Paul Kassel is the Dean of the College of Visual & Performing Arts at Northern Illinois University, where he is responsible for the overall administration of the college including its programs and people with a special emphasis on resources (both internal and external), personnel, and planning.
Interview conducted by Gabe Bueno.
Gabe: How did you find out about the Egyptian?
Paul: I was interviewing for my current job as dean and was having lunch with the former President of NIU. While at lunch he mentioned the Egyptian, called Executive Director Alex Nerad and arranged for me to take a look. So, we finished lunch, crossed the street and met Alex at the door. Alex gave me the grand tour and I was awe-struck! I’m a theater artist by trade and love old theatres, so seeing the Egyptian for the first time was like entering a dream. I fell in love instantly!
Gabe: Why did you decide to become a board member of the Eygptian Theatre?
Paul: The College of Visual and Performing Arts has deep ties to the community and it seemed a natural extension of what I do. Alex is a former student of the NIU School of Theatre and Dance, so there’s that organic connection as well. I want to be at the table for discussion about how the arts impact the region–and being a Board member at the Egyptian ensures that I am.
Gabe: How has being a Board member impacted your life?
Paul: It’s very exciting and fulfilling to be part of such a wonderful organization and historical building. In my four years on the board, the growth has been amazing and very gratifying. Besides my work at NIU, being a Board member has really brought me into the DeKalb arts community. The connections I’ve made because of that involvement have been very important in accomplishing the goals of both my college and the Egyptian.
Gabe: If you could add your own personal remodel to the Theater what would it be?
Paul: I would love to see the hotel that was planned back in 1929 finally be built, along with a larger performing arts center. That entire block (from 2nd to 1st, from Main Street to Locust) could be an amazing center for the arts in the region, with retail and restaurant space, maker-spaces, museum, etc.
Gabe: How can arts help society get through crises such as the one we are in now?
Paul: I read recently that “in a crises of meaning, [artists] are the first responders.” (a manifesto published by Andrew Simonet). Artists and teachers across the country are finding ingenious solutions to getting their art out there and for teaching remotely. Artists and art institutions are streaming content across a variety of channels, whether impromptu music concerts via Facebook Live, the National Theatre of England streaming a play on YouTube, and museums offering virtual tours of exhibits. People at home are craving content and artists are delivering.
Gabe: Do you feel people will gravitate more to the arts to heal society after this pandemic has passed?
Paul: I had a friend who was playing Zazu in The Lion King on Broadway when 9/11 happened. Theatres were closed for a few days, but when they re-opened, people flooded them–and they didn’t want to leave after the show. My friend started giving curtain speeches because the audience craved connection and community in the face of the attack. I think, in a similar way, once people are free to gather, they will return to the arts like people starved. And the arts will respond.
But we all are being changed by this and that cannot go unacknowledged. We have to speak to this crises now and for a long while–and it will take YEARS to recover, and we will be irrevocably changed. 20 years from now, people will still be making art in response to this crisis.
Gabe: What makes theatre an escape from reality in your opinion?
Paul: I think “escape” isn’t quite the right term. All art is symbolic of human feeling–a real thing. We don’t escape, exactly, but rather we see our world from a different perspective. Art changes the optics of how we see the world, changes the sound of the world we hear, and theatre changes how we understand the actions and forces impact the direction of our lives. Sometimes that can be funny, or sad, or tragic, or uplifting. Yes, for a while, theatre turns our attention away from our workaday world, so in that sense we “escape.” But I think it is more a “respite” or an oasis, and we returned to our workaday world refreshed, renewed, and, hopefully, ready to face and endure another day.