Renovating Learning Through Compassion and Innovation

Renovating Learning Through Compassion and Innovation
Kirk Domer in the MSU Auditorium Lobby

After 10 years and two terms as Chairperson of Michigan State University’s Department of TheatreProfessor Kirk Domer is returning to the faculty. His time as Chairperson, he says, has been defined by three words: renovation, innovation, and compassion. He has built a reputation of leading from a place of compassionate and collaborative risk taking, using the art of theatre to serve as a civilizing agent in society. 

He summed up his tenure as Chairperson by saying: “My goal has been to move forward with theatre and the performing arts through a continuous renovation of my creative practice, the curricular and professional opportunities afforded my students, and attention to the development of department faculty and staff for whom I care so deeply.”

RENOVATION 

A scenic designer by trade, it seems only fitting that a timeline of Domer’s appointment might be defined, quite literally, by improvements made to the department’s physical infrastructure. Perhaps without even realizing it, he describes his approach to leading the department as “building from the ground up.”  

Throughout his time as Chairperson, Domer’s artistry as a designer and technician, as well as his expertise as an administrator and educator, enabled him to tackle an impressive number of projects. Most notably, he served as a design consultant to transform an old 5,000-square-foot scene shop into what is now the Studio 60 performance space. He also oversaw design and construction of a new 10,000-square-foot state-of-the-art scene shop located off Farm Lane in the south campus area. In addition, he consulted for the renovation of a 4,500-square-foot dance studio, the Fairchild Theatre, and multiple adjacent spaces in the MSU Auditorium, making a more accessible space for students and patrons alike.  

In 2015, Domer combined his artistic, administrative, business, and relationship acumen to facilitate the construction of the Summer Circle Theatre Courtyard. Funded by the Friends of Theatre at MSU and private donors, including major gifts from Sam and Mary Austin, Gretel Geist Rutledge, Selma Hollander, Linda Nelson, and Jane Vieth Suits, $1,150,000 was raised to transform the Kresge Art Plaza into an amphitheater-style venue for the celebrated professional summer theatre program, which marked its 60th anniversary this year. 

A man and woman stand in a construction zone wearing green helmets, with a shovel and design plans. A yellow excavator digs in the background.
Kirk Domer and Jacqueline Babcock discuss construction of the SCT Courtyard

Fundraising for the department has enjoyed unparalleled growth with Domer at the helm, seeing a 1,000% increase in comparison to the previous 10 years. These efforts will be long memorialized with the Kirk A. Domer Summer Circle Theatre Fellowship, an endowment established in fall 2019 by MSU alumni Larry and Linda Stone to honor people like Domer “who understand the basic importance of the arts in all of our lives no matter what you do.” 

INNOVATION 

As an artist and educator, Domer shifted the focus of the theatre program to allow young artists to build their resumes by offering professional development opportunities both in and outside an academic setting. Utilizing the new state-of-the-art facilities, a master/apprentice model of teaching is now in place. This enables faculty to assess the needs of individual students and provide experiential learning in a lab setting. 

Domer is always staging opportunities in theatre and is a champion of augmenting learning with professional collaborative partnerships such as Williamston Theatre and Happendance. Students working with the 4th Wall Theatre Company build skills as teaching artists with neurodiverse populations, learning to challenge their ideas of inclusive theatre. When graduate student Sarah Goeke (MFA Acting ’15) wanted to launch a free camp for kids from low-income families, Domer worked to secure the needed funding. The Summer Circle Theatre Kids Camp is now celebrating its fifth year. 

The ĭmáGen program, which is a partnership with Wharton Center that is now in its eighth year, has earned a reputation of being one of the best in the country to workshop new musicals. The program also offers student performers the opportunity to gain experience working with Broadway actors, choreographers, and directors.   

“We seek to provide an educational foundation that offers students the tools to create independently,” Domer said. “These partnerships build professional networks for both faculty and students.” 

