609-570-3333 or www.kelseyatmccc.org.