Corey Dunne is the executive artistic director of TRYPS Children’s Theater. As a Columbia native, she’s been involved in theater since high school and worked on shows with TRYPS as early as 2005. When her mentor Jill Womack retired earlier this year, Corey stepped in as the new executive artistic director.
At TRYPS, Corey does it all. She’s the only full-time staff member at the theater and has filled just about every role one can imagine during her many years with the organization. On this episode of Vox Voice, we hear about Corey, her love for theater and how she got to where she is.
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HALLE JACKSON, 00:00: Hi, everyone. Welcome back to the Vox Voice podcast. I'm your host, Halle Jackson, and today, we get a look into the life of someone with a passion for changing lives through the arts. Corey Dunne is the executive artistic director of TRYPS Children's Theater in Columbia. She started working with TRYPS in 2005, where she worked on and off before becoming a permanent staff member in 2015. TRYPS, which stands for Theater Reaching Young People in Schools, is a nonprofit children's theater in Columbia. TRYPS is the very first year-round theater company in the area that produces children's and youth theater. TRYPS offers classes that teach children about the performing arts, gives children who would not normally see live theater the opportunity to do so and helps them find their own creative voices. Today, we get to hear a conversation from Vox producer Ian Wesselhoff. He sat down with Corey to talk about her life in and outside of the theater. So, let's get to it. Here they are.
COREY DUNNE, 01:04: I’m a theater kid, so I‘m kind of loud. I also have quite the cackle, so when I laugh it will freak you out a little bit differently, too.
CD, 01:14: My name is Corey Dunne. I am the executive artistic director for TRYPS Children's Theater, which is, TRYPS is an acronym, which most people don't know. It stands for Theater Reaching Young People and Schools. We've always said from cradle to college. We, right now, start at 4 years old, but pre-COVID we had 10 months to 3 year Mommy and Me programming. And then our kids on their own starts at 4 years old.
IAN WESSELHOFF, 01:38: So what led you into the world of theater?
CD, 01:42: I've always been a singer primarily. So that's really where the entry point was for me. I was in choir in fourth grade, fifth grade, all through middle school and high school. And then I didn't actually start doing much theater until I was in high school. I was in, I went to Rock Bridge. I'm a local girl. So I was in the musical theater class when I was there, and that really kind of started my love for musical theater. But then my senior year of high school, I did the school play, and I took the children's theater class, so that was how I was introduced to children's theater, and it’s kind of been my world ever since.
IW, 02:17: How is children's theater different from what would be considered regular theater?
CD, 02:22: Yeah, adult theater. You know, in our world, it's primarily the audiences that are different. The stories can be different, not that adults don't appreciate the youth-friendly stories and shows that we do, certainly, but we are entirely centered around kids. So there's different levels of youth theater. There are professional equity theater companies. There's one in Kansas City, there's one in St. Louis, that do theater with adults for young people, adult actors, whereas we primarily focus on, with and for young people. So our main stage shows feature actors in third grade through 12th grade during the school year, and then our summer shows can include college students, and we have invited many local adults. Incredible performances from some local adults that have joined us too.
IW, 03:15: So how long have you been working for TRYPS?
CD, 03:18: I've been in this position since July 1, but I was introduced to TRYPS in the summer of, let me think, it's been so long, 2005. I was in my first show with TRYPS in the summer of 2006 and started teaching that summer. So I was still in my undergrad. I did my undergrad at Missouri State University down in Springfield, and so I came back home for spring break and for summer and taught camps then. I stage managed the summer shows while I was doing my undergrad and kind of off and on, by contract, worked at TRYPS from 2006 through 2013. And then in 2014, just before TRYPS moved to Stephen's College, I joined the team as a permanent staff member. And in 2015, became a full-time staff member once we were at Stephens College. And so I was full time as the education — it’s a very long title — co-director of education and production manager, it’s kind of a dual role, for two years there. And then I took over as the executive producing director in 2016. And then I left in the summer of 2017 to go to grad school.
IW, 04:33: Why did you go through that graduate program?
