By Susan Meister
Even with the near-endless space afforded by digital publishing, Kathie Kratochvil’s unassailably distinguished resumé would fill so many pages that it nearly obscures the person behind its multitude of achievements.
As a mere taste of that resumé, take this in: She holds both BA and MA degrees in Creative Arts/Drama from San Jose State, and a Doctorate in Education from UC Santa Cruz. She’s been on the Theatre and Creative Arts Faculty at San Jose State since 2000, currently serving as the Coordinator for the Graduate Program in Television, Radio, Film, and Theater. She taught theater and dance for 15 years in K-12 in over 25 Santa Cruz County public schools. She served on the California Department of Education’s committee that designed the current California K-12 Visual and Performing Arts Content Standards for Theatre, and this month will become the president of The California Educational Theatre Association. Her focus on arts education issues in the public school system, particularly involving equity and access for ethnic minorities and second language learners, went international when she presented performing arts workshops at Shanghai Theatre Academy in Shanghai and in Melbourne.
Had enough? There’s much more. She’s a playwright, actor, director, lighting designer, and production manager for stage, television, and radio. She is literally a whirlwind of creative energy, passionate about her work, committed to a life in the theater arts, all of which started in high school with a teacher who believed in her talent not only to act but also to teach. “I went to a high school in Fremont, in the Bay area, where we had an incredible amount of art available to us. We had a drama teacher, three music teachers, and seven visual arts teachers. I got to take full courses in calligraphy, set design, lighting. I found my niche.”
And so the student, at age 18, offered a prestigious scholarship to San Francisco’s ACT to study acting, instead went off to Australia to teach for six years, creating a high school theater department, before returning, starting a family, and beginning her own academic career. It was not until she was in her late 30s that she received her Bachelor’s degree. She received her doctorate only five years ago.
A great deal of Kathie’s life efforts has been dedicated to arts education in the schools, believing that the arts are critical to the development of the whole person. She comments that the state of such education is “not good, but there are lots of good people working towards it.” She points out what we all know: the arts are not valued in our public school systems, a result of the last fifteen years of the “No child left behind” policy that put emphasis on language arts and math. She says, “The policy states that arts education is important, but it is an unfunded mandate. The result is that many arts educators are out of work and kids don’t have the benefits I had.” Her presidency of the California Educational Theatre Association, beginning in October of this year, will give her a significant platform for advocating her cause. “We have no teaching credential for dance or theater in our public schools. The people who are teaching theater have English credentials. Those who can theoretically teach dance are credentialed in PE. So those teaching theater and dance are not qualified to do so, but can legally do it in California. We need to make changes to make real arts education viable.”
The other side of Kathie Kratochvil’s career is as a stage director and performer. The company she co-founded 32 years ago, Mountain Community Theater in Ben Lomond, a small town in the San Lorenzo Valley, has just launched a production of Spamalot, which opened last week to a sold-out house. The production has been a year in the making. “It is a huge endeavor,” she said, “with 132 costumes for 27 actors, all handmade. The props are endless, so my husband and I, with our small RV, went up to San Francisco and bought $800 worth of props from a company there. We drive them all to every rehearsal.” Ticket sales have been going well for the company that got the first rights to this production in Santa Cruz County.
MCT has had a financial ace in the hole: clearly relying on ticket sales and grants has often been a struggle for regional theater, so MCT set about to generate a significant revenue stream. Kathie and three of her colleagues wrote a script based on the novel, Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davis that was made into a popular film. Wanting something specific to offer during the holiday season, they applied to the Valentine Davis Foundation for permission to make it into a stage play. They received it. The play was produced every holiday season for nine years, when they received a “cease and desist” notice from Fox Corporation—yes, that Fox Corporation—telling them they had no rights to the play. In the meantime, they had sold their script to an organization that then marketed it to theaters all across the country. This allowed them to receive between $20,000 and $30,000 a year in royalties, which Kathie and her MCT colleague playwrights all donated to keep the company going. They fought the cease and desist order for seven or eight years at a cost of around $30,000.
But then, a kind twist of fate. An actor from New York, who was also a lawyer wanting to live in the Santa Cruz mountains, showed up at MCT wishing to be a part of it. It turned out his brother was a lawyer for Fox, and within a matter of months the rights were returned to MCT. For the last five years, it has continued to provide income to the theater to the tune of $45,000 for last year alone. Now they have the exclusive rights to the play. “That has really helped,” says Kathie, “because in the years in between, we were down to one production a year. That extra income keeps us afloat.”
MCT has a highly varied audience base. Their fans come from all over the area, as far as San Francisco. Is there something about Santa Cruz that is especially hospitable to regional theater? Kathie doesn’t think that is necessarily the case. She says, “When people see live theater, they are transformed in some way. It’s breathing, it’s kinetic, and people want to see more of it. The audience is a part of it. There is an unusual magic to it that is so different from a recorded performance that when people feel it, they know the difference.” In her San Jose State classes, she requires her students to attend at least two live theater performances a semester and write about it. She is convinced the experience changes them.
Kathie Kratochvil’s next project is Dead Man Walking, which she will be directing at San Jose State in the spring. As different from Monty Python as can be, she is looking forward to the exploration of the questions of imprisonment and the death penalty that the play presents.
In the meantime, she maintains her passion for teaching, to being the kind of teacher that she had in high school. This multifaceted, energetic, dedicated woman continues to work as an arts education advocate. There is no sign of a slowdown, nor a hint of discouragement on that front. As a mother of school-age children, she had volunteered her time in their elementary school that prompted a program called “Art At Noon.” The parents met to offer art projects to students when there was no other source for them. She is hoping that parents trained in the arts will lend their expertise to their childrens’ schools, just as she did.
If you go to see Spamalot, you can get a taste of her particular magic. Kathie Kratochvil offers it in many, many dimensions.