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New Hesston College theater director starts strong

Rachel Schlegel - 10/22/10

Hesston College

Laura Kraybill may be new to Kansas and new to Hesston College, but she is no stranger to the complexities of the stage. Kraybill arrived in Hesston from Boston in mid-August to be the new theater director as well as teach speech communication courses.

Kraybill has always loved acting and has been directing for as long as she can remember. Her cousins were her first star actors in family reunion productions.

Hesston (Kan.) College theater director Laura Kraybill performs an exercise with her students in acting class. Photo by Larry Bartel.

"Of course I always gave myself the lead role as well," Kraybill added.

Kraybill spent much of her childhood in London, England, where her parents were missionaries with Mennonite Mission Network, the mission agency of Mennonite Church USA. During that time, she landed her first small roll on a public television production.

While a student at Goshen (Ind.) College, Kraybill wanted to be involved with theatre, but didn't feel like it was a valid degree option. The solution to her problem was to major in communication with a focus in theatre and ministry.

"I wasn't sure what a theatre major did other than perform," said Kraybill. "While I love to perform, from what I had heard, making a career out of that can be a difficult thing. I wanted to make sure I was marketable."

After graduation in 2004, she spent a year doing voluntary service with Pittsburgh Urban Leadership Service Experience (PULSE) in Pennsylvania where she was able to put her theatre background to use as director of an after school theatre and arts program for children in a low income area. She also served as youth pastor at Pittsburgh Mennonite Church.

She then spent two years as a Service Adventure leader in South Bend, Ind. Service Adventure is a program through Mennonite Mission Network that gives young adults ages 17 to 20 a 10-month term in service, learning and spiritual growth at locations across the country.

It was during her time in Service Adventure that Kraybill discovered the option of theatre education.

"I found out that I could get a degree to teach theatre," Kraybill said. "That notion combined my love of theatre and leading."

That's how she ended up in Boston. Kraybill completed a master's in theatre education through Emerson College in 2010. She was also Senior Camp Theatre Director for a children's theatre program in the area.

In her recent first production at Hesston College, Kraybill guided her performers in tackling the complex issue of capital punishment with the well-known "Dead Man Walking." She credits the Hesston College administration and other performing arts faculty for trusting her with such a great undertaking.

Freshman Alanah Rempel, who played the lead role of Sister Helen Prejean said, "Laura's style and technique is intuitive and refreshing."

Kraybill introduced some new ideas to Hesston College theatre with "Dead Man Walking," including the alleyway stage, which ran through the audience, creating an integration of cast and audience. Her efforts and ideas were a huge success, selling out all five performances and sparking meaningful conversation regarding capital punishment.

Kraybill is excited to flex her director wings in Kansas as she learns to work with theatre at Hesston College. She notes that working with a small number of theatre majors, students who have had very little or no theatre background, as well as professional and student designers is a new experience that is helping to shape how she functions as a director.

"I am learning to direct in a way that is empowering for everyone involved," she said.

Her student actors have picked up on her collaborative style in a short time as well.

"Laura is a creative, understanding and enthusiastic individual who constantly puts others before herself," said Rempel. "Getting the chance to work with her is such a blessing. She is now my friend as well as my director."

"It's an honor to be at Hesston College," said Kraybill. "It has been a very invitational experience so far, allowing me to explore new methods and take risks. I am doing my dream job in a place where I have the chance to match my values with those of the community and church."

Located 30 miles north of Wichita, Hesston College is the two-year liberal arts college of Mennonite Church USA.