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Outside Academia, Volume 1: Ken Cerniglia

Posted By Sara B. Thiel, University of Pittsburgh, Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Updated: Monday, September 22, 2014

Please take the opportunity to peruse the first installment of New Paradigms in Graduate Education's newest initiative: Outside Academia, a series of profiles on PhDs in Theatre and Performance Studies who work outside the academy. 

Outside Academia

Volume 1

 

Ken Cerniglia

 

Interview conducted on July 22, 2014 and transcribed by Amanda Boyle, PhD Student at the University of Kansas.

 

Ken Cerniglia is the Dramaturg and Literary Manager at Disney Theatrical Group in New York City.  He is also the Artistic Director at Two Turns Theatre Company, the Co-Chair for the American Theatre Archive Project, and on the board of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas (LMDA). 

 

Ken received a BA in Psychology and Theatre in 1995 from the University of California, San Diego.  He then went on to earn a MA in Theatre History and Criticism in 1998 from The Catholic University of America.  Ken also earned a PhD in Theatre History and Criticism in 2001 from the University of Washington. His dissertation focused on race theory, casting, and the performance of ethnicity in nineteenth-century popular theatre, and the effect of these concepts on American identity formation.  “My programs [MA and PhD] were about scholarship and how to be a scholar,” said Ken, but he got involved in production when possible. 

 

As his focus was on research and writing, I asked Ken if while in school he knew that he wanted to work outside of academia.  Ken answered, “I liked research and I liked teaching.  I’ve always liked school and the university.  I felt very comfortable in the university.  I stayed active in production and really enjoyed that as well.  But I also knew there were other things to do.”  Ken explained, “ My professors were training us to do what they did – be scholars.”  He also acknowledged that the university does not always allow for professors to be able to teach, research, write, publish, conference, and work outside the academy.  “You just can’t do everything at once,” he said.  Ken recognized that he was gaining a skill set that he could use outside of the academy.  He said, “I never had it in my head that I would only teach.”  While many of Ken’s professors did not have much experience outside the academy, “they were open” to the idea of him finding work elsewhere.  “They didn’t have the experience to support that in any kind of direct way.  But I had support from mentors when I found a job outside” the university system. 

 

Although Ken now works outside of the academy he did hold two adjunct teaching positions after completing the PhD.  During 2001-2003, Ken worked at Cornish College of the Arts, a conservatory that focused on BFA students in acting, stage management, theatre history, and design.  He said that working there was “thrilling.”  He was able to teach theatre history through dramaturgy while “igniting curiosity and encouraging critical thinking.”  During that time, he also taught at University of Puget Sound, a liberal arts college where he mostly worked with BA students.  There he taught theatre survey classes, which allowed for him and his students to engage in critical discussion.  Ken explained, “But it was semester to semester.  Not full-time work.  You are trying to make a living, which is hard, but people do it.  I loved it.” 

 

            Ken took the first major step towards non-academic work while attending the LMDA Conference in 2003.  While there, Ken ran into a former colleague from La Jolla Playhouse (where Ken had worked while attending UCSD) who had been working as a dramaturg with Disney Feature Animation and the Disney Parks and had just moved to New York to work in the theatre business unit.  “He told me that Disney Theatrical Group (http://www.disneyonbroadway.com/) was looking for an Associate Dramaturg in Creative Development to help develop new stage musicals. He encouraged me to apply… but I had no interest.  I was in New York later that summer for the ATHE conference, and he asked me to come by the office to meet some people… which turned out to be an application and interview.  I got the job.”  Ken had friends in New York City and now a job, so he made the move.  One of the things that intrigued Ken to take the plunge was Julie Taymor’s production of The Lion King (1997).  It has “international roots, and I would be working with a global entertainment company on a production that was artistically and commercially successful.”  Since then, he has worked on dozens of projects, most recently the Tony Award-winning productions of Newsies, Peter and the Starcatcher, and Aladdin.  Ken added, “I thought I’d do this for a couple years and keep applying for a university jobs.  But it’s been almost eleven years and I still love it.” 

 

Ken also works as the Artist Director for Two Turns Theatre Company, which (http://www.twoturns.com/) creates “intimate theatre in unique spaces with a historical bent,” explained Ken.  The company was formed to produce Jeffrey Hatcher’s stage adaptation of The Turn of the Screw in the Merchant’s House Museum in New York.  The company is planning to remount the production in Louisville next year and is in early development on a few other projects. 

