The philosophy of theater

Dr. Kevin Kennedy leads a fascinating double life. By day, he teaches philosophy at St. John’s (and has been doing so since 1990). But by night, Dr. Kennedy produces some of the most interesting and obscure off-Broadway shows as general manager of the Peccadillo Theater Company.

Decades ago, Dr. Kennedy never would have guessed that his name would be on the playbill of successful off-Broadway shows. After all, theatre is not even one of his passions. “I always tell people, I never had a passion for theatre,” said Kennedy. “I did theatre in high school and college, but I wasn’t any good at it,” he joked. “But from a philosophy professor’s perspective, theatre is fascinating. Every show is a clashing of different characters’ perspectives – and that’s exactly what philosophy is.”

Dr. Kennedy’s unexpected role as an off-Broadway producer started in 1994, when a few of his friends founded the small Peccadillo Theater Company. “I’d help out sweeping floors,” Dr. Kennedy said. “Nothing too fancy. But then I realized the group needed management.”

At first, the Peccadillo Theater Company was comprised of only actors and directors, none of which were very capable of raising money or managing the financial structure of the group. Dr. Kennedy soon took over as general manager, juggling the group’s non-profit status and its more commercial partnerships with financial backers.

Thanks to Dr. Kennedy, the theatre company recently took over management at St. Clement’s Church, located on W 46th Street off 9th Avenue. The space seats nearly 200, and is a vast improvement over the Bank Street Theater – the company’s cramped old initial home.

The church’s convenient location – not far from Broadway and right on Manhattan’s Restaurant Row – will undoubtedly help the company attract a wider audience. “We performed a sold-out show in St. Clement’s a while back called ‘Counselor at Law'”, Dr. Kennedy said, “and I knew it was the perfect place for the company.”

The Peccadillo Theater Company has dedicated itself to performing “forgotten American classics.” Its last show was “Morning Star,” which tells the story of an immigrant Jewish family on the Lower East side, as they deal with situations such as the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, World War I, and the Great Depression.

Dr. Kennedy’s theater company also performs original works, such as a 2004 musical about the Algonquin Roundtable, which received terrific reviews and eventually ran at the Algonquin Hotel for two straight years.

Back in 2002, Dr. Kennedy was approached by students involved in the Chappell Players to revive the Stagecraft elective – a class in which St. John’s students can work on professional off-campus plays and receive class credit. After speaking with a few deans, Dr. Kennedy was successful in bringing back the class, which is now open to all students.

“The class is great for anyone who wants to get some experience working on a professional show, whether they want to pursue theater in the future or not,” said Kennedy.

Although Stagecraft only accepts a handful of students each semester, it allows its members to work with Tony award-winning actors and to learn the type of work involved with performing a play behind the scenes. Work includes set design, publicity and marketing, rehearsing the script with actors, lighting, house management, ushering, and selling tickets.

Dr. Kennedy also struck up a deal with the Discover New York program. St. John’s purchases tickets to some of the Peccadillo Theater Company’s shows and organizes class trips to see its plays. As Dr. Kennedy noted, his company’s performance of “forgotten American classics,” such as “Morning Star,” correlate perfectly with the Discover New York curriculum.

The Peccadillo Theater Company is currently working on a performance of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” and plans to stage the political comedy “Johnny on the Spot” for next Fall. The former may very well prove to be a major success, as some Broadway producers are showing interest in potentially backing the musical.

Dr. Kennedy can hardly believe how far his company has come. “I went from sweeping floors to being friends with big-name off-Broadway producers,” he said. “I always thought that if this was successful, it would go its way and I would go mine. I never thought it would grow along with me. The whole process has been a roller coaster ride.”