CD, 04:35: I — higher education was always something that called to me, I think. My parents all have higher degrees and so that was just something that I, for whatever reason, felt like needed to be part of my journey. I'm really glad that I did. Why I specifically landed in arts administration, arts leadership, was because I was preparing really, ultimately to take over TRYPS when Jill decided it was time for her to step away. So I wanted as much knowledge and as many skill sets as I could gather, and that felt like the right way to do it. I also think that my having done that and then my return to Columbia, gave Jill a bit of peace of mind about making the decision to leave as well. Because as much as it's been my dream since I was 18, it has also been something she and I have spoken about for 10 plus years.
IW, 05:25: Did you ever envision this would be your career?
CD, 05:28: Absolutely I did. Actually, when I left for school in Springfield, I had done my freshman year here at Mizzou, and then I transferred down to Missouri State. And so it was my middle of my sophomore year, and I had known Jill and had worked at TRYPS for a couple of years at that point. I emailed her and said, ‘I want to be you when I grow up. What do I do?’ So actually getting my bachelor's degree in theater education was under her direction. My master's was something that I had always planned on doing at some point in time. I didn't know what path it was going to take me down. I initially thought it would be in education, but arts leadership, arts administration was something that I kind of stumbled across, randomly, completely. And so I kind of — once I found it as a, as a field of study, I knew that was the right place for me to go. But it was all, this whole journey has been because of finding TRYPS, really, it was a magical place. It's been home to me since I was 18, and I always knew that I wanted it to be my home forever.
IW, 06:31: So, you mentioned Jill a couple times. Tell us who Jill is.
CD, 06:34: Yeah, Jill Womack is the founding artistic director of TRYPS, and she's who just retired in June, which then led me into taking over. So I worked with her very closely over the 10 plus years that I was off and on at TRYPS before I moved up to Washington for my graduate program.
IW, 06:52: How big a role did she play in you reaching this point in your career?
CD, 06:56: The biggest really. There's been no other more impactful human on my life professionally, certainly. She has been another mother to me, most definitely. My mom fully acknowledges and admits that and accepts her as in that role, too. Yeah, she's been a mentor and a friend for a really long time, and I would not, by any means, be where I am right now, if it wasn't for her influence on my life.
IW, 07:27: So I know you essentially replaced her when she retired, were there any, like mixed emotions about replacing your mentor?
CD, 07:35: I had certainly. It's been a roller coaster of emotions for the last six months. It is very strange to be there and her not be there. It is weird to be kind of creating my own path within the organization and with the organization. You know, I get, I have a lot more decision-making power and a lot more responsibility now than I did under her guise, certainly. But, you know, it was time for her. She, as many people with COVID, just hit a wall, I think, and she needed to pull back and take some time for herself personally and to spend with her family, and I am immeasurably grateful for what she built and how she's impacted my life. And it's been wild. So, my emotional response has certainly been wild. Because of my long-standing history with the organization, I think our families and our kind of tight knit community has been pretty happy with the transition. I have at least heard nothing but good things. The response generally was nobody better to fill those shoes, not that they can ever really be filled. So it's been, it's been a whirlwind. And I think it's been so far, really positive.
IW 08:48: So what is special about it? What's special about the theater community?
CD 08:52: It is such a family. Both within the TRYPS family, but also the Columbia theater community at large, is really a special, tight-knit group of total weirdos. We have, you know, I've been doing theater in Columbia since I was in high school, certainly, both with TRYPS and at school and in community organizations and down in Jeff City, too. And you know, it's a family. It is — we call theater a team sport. It is no different than baseball or football. You rely on your teammates to get everything done. And so these kind of insane, really close bonds form when you're onstage with another person and because theater is such a vulnerable experience, you really, really create a really strong tight knit family and that bond goes with you off the stage as well. So some of my closest friends are people that I did theater with 10, 15, 20 years ago.
IW, 09:46: I noticed you said the phrase theater family.
CD, 09:49: Yeah.
IW, 09:50: What type of culture are you trying to cultivate at TRYPS that creates like a family?
CD, 09:55: Yeah, I think it is mutual respect, both, you know, from the grownups to the kids and vice versa.
