Changes abound for this year’s Center Grove High School theater performances.

In the fall, the students staged “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” a lesser-known musical that the school has not done before.

Theater organizers have flipped the schedule, doing the annual musical earlier in the year than they ever have and then performing “The Curious Savage” this spring.

But for those close to the program, this year’s shows will be more familiar than ever. After a four-year hiatus, longtime theater director Kathleen Kersey was back leading both school productions this year.

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For nearly 35 years, Kersey was the engine behind the Center Grove High School theater department. She helped build it into one of the premier programs in the state, taking on challenging shows and pushing her students to sing, dance and perform with unbounded energy.

Though she retired as theater director in 2010, Kersey has returned to direct and been given the chance again to influence the teens in the program.

“It keeps me young,” she said. “I love to teach, and I think of this as educational theater. So I try to teach the kids as well as put on a performance.”

Kersey started at Center Grove High School in 1976, teaching English, speech and drama. Her first production was “Arsenic and Old Lace,” and over the course of her career, she directed more than 60 shows at the school.

It wasn’t uncommon to work 14-hour days leading up to the show, something she can’t imagine doing now.

“I don’t know how I did it for 35-plus years,” she said. “I’d have to get up by 5 a.m., teach all day and then have rehearsal until late at night. How did I do that?”

After Kersey retired four years ago, she had assumed that it was also the end of her time working in the Center Grove theater department. She focused on projects outside the school, teaching an early-college program through Vincennes University.

She also directed theater at the Brown County Playhouse at Brown County, “Love, Loss and What I Wore” and “Steel Magnolias.” The shows were sellouts, and Kersey again felt the exhilaration that comes with staging live theater.

“I was still kind of in moment of directing there. But I think I’m a better director now. I took some time off, got some rest and can look at it from a whole different perspective,” she said.

Her renewed interest coincided with the opportunity to return to Center Grove. The previous theater director resigned before the start of the school year. When Kersey learned about the opening, she decided to apply.

“And here I am. It’s a lot of fun. I love working with the kids,” she said. “This group is special. They’re aggressive; they’re exciting.”

Kersey immediately had some decisions to make. She had to choose a show for the school to stage this fall. “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” is an older production, having debuted in 1960.

Though it doesn’t feature some of the effects and cutting-edge music that Center Grove has featured in the past, it is a fun show and one that the students have become increasingly more enthusiastic about, Kersey said.

The spring play, “The Curious Savage,” dealt with a wealthy woman trying to deal with her children after they put her in a mental institution to get her money.

“It’s been easy, because it doesn’t have the layers of a musical. But at the same time, you don’t have the music,” Kersey said. “In a musical, even if the scene isn’t very good, you can wait for the song and you’re OK. The kids have had to step it up, since it’s all dialogue.”

Fitting the necessary rehearsals and practices in with the students’ already busy schedules was a challenge. Theater is just one of the many activities her students participate in, so Kersey needed to be flexible to meet their needs and still be ready for opening night.

That helped dictate the decision to flip the yearly theater schedule. Traditionally, the musical is staged in the spring, with a play set for the fall.

But because the scheduling seemed to be more difficult in the spring, Kersey made the change.

“I don’t know how I did it all of those years. Our musical used to be in May, and it’s booked solid,” she said. “This is working for us. We had more time to put a musical together, instead of a play.”

Even though she has been gone only four years, Kersey did need some time to adjust to the theater again.

The school has added a digital touch-panel to control lights and other effects on the theater. New microphones and intelligent lights have made the entire process operate seamlessly.

“I’m learning all of the new gadgets and everything, so that keeps me happy. I never would have learned that stuff if not for coming back,” she said.

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Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.