Six universities lined 150,000 cardboard cows from San Francisco to the Sierra Mountains near the Nevada border, inspiring young David Kersnar to leave a legacy of collaboration and inclusion in the arts industry.
Kersnar is the Head of the Theatre Department at Oklahoma State University and a writer, director, adapter, singer, designer, technician, actor and producer. In addition to his abilities, he is one of the founding members of the Tony Award Winning Lookingglass Theatre, he co-founded and directed over 40 films and plays, founded Shaking The Tree Interactive Productions, and worked with multiple theaters in directing, writing, acting in and producing art.
While the pandemic continues to present challenges, OSU's theatre department is still producing art and showing it in innovative ways.
From April 22-25, “The Theory of Relativity,” directed by Devon Hunt, is showing live outside on the McKnight Center Plaza. Featuring non-linear stories of college age people, this musical focuses on the mystery of human connection.
Kersnar grew up in San Francisco in a family of artists and educators. His family’s passion for the arts and education fostered his interest in theater during his childhood. A self-proclaimed “opera boy,” young Kersnar joined the San Francisco Boys Chorus, where his love of shows displaying great spectacles began. However, he moved into theater and stopped performing opera because his voice changed, yet, he still has a love for it.
Kersnar attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where his ambition and passion for performance art grew from other inspiring students.
“I went to school with really crazy, driven, talented, inspiring folks,” Kersnar said. “I had to achieve just to stay at zero with everybody else.”
By being around such talented people, Kersnar said this created a healthy sense of competition and high expectations.
Later on, Kersnar and a handful of these inspiring students, including David Schwimmer and Mary Zimmerman, started what would become a legacy in the theater community. The Lookingglass Theatre in Chicago was founded on the ideas of creating the most physical, visual visceral artistic events through collaborative process instead of focusing on an individual.
At the time, none of the founding members knew what they created in the Lookingglass Theatre. However, Kersnar said he knew they hit on something when after a long day of work, some people in the ensemble were complaining because they were exhausted. Then Bruce Norris, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize, pointed out what the company achieved and how they have done what they went to school to do.
“I remember that moment like, 'Yeah, like we are doing it,'” Kersnar said. “You just never know when that moment will happen. I kind-of feel like I peaked too soon.”
Kersnar said the Lookingglass Theatre helped him solidify what he wanted his life in the arts industry to resemble. He said the theater is grounded in integrity, loyalty and realness to reach excellence, which is what he tries to impart in his work. Through the collaborative experience at the theater, Kersnar said he instilled a sense of inclusivity and consideration in himself, intentionally transferring that mindset over to his work, fulfilling the needs of the play without causing harm in the actor.
Kersnar said some artists before and after him were trained from a negative perspective. Where there is only one way to create art, requiring everyone to fit into a mold, usually held by an outstanding figure. This, in addition to harsh criticism and brutal hours, can result in abuse in the name of art.
“It’s really shocking what all we put up with and revered,” Kersnar said. “We are moving from this idea of programs based off of elitism to excellence.”
Personal experiences combined with the experiences at the Lookingglass Theatre, Kersnar said he creates and directs using a positive approach. This requires him to be prepared before approaching a new project, understanding what he wants his art to say and listening to the people he is directing.
The theater continues to experience a shift into what the new theater is. Kersnar said this is not only about allowing more voices to be heard, but also practicing new considerate teaching styles.
Kersnar said the new theater reflects the change in theater culture, addressing and removing cultural appropriation and ushering more stories to be told. That is a commonality in his work and an interest.
Kersnar said this conscious inclusion is fascinated by uncommon or untold stories and empowering those to tell their stories.
“It gets more people to the table so the theater could do what it’s supposed to do which is mirror the world,” Kersnar said.
“Or at least, that's what Aristotle said.”
To have accurate representation resulting in astounding, inclusive and inventive art, Kersnar said it begins in education. Creating a lab for testing the boundaries in theater, in an actor’s personal performance or the theater as a whole’s relationship with technology, is why he is in education.
Also, because of his family’s background, it is in his blood.
While Kersnar is the head of the department, he is still learning and holds ambition because his job requires him to reach his goals. Which is growing the theatre department, because it is what he was hired to do even when he is no longer useful.
“My goal is to become obsolete,” Kersnar said.
Even though Kersnar is the head of the department he tries to instill an upbeat environment. Oklahoma State’s director of acting, Jenny Lamb, sees his efforts to accomplish this and said she is grateful for his leadership.
Lamb said having to adapt to the COVID-19 Pandemic was difficult. However, Kersnar came up with ideas to lead the department and the performances produced to meet health guidelines.
“He has a great creative mind and always possibilities, never sees the positive, never the negative,” Lamb said. “He just sees opportunities.”
Lamb is a witness to this in and out of the classroom because not only is she a colleague and a collaborator, she is also Kersnar’s wife.
Lamb said working with Kersnar, even when the situation is not ideal, is a unique journey where she learns and grows from him as a person and an artist. She also said working together is a great experience because his aspects of listening to the best idea in the room, making space for different points of view and being a selfless person are characteristics he brings to their relationship as well.
Working together can be difficult because they are both passionate about work and are tempted to bring their work home. However, Lamb said they end up benefiting from one another’s viewpoints on different topics and both encourage each other, which has been essential while teaching virtually.
“He has taught me to believe in myself,” Lamb said. “He gets to see the outside of everything that I do and he reflects that back to me.”
Kersnar’s encouraging personality impacts students as well.
Nicholas Sumpter is a junior theater major at Oklahoma State who worked with Kersnar during the theater department’s radio play “War of the Worlds.” Despite Kersnar’s welcoming and comforting manner, Sumpter was a little nervous. This year is the first year since Sumpter changed his major to theater and the first time he worked with the department head on a production.
While he was uneasy in the beginning Sumpter said Kersnar expanded his acting ability and brought out emotion he could not tap into himself. Sumpter said in rehearsal he had a moment of anxiety and Kersnar comforted him but told him to remember this moment.
When it came time to record “War of the Worlds,” Kersnar told Sumpter to recall his anxiety and then deliver the monologue.
“This was probably one of the most amazing moments I have ever had as an actor,” Sumpter said. “The amount of growth just in that one little scene, I think what he was able to help me achieve was incredible.”
Kersnar’s impact on students is not just evident in productions or as a director, but in everyday life as well. Annie Armstrong, a senior theater major at Oklahoma State, says working with Kersnar and Lamb have brought a breath of fresh air to the department.
Armstrong said his attitude and actions of support, inclusion and acceptance is inspiring. She said he continues to leave an impression by equipping her to go and seize every opportunity.
“He has taught me to not be afraid to go out there and go do something,” Armstrong said. “They prepare for what happens out there.”
In addition to Kersnar’s guidance, Armstrong said she particularly likes how he makes himself available and approachable to all students while being the department head.
She also enjoys how he lightens the mood with jokes, surprising his wife, or even his sense of style.
“He has brought in a lot of spunk to the department,” Armstrong said. “In general, he’s a funny person and is a big 49er’s fan. He’ll show up with a full 49er’s outfit from head to toe, like a beanie and everything. He has very sick style choices.”