The theater world, in general, has always kind of been one of the most welcoming and open spaces for there's a lot of jokes about, I mean, I call us weirdos all the time, we are totally weird. And I think weirdos are the best people. I don't like normal people, they're no fun. So, it's always been kind of a safe and welcoming and open space for those kids who don't really have anywhere else to go. We get to play, make believe and dress up all the time. And that's the reason we exist. We tell stories. So that kind of welcoming and open environment and mutual respect. And that, I think, is what creates it. But you know, theater is such a vulnerable experience as well. Being an actor, being on stage and taking yourself out of yourself and taking on a whole different person, as the character that you're playing, really opens you up a lot. And we have to trust each other. And so building that community, it builds and strengthens bonds that you may not have the opportunity to build in other places.
IW, 10:59: What's the most exciting part of your job?
CD, 11:02: The most exciting part — show week, I think, show day, whatever it may be our classes, all of our classes and our camps end and a final performance kind of open house parents invited to see what we've worked on. And those are just as exciting as the public performances with three, 400 people in the audience. Because yes, they are young people, they are kids. But that doesn't mean that they can't do really incredible things. And so to be able to share that with the world, no matter what their ages are — just last night, we had a kindergarten through second grade show that was a class performance that was absolutely adorable, and, and, for parents who maybe didn't get this experience when they were that age — because these kind of youth theater programs really haven't existed all that long in most of the country, so a lot of a lot of the parents around now didn't have an opportunity like this when they were young people — and so, for them to see what their kids are capable of is really special.
IW, 12:00: What are the typical responsibilities for you as the executive artistic director?
CD, 12:07: Yeah, well, I'm the only staff member really, all of our other staff are contracted guest artists. So I kind of do it all. On top of the basics of running the business and paying the bills, I am doing fundraising, I am directing all of our shows, I am overseeing the production elements of everything. I do have a couple of incredible long-term teaching artists, Lexie and Lauren, who are an integral part of what we do, certainly. But ultimately I get to oversee them and all of the programming that they do. I am constantly doing graphic design work, and lots and lots of communication with families and strategic planning, and I get to do all of it. My hands are everywhere.
IW, 12:53: What is that like? You're doing so many different things, you're overseeing so many people? Is that something you feel like you were prepared for?
CD, 13:00: I think I am prepared for it, partially because of my training and my experience and my background, but also partially because I watched Jill do it for so long and helped Jill do it in a lot of ways, you know, that I knew certainly what I was taking on when I took the job. Not to say that I don't think it could be done differently than how Jill had done it. I definitely am working on kind of putting my own spin on it. But it's chaos. There are a lot of plates spinning kind of at all times. But for me, at least, I was just having this conversation with my mom the other night, it is, it's what feeds me. This work in this job in this world are what feeds my soul. I had a lot fewer plates spinning and other jobs, but felt a lot more stress about it and was tortured and tormented by it a lot in a different capacity than I am feeling right now. Just because I am called to do this in a way, I think it just makes me happy. I love every element of it, as crazy as it is.
IW, 14:15: Do you prefer performing or working behind the scenes?
CD, 14:19: At this point in my life, I certainly prefer being behind the scenes. There was a time, certainly, where I — I preferred performing, but when I get on stage now it feels more special because it's a little more rare. It doesn't happen quite as often. You know, some of my favorite times being on stage were in TRYPS shows doing the absolute most ridiculous things that I have ever been asked to do. I played a chihuahua in Skippyjon Jones several years ago, and the whole thing was an absolute circus in the best sense. So those are the kinds of performing experiences that I really love to do. Like I said, my background, my experience, is as a singer primarily, and I do still love singing, but I am perfectly happy going to karaoke on a Saturday night as I am being onstage in front of a roomful of people.
IW, 15:11: What's your favorite show you've ever worked on, whether for TRYPS or or otherwise?
