Kate Kennedy and Sonoma’s Avalon Theater

the arts | stage |

Photograph by Robbi Pengelly
To be, to be: Kate Kennedy has no hesitation when it comes to Shakespeare.

By Patricia Lynn Henley

Her eyes flashing with humor, Kate Kennedy perches in a royally upholstered chair in the living room of her Sonoma Valley home. “I’m sitting on my Hamlet chair,” she explains happily. Undaunted by the fact that she knew next to nothing about upholstery or chair construction, a few years ago Kennedy crafted two gold-corded, round-cornered creations for one of her annual summertime Shakespeare productions.

“It’s only four legs and a seat,” she says modestly.

Her can-do attitude lets her accomplish more than most people.

“I like being busy. I think that when you passionately love what you do, you can’t wait.”

And Kennedy loves Shakespeare—enough so that she delights in playing around with the Bard’s comedies, throwing in a bit of Elvis here or a reference to modern-day politics there. She tends to stick to the scripts for the tragedies, but the comedies are fair game. “You can mess with those all day long,” Kennedy asserts with a grin, her short haircut accentuating the pixie-like quality of her face.

But of course she also makes sure that her actors know their stuff. “It’s sort of like a Picasso. You want to get exactly what you know perfectly first, then go off the script.”

Kennedy is founder and artistic director of the Avalon Players theater troupe, now in its 27th year performing Shakespeare in the Sonoma Valley. She also teaches drama at North Bay schools and produces a variety of productions throughout the year. Each summer she runs a musical theater and a Shakespeare camp for kids, as well as helping with the longtime performing-arts camp she cofounded at Sonoma’s Sebastiani Theatre.

Kennedy is a like “a female Robin Williams,” says Diana Rhoten, a performing-arts camp cofounder. Even a quick conversation with Kennedy involves a rapid succession of various humorous accents.

“The way her mind goes—she’s so clever and she’s just constantly thinking of something else.” Rhoten’s particularly impressed by Kennedy’s ability to get children immersed in Shakespeare. One of the secrets, Rhoten adds, is that “Kate is a kid herself.”

The middle child of nine, Kennedy grew up in a rural setting outside Minneapolis. In kindergarten, she played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Kennedy attended Catholic schools, including boarding school during her four years of high school.

Pursuing her love of theater, she toured the northeast and Canada for two years with a commedia dell’arte company, then moved to California and spent another two years as a lead actress for the San Francisco Shakespeare Company. She settled in Sonoma, and in 1980 founded the Avalon Players.

Working with children and with actors is wonderful, Kennedy says. “I’m most pleased when people that I have mentored or worked with or nurtured are happy and successful and confident. When they do well, that’s the best feeling. It’s really wonderful. You think, ‘Good on you, mate.’ And if I have a little bit to do with that, bravo.”

One of Kennedy’s many success stories is Aidan O’Reilly, who started acting in her productions when he was 11 years old. Now 22, he’s a recent graduate of England’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

“I’m always careful about using the word ‘artist,’ because it kind of reeks of pretension, but I think with Kate it is very appropriate,” O’Reilly says. “An artist to me is someone who doesn’t do it for the money or necessarily for the love of it but because they have to, it’s a force that drives them. That’s true of Kate. She’s one of the few people I’d classify as a genuine artist.”

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