Like most pathways traveled, one often leads to another. Ann Kessler, Professor of Theatre and Department Chair at Valparaiso University, started off as a dancer who trained in classical ballet, modern dance and more. She soon discovered a love for costume design through her time spent training and performing as a dancer.
“As a dancer, I was always really interested in the costumes we wore on stage,” Kessler said. “The idea that a costume could bring a dance to life and help me embody and become a character on stage was what really pulled my interest toward costume design.”
Growing up in Flint, Michigan, Kessler said that she and her dance mates did not have much money to purchase fancy stage costumes. So, they improvised.
“We would purchase a nice looking, shiny leotard and build from there. Some of the dance moms would create and add the accessories to produce a final product,” Kessler said. “It was so fascinating to see costumes come together in this way. Watching a plain leotard transform into something that perfectly matched the dance we were performing was so interesting to me.”
After realizing that becoming a professional dancer may not be in her future, Kessler focused her time and energy toward costume design and received her M.F.A. in Design from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. Kessler soon ended up as a Professor of Theatre and Department Chair at Valparaiso University and has been part of the faculty for more than 30 years.
Creating costumes for shows is not an easy task. Kessler said that creating these intricate ensembles requires tireless hours and a great deal of concentration and creativity from her students helping bring a production to life. Her students don’t just use material as simple as fabric, either. Kessler recalls a particular time when her students used pine cones, hundreds of beads, and even bones to design and construct stage wear.
“It was incredible to watch them work on this particular project. They just dove right into it and committed. I really saw and admired the passion that they had while working together as a team to create something spectacular,” Kessler said.
Kessler said getting to witness her students’ passion is one of her favorite parts about her job because it all pays off as soon as another students slips on the costume that they had worked so hard to create.
“Watching a student transform into their character once they put on a costume is really the most rewarding thing to see. It’s in that specific moment that I truly see them become the character and experience a new confidence and glow about them,” Kessler said.
Kessler has had students who have moved on to pursue careers in Theater. Some students have progressed to performing on Broadway, designing costumes in London, teaching at the high school level, and both performing or working backstage in the Chicago area.
“I know when my students move forward it isn’t just because of me, but this doesn’t take away from how rewarding it is to see them become successful and continue to do what they love,” Kessler said. “The Theater Department at Valparaiso University does a great job in preparing their students in all aspects of the art, not just performing on stage, which helps them to become successful after they graduate.”
When she isn’t busy putting together productions and designs, Kessler makes time for herself to unwind and relax. She practices yoga and spends time with her children in order to refresh her mind and focus on something other than work. She became very passionate about volunteering for Lakeshore PAWS and tries to visit shelter dogs daily.
Kessler’s main duties as a volunteer is to socialize the dogs by taking them for walks, playing with them, and even fostering some. So far, she has opened her home and fostered twice before.
“When I take the dogs on walks or foster them in my home, there is something really special about seeing them getting to be normal dogs. I’m happy that I can give them this chance and many happy moments of freedom,” Kessler said.
Finding a balance in life between work and play is so important to Kessler that she passes the advice on to her students, who often become consumed by school and work.
“I tell myself and my students that it’s very important to find balance in life because even though working can be exciting, fun and enjoyable, it is still important to remember to work hard and play hard,” Kessler said. “Stepping away from work and doing something that can get your mind off of it helps to recharge your battery.”
If Kessler could thank anyone, she says she would thank her parents, who have shown her the ways of the world.
“Both of my parents grew up during the Great Depression. Because of this they saw and still do see the world in a different way,” Kessler said. “They were able to show me and my siblings both the beauty of the world and the parts that aren’t as beautiful. I’m thankful for this point of view and think about it in my every-day life.”