Q&A: Kelsey Leigh Ervi

The young director on working in DFW theater, finding ways for the scene to unite and directing Lord of the Flies at WaterTower Theatre.

published Monday, January 25, 2016

Photo: Mark Oristano
Young director Kelsey Leigh Ervi is flying high with a podcast and jobs with theaters throughout North Texas



Addison — Dallas theater is filling up with a young generation of artists these days. Recent theater grads are more present than ever in Dallas-Fort Worth, working hard and getting their voices heard in this developing landscape. The result is a sea change of fresh-faced artists making theater that truly excites them. Kelsey Leigh Ervi is among these talented youngsters making it happen for herself. Just a few years out of undergrad, Ervi has put in the time to build a career as an actor and director in Dallas. And she isn’t going to stop there. Now she’s the creator of a recent podcast Little Big Scene, which features different actors and artists from the North Texas and sheds light on a new topic each episode. This week she makes her directorial debut at WaterTower Theatre with Lord of the Flies, a theatrical adaptation of the 1954 William Golding classic. It was adapted for the stage in 1995 and first premiered with the Royal Shakespeare Company. It is the story of the primal descent of a group of school-aged boys stranded on an island after a plane crash.

A 2011 Baylor University drama grad, Ervi admittedly flailed a bit after graduating, “I thought maybe I might go to New York? I spent some time up there and decided not to.” She took an internship with Shakespeare Dallas during the René Moreno-directed Hamlet. She went back home to Waco after the production and soon received an email from Raphael Parry, artistic director of Shakespeare Dallas.

“He asked me if I would be interested in assistant directing. I said yes and immediately moved up to Dallas.”

Ervi worked on the inaugural production of Shakespeare Dallas’s “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare” reding series as well as shows with Echo Theatre and WaterTower. After that summer she found herself struggling again, working in a library and feeling, once again, a bit stuck.

Terry Martin, Producing Artistic Director at WaterTower, asked if she wanted to interview for an assistant position. Fast forward to 2016, where she’s the Artistic and Marketing Associate and about to make her mainstage directorial debut. In 2015, she became producer of WTT's Out of the Loop Fringe Festival, at which she wrote and directed the play The Spark; and performed in Stage West's acclaimed area premiere of Mr. Burns, a post-electric play.

If her duties at WaterTower weren’t keeping her busy enough, she decided to start the podcast, co-hosting it with Kathryn Taylor Rose and Jeremy Dumont. Taking it upon herself to unite the various theater artists in Dallas-Fort Worth, she invites different artists on to talk about the developing arts scene in Dallas.

“We have this thriving metropolis of an arts here in Dallas and people are just starting to pay attention. There’s these ‘subcliques’ among the theater people, I wanted there to be a way that we could all talk about the things that we all face as artists.

In the middle of directing the show and producing the podcast, Ervi found time to chat with TheaterJones about being an artist in North Texas.

Photo: Mark Oristano
Kelsey Leigh Ervi


TheaterJones: You talk about “subcliques” within the theater scene in Dallas; do you find that Dallas is especially “cliquey” within certain theaters?

Kelsey Leigh Ervi: Not really, actually. I’ve not spent a ton of time in theater communities outside of Dallas, but I think divides are natural within theaters. Certain companies are doing certain kinds of work. There might not be a lot of opportunities for the people at, say, Undermain [Theatre] and Casa Mañana, to talk to each other, but we’re all experiencing similar issues in the theater. A certain degree of segregation is going to be the result of that. And I do think some of the subgroups are starting to break apart. Actors at the big theaters like DTC are finding work elsewhere, making sure other companies are looking at them and not just casting straight out of New York.


What do you think is lacking in Dallas in the way of building a stronger theater and arts community?

Training. Absolutely training. I have been so fortunate that Terry [Martin] and Raphael [Parry] took a chance on me and were willing to work with me and show me the ropes. I wish more of the seasoned directors in town would give more chances to younger people. I was so fortunate to have been given an olive branch by these directors. It makes the theater feel community based.


Do you feel that it’s harder to get yourself out there and taken seriously a woman?

Really, it’s harder because I’m younger.


Since you’re now on the casting side of things do you feel like it’s beneficial to look at other cities when casting shows? Does this help broaden your reach as a theater company?

Really, WaterTower doesn’t have the budget to cast out of town very often. The most important thing is to make sure what is on the stage is quality work, no matter where the actors come from. There’s no exact formula for getting butts in the seats, but a quality script and quality actors are the most important things. Of course I have a natural bias as a director; I think we all do. You remember who you like to work with. But ultimately I want what’s best for the play.


How did you land on Lord of the Flies?

Terry brought the script to me and asked if I would want to direct it. I love ensemble-driven scripts.


Was casting the show that is largely about children a problem?

I wanted young actors, but not actually young. There are two actual teenagers in the play and that has been really great. They are really eager to work.


Talk about the decisions that went into creating the world of this play. 

I really wanted an immersive, textured production. I wanted a realistic world; I told [designers] I wanted real dirt, sand, rock, and a plane. It has an original soundscape and original music. It’s ambitious for sure but I think it’s going to be pulled off. The book is set during World War II [but] I wanted a contemporary setting. What happens to these boys isn’t happening because they are stranded on an island.


How do you make those modern connections? 

In light of things like the Syrian refugee crisis, the gun violence epidemic in America, even Tamir Rice, they all go back to a loss of innocence in children. I wanted a play that can speak to standing in the face of fear, terrorism, and extremism. I wanted to show how these are things we face in our daily lives, not just because they are isolated from society.


» Special thanks to Million Air Dallas at Addison Airport for letting us photograph Ervi with one of its airplanes. Thanks For Reading

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Q&A: Kelsey Leigh Ervi
The young director on working in DFW theater, finding ways for the scene to unite and directing Lord of the Flies at WaterTower Theatre.
by Katy Lemieux

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