CD, 15:15: I have two that I'm very torn between. I was played Maureen in Rent at Columbia Entertainment Center, sorry, Columbia Entertainment Company, in, when was that? 2010. And that, as a performer, was a really, really incredible and unique experience. That was, by far, the most tight-knit group of actors that I have ever had an opportunity to work with. I don't really have the words for it. It just was a really memorable, really unique theatrical experience as a performer. It was very much a show that I, on stage, got lost in my character, which is really special to have happen. In the TRYPS world, just this summer, we did Newsies. And that was, I got to direct it. It was the very first thing I started on July 1, and we started rehearsal on July 5. So the very first thing I did when I walked in the door, I had very little prep time to tackle it. But there were 18 kids in that show and eight, I want to say, adults of the 18 kids all but four of them had done their very first show with me as 10, 11 year olds before I left for grad school. And so to see them as 16, 17, 18 year olds back onstage and do what is really a beast of a show, it is massive, and the choreography is absolutely insane. But of the adults as well, four or five of the adults that were in that cast grew up with me at TRYPS as well. So it was the most perfect in the most special kind of homecoming, and it is definitely an experience and I will never forget.
IW, 16:54: What's your favorite show you've seen?
CD, 16:57: In terms of musical theater world, this is probably the most basic answer I could ever give, but it is definitely Wicked. I have had a special place in my heart for the Wizard of Oz and the story and the characters since I was 3, probably. One of my very first memories is of sitting on the couch watching the movie with my family. So it's a story that means a lot to me, characters that mean a lot to me, and so it's — it's a really magical piece to see for sure.
IW, 17:23: Why did you come back to Columbia?
CD, 17:25: I actually moved back and took a job with the city in the Office of Cultural Affairs. And it was a great position, and Sarah, the manager of the Office of Cultural Affairs, is incredible. But it didn't feed my soul in the way that TRYPS does, certainly, that theater does in general. So for all of us, going through COVID was really hard. But going through COVID, 3,000 miles away from everybody that I love was super impactful. It was very lonely and very isolating. And so as we made our way through that I kind of decided, going through that, that I needed to not necessarily be back in Columbia, but I wanted to be significantly closer to home so that I could be with my family a little bit more. So it was happenstance that the job at the city opened up really and it, Jill actually was the one that shared the job posting with me. And so I applied for it. And I had known Sarah before I left for Seattle. And so it was just the right timing, really. So I did not come back really, ultimately to take this role at TRYPS, but I don't think it would have happened not in this timeline at least had I not already been back.
IW, 18:30: What do you like to do outside of theater?
CD, 18:34: When I am not doing theater I do other theater, or arts experiences in general. You know, if I'm sitting at home on a Sunday and I'm bored, I'm gonna pull out probably fabric and be sewing or crafting in some capacity. I not, I'm certainly not a professional in that arena, but I am a big Halloween costume nerd. I think a lot of theater kids are, certainly, we love to play dress up so. Last year I made a really completely insane Wonder Woman costume out of foam and paint basically and hot glue. That took probably 65 hours to build over the course of two months. Otherwise it's you know, I hang out with the dog and I spend time with my mom and my parents, my family, my friends, just hanging out, low-key, relaxing. Love a good firepit, love a good Logboat beer. That's kind of my life.
IW, 19:27: Where were you for Halloween this year?
CD, 19:29: I was Cat in the Hat this year. Lexi and Lauren were my Thing One and Thing Two because we were at the office all day. We had rehearsal on Saturday. So we did all of our kids in in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang dressed up for rehearsals in their costumes and we did a little bit of a Halloween dance party at the end of rehearsal. And so we all dressed up so, I was the Cat in the Hat.
IW, 19:50: What do you hope the kids take away from their experience at TRYPS?
CD, 19:55: I just hope they take joy home with them. I hope that they have had a good time and, you know, yes, we are an educational experience, so I always want them to learn something. But secondary to that, or I guess primary to that, even, is just that they have felt welcomed, that they have enjoyed their time with us, that they have gotten to express themselves in a way that maybe they haven't gotten to in other areas of their life, and that they, you know, get to just be themselves and be kids. Storytelling and creative play is so important for young people, and it has become, kind of been put on the backburner in our education and in our training and in our in the lives of children. They don't get to, they're not allowed to, in a lot of their environments, play make believe. So to give kids an opportunity to explore that part of themselves is really what I hope they get to take away with them.
IW, 20:53: What are your expectations for the future of TRYPS?
CD, 20:56: Expectations or dreