It wasn't long after Brendan Kelly landed in Charleston that he found himself working with Threshold Repertory Theatre. "I moved to town just over three years ago," the theater's new artistic director says. "I started working with Threshold a little over two years ago, in Chekhov's Three Sisters." From there, his level of involvement with the theater grew at a rate that surprised even him. He joined the board, then became associate artistic director, working closely with Threshold's founding artistic director, Pamela Galle. When Galle decided to leave Charleston for Los Angeles in December of 2014, she asked Kelly to take her place. "[It] was exciting, but daunting, as well," Kelly says.
While this is his first position as an artistic director, Kelly has been immersed in theater since he was little — despite the stage not being his parents' first choice for their child. "It wasn't something that was expected of me," he says. "My sisters are doctors, and my brother's a captain in the Air Force." He found support for his burgeoning interest, though, as well as encouragement, in high school, and continued on to college at the prestigious Theater School at DePaul University. He remembers college as a time of immense growth, but also stress. "They let in 60 [students]," he says. "But they only graduated 18 of us. They cut people every year."
After graduating, Kelly worked with Chicago's Steppenwolf Garage and Second City's outreach program. Like many aspiring actors, he then moved to New York. "I signed with a talent agency," he says. "They kept getting me television and commercial work. It was working for them, financially, but it wasn't what I wanted to do."
Eventually, after a stint in culinary school and multiple jobs in Charlie Trotter's culinary empire, Kelly found himself in Charleston. Initially, he taught culinary arts at the Art Institute, but soon enough he found himself drawn back to the stage through a friend who was involved in local theater. The rest is Threshold Rep history.
Kelly's first months in his new role could have been rough, as it's always hard taking the reigns from a founder. But he says the collaborative nature of Threshold's operations has helped make the transition a smooth one. He works closely with other members of the staff — Executive Director Courtney Daniel, Technical Director Mike Kordek, and Assistant Technical Director Shawn McIntosh — on everything from business matters to artistic decisions.
"The way the theater is working," Kelly says, "is sort of like the Knights of the Round Table" — an Arthurian metaphor he would return to again. "Even though Courtney deals with business specifically, before I decide on a script for the season, I ask for her opinion. And the same thing goes for me. I do a lot of marketing and fundraising. Mike and Shawn might come to me for input. People have their specialties, but we work together as a team."
That team approach is an integral element of Kelly's leadership style. "Pam was very much in a hierarchy mode," McIntosh says. "She would come up with ideas, then start with the board, and everything would come through a filter. With Brendan, he just says, 'What do you want to design? How do you want to market it? What can you bring to the table so we can shake things up and get our regular patrons something else to look at?'"
While he's certainly not afraid to make changes, Kelly credits Galle with providing opportunities for him to learn while he was serving as Assistant Artistic Director. For example, he says, "I pick the directors. They'll refer to me, but once I pick a director, I want it to be their show. That's how Pam did it, and it seems effective. I'm hands-on, but if I'm telling a director who to cast, I'm affecting their artistic direction. Which is invasive and, in my opinion, inappropriate."
Rather, Kelly directs where the season goes, and promises more of what he refers to as Chicago-style black box theater. "I feel like we take a lot of risks in Chicago," Kelly says. "Chicago, a lot of times, is where shows start before they go to New York. So taking risks was something that was always explained to me as something that was necessary." But that won't come at the expense of the programming variety that's at the heart of Threshold's mission. "We'll always have Pinter or Checkhov. And Shakespeare grounds us." For Kelly, the key is balance. "We are an artistic theater," he says. "I think that's important, and I don't think anybody's interested in that changing."
While evidence of Kelly's presence will be visible onstage — in the works for next season is A Wrinkle in Time, which he says will be "like doing Fantasia on stage" — he's making some behind-the-scenes changes as well. For example, he's partnered with Sprouts, the children's theater program that was formerly housed at the now-closed Creative Spark Center for the Arts, to develop a summer workshop program for students.
While he has an appropriate degree of appreciation for the weight of his new responsibilities, Kelly is confident that he and the rest of the Threshold staff will make the upcoming season one of Threshold's strongest yet. "This season is ultimately my decision," he says. "But I refer to these guys about everything." He gestures to the round table around which the staff is gathered. "Yes, I'm the Artistic Director, but I'm not interested in the head of the table. I push for shows that are ensemble-based, and this staff is ensemble-based. We work together."