 

Ken is an active member of several professional and academic organizations, including LMDA, ASTR, ATHE, and IFTR, where his is a Historiography Working Group member (and former convener) and recently attended the conference in Coventry, UK.  “I’ve been attending conferences for over fifteen years now, so I know people. I have friends there, and I care about them and about their work.  Sometimes I bring something I’m working on, sometimes not.  For me, it’s about staying active in other people’s scholarship, which allows for me to stay ‘ready’ for going back to university if I decide to pursue it.  It’s about keeping doors and relationships open,” explained Ken.  He still reads widely and enjoys opportunities to visit universities and engage with students.  This past spring, Ken visited the University of Kansas as a Guest Scholar.  Conferences and guest speaking engagements allow for Ken to “keep networking.  And it’s good for me to take a break from my job.  It allows me to recharge and come back refreshed.”

 

In Ken’s role as Co-Chair of the American Theatre Archive Project (http://americantheatrearchiveproject.org/), he is helping ATAP become more integrated into the ASTR conference this year in Baltimore.  ATAP was “conceived as a way to bring together theatre scholars, archivists, and dramaturgs in order to help theatre companies archive their process and product in order to preserve their cultural legacy.”  Ken describes it as a “great project with big goals.  I’m very proud of it.  And I’m glad ASTR has taken it on.”  He explained that public service can and should be apart of our scholarship in ASTR.  “We should also be looking at the skills we are building and what we are offering to the world,” Ken noted.  ATAP provides ASTR scholars a great opportunity to work with theatre companies. “In a concrete way, we can get theatre scholarship out of an ivory tower and help theatre companies to think about their legacy.” 

 

Many of the ideas and skills that have allowed Ken to be so successful he acquired during his academic training, like “getting to know a subject within a deep historical context and then applying that knowledge prudently and practically to production.”  His academic work got him interested in the development process – how productions come to fruition.  At Disney Theatrical Group, Ken has become a kind of resident historian as well as archivist.  He said, “DTG is now twenty years old. And the Disney Company has a long history – ninety-one years now – so the historical training helps.”

 

With his many roles, balance is important in keeping Ken on track.  “Deep diving into a project means that other things are pushed to the side and email builds up. I don’t have a secret.  It is always a struggle to keep an eye on my calendar and keep up with family.  It’s modern life,” Ken said.  But somehow it all fits in.  He went on to say, “You get it done, you figure it out.”  Ken also explained that he has found a way to say yes to the things that interest him and that he’s getting batter at saying no to the things he doesn’t want to do, but mostly “it is a big soup of interesting creativity, which I find invigorating.  Then when I’ve checked that box, I move on.” 

 

When I asked Ken how current graduate students can market themselves for non-academic job, he suggested that graduate students should create a resume that is not an academic resume and to “focus on job skills – classes you’ve taught, projects you’ve finished, publications.”  Students will often realize skills you have gained, such as writing and project management.  He also said, “Look at your topic. It will most likely have some kind of relevance in the world.  Learn how to frame your work in the market place.  And know how to structure your skills and resume.”  Ken explained that when looking for jobs, it is important to recognize that your PhD may not need to be at the top of the resume.  He said, “My degree has an indirect benefit to the work I do here [at Disney Theatrical Group].  I’ve had other jobs where my specific education was more of a footnote.”

 

I asked Ken what advice he has to offer PhD students and candidates who are interested in pursuing a career outside of the academy.  “Keep an mind open and keep options open, which is difficult to do.  It’s hard.  This is what you are doing for now and it doesn’t mean that this is what your doing forever.  Finish it.  Finish your program, finish you dissertation.”  He also acknowledged, “You’ll have that degree forever, and no one can take it away from you.  It’s really good for you, and your life, to finish.”  In order to finish strong, graduate students have to pick something they are passionate about and think about what other things might they like to do and consider those options. “If you have time, spend it in internships or jobs in which you could be happy,” said Ken.  Writing this dissertation takes discipline and gives you transferable skills.  Lastly, he said, “Enter the job market and make connections beyond academia.” 

 

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