Not just an act: Theatre professor takes center stage

Contact: Erin Flynn

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Most people know Jeff Daniels for his wide-ranging roles on the big and small screens, from “Dumb and Dumber” and “The Purple Rose of Cairo” to “The Newsroom.” Theatre assistant professor Kate Thomsen, BA ‘05, knows him as a colleague.

She’s found a home in Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Michigan, where she’s been involved in several productions—most recently a reprise of her role as Lynette Taylor-Tyler in “Diva Royale,” written and directed by Daniels.

Daniels talks with actors at the Purple Rose Theatre. (Photo courtesy: Danna Segrest)

The comedy focuses on three Michigan moms who set off on a girls trip for the ages. With Celine Dion as their north star, they take on the Big Apple in a quest to see their musical icon. 

“‘Diva Royale’ has been one of the thrills of my career, truly,” Thomsen says. “The original production debuted in 2018 at Purple Rose with this original cast, and I think one of the thrills of this production—in addition to working with Jeff as closely as we have—is kind of revisiting who we all were five years ago and feeling our own evolution.”

While Dion is a large part of the plot, it’s not “The Power of Love” but the power of laughter that Thomsen sees as the play’s biggest takeaway.

“The world we’re currently living in is so hard,” Thomsen says. “I get to be in a room full of laughter every single day, and that’s more meaningful to me than I can even describe.”

Daniels says Thomsen is a big reason audiences enjoy the show so much.

“Kate’s acting has always had an element of fearlessness to it, even danger. She’s not afraid to risk herself, to try something no one else would think of—including me,” he says. “Her comic timing is a joy to watch and her professionalism is evident in her preparation prior to rehearsal, her work ethic and her desire to use every role she takes on as a chance to get even better at what she already does. I love writing for actors with her gifts.”

Learning in Action

Thomsen has been a mainstay at the Purple Rose over the past several years while also teaching full time at Western. Students say having a professor who is active in the craft makes class even more impactful.

“This sense of dedication and being present is really what draws me to her style of teaching,” says Arise Rock, a second-year theatre student from Detroit. “It makes me all the more willing to try new things and experiment in class.”

Rock’s class also had the opportunity to travel to the Purple Rose in December to see Thomsen in action.

“It was amazing; one of the best shows I’ve seen,” Rock says. “Seeing her doing all the things she’s teaching us further increased my trust in her as a professor. She’s practicing what she preaches and can bring in even more lessons to us from what she’s learned or realized that day in her own rehearsals.”

Thomsen says she felt honored to share the experience with her students.

“I feel like this production does showcase a lot of what I teach about comedy, specifically that it’s rooted in truth: You don’t ask for the laugh, you just tell the truth. The more real you make it, the funnier it is,” she says. 

In addition to seeing the show, Thomsen’s class was treated to a special question-and-answer session with Daniels and the play’s cast and crew.

Thomsen says she was honored to share her experience working in a major production with her students, particularly what it taught them about working in comedy.

“I don’t think there are a lot of experiences I’ve had in my life thus far that compare to that,” Holly Berman-Carter, a second-year theatre student from St. Louis, says. “You see their work and see them on the screen, and sometimes you forget that these people are human, too. Being able to talk to someone like that face-to-face about what I was nervous about within acting, what I really wanted to do, and have them listen and give me feedback that I can actually implement into my life is groundbreaking.”

“They gave us wonderful advice as well as personal stories about their careers and experiences in the business. It was helpful to get perspectives from professionals who have been in this field for such a long time,” Rock adds.

Thomsen says she could see the impact of the Purple Rose experience almost immediately in the classroom.

“I assigned a pretty high-stakes comedic scene for their final, and they just knocked it out of the park,” she says. “I haven’t had a final like that in a long time.”

But Wait ... There's More

If starring in an in-demand play and teaching college students full time wasn’t enough, Thomsen will be directing an upcoming WMU Theatre production of “Julius Caesar,” which she says will be a stripped-back version of the play featuring a company comprising all female, transgender and nonbinary performers. She is also making her directorial debut at the Purple Rose in the upcoming production “What Springs Forth.”

Thomsen is also involved in the Shakespeare Behind Bars program, which offers theatre classes to incarcerated, post-incarcerated and at-risk communities to help them build life skills, emotional intelligence and coping strategies. It’s a passion she will continue spring semester by teaching a course through Western’s new Higher Education for the Justice-involved program at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Michigan.

“They’re always so ambitious and so hungry to be challenged, and they rise to that in such beautiful ways. I always feel like I learn more in that environment than any other, and that feels thrilling.”

With so many kettles in the theatrical fire, you might say—much like lyrics from the perennial pop diva who inspired her character’s chaotic quest—Thomsen’s art will go on and on. 

“I feel that teaching serves my artistry, and certainly that my continued artistry serves my teaching,” she says. “You have to remain relevant, so I never want to go quiet in any direction.” ■

A group photo of acting students.

Students from Thomsen's class met with the cast and crew of "Diva Royale" after attending a performance.