Summer Circle Theatre Opening

Domer was inaugural creative director for the College of Arts & Letters Creativity Exploratory and co-creator for the Certification in College Teaching for Performing Arts. He was the original co-director for the Arts & Cultural Management minor and graduate degree programs and helped launch the BFA in Stage Management

He’s also expanded opportunities for experiential learning well beyond the borders of campus. Domer was co-coordinator for the College of Arts & Letter’s first Study Away in New York City and currently is developing a Study Away in Houston, Texas.  

“His style is impatient, though I mean that as a high compliment. Too often in academia, bureaucracy can delay tough decisions and stall passionate debate,” said Ann Folino White, Head of Theatre Studies. “As a leader, Kirk is interested in forthright discussion and problem-solving. His entirely selfless and contagious enthusiasm lends itself to the work of explaining the unique needs and significance of theatre within the university. We have seen the benefits of his impatience. The Department of Theatre’s growth and national profile mainly come from Professor Domer’s innovative thinking and administrative acumen.” 

COMPASSION 

Building relationships with people comes naturally to Domer. His reputation is for developing an understanding of the individual goals and interconnectedness of all those learning and working at MSU. Theatre students, faculty, and staff have won countless awards thanks to his mentorship and nominations.  

“Many of our students, staff, and faculty are ‘award-winning’ because Kirk recognizes individual talents,” said Rob Roznowski, Head of Acting and Directing. “He works doggedly to enable continued growth by nominating us for awards and recognition, discovering funding opportunities, and connecting us with collaborators. He does this regardless of appointment type and actively supports the idea that jobs should grow and change with each individual.” 

A group of people stand on a stage holding balloons and a sign that reads "Kirk is the Greatest Supervisor"
Kirk Domer onstage with Department of Theatre Faculty & Staff

Beyond being a superb nominator, Domer himself has won every College of Arts & Letters award available to him, including the Faculty Leadership Award, Alumni Award for Innovation and Leadership in Teaching and Learning, and most recently the Paul Varg Award in addition to receiving the MSU Outstanding Supervisor Award in 2017. 

“Kirk has welcomed new employees by helping them move in, taken care of department members and their families in cases of illness and struggle, and celebrated personal events like births, marriages, and milestone birthdays,” said Karen Kangas-Preston, Head of Theatre Design and Technology. “He’s exceptional at his job and a deeply thoughtful person. His leadership has felt like a gift.” 

A UNIQUE SEND-OFF 

While the work of a department head is never finished, no one could have anticipated the abrupt change the COVID-19 pandemic delivered in Domer’s final semester as Department of Theatre Chairperson.  

The shift to remote learning and the prohibition of large gatherings understandably quashed any plans to end his tenure as Chairperson with a party. Instead, faculty quickly worked to collect more than 80 individual videos from colleagues, alumni, and friends across campus and beyond to recognize Domer’s exceptional accomplishments. The videos largely acknowledge how his celebration of each person’s contribution to the success of the department and university made a positive impact on each life.  

If that were not enough, faculty also held a parade in his honor. Not a typical parade, the route simply led participants past his East Lansing home. Masked well-wishers honked and shouted gratitude out of car windows and from bicycles as Domer waved from a safe distance away in his front yard.  

It was a fitting tribute, perhaps, to a leader who was described by Dr. Karin Wurst (Dean of the College of Arts & Letters, 2006–2014) as “pleasantly open-minded to new ideas.”  

Domer has been granted administrative leave for fall 2020 and will receive a much-earned sabbatical in spring 2021 before he returns to the department as Professor of Scenic Design. During this time, he will continue his theatrical design career, often with student assistants, at performing arts organizations in Michigan, Minnesota, Rhode Island, and Texas. Additionally, he plans to develop professionally by taking master classes in upholstery and, pending the safety of international travel, will fulfill two teaching/artist residencies in France and Greece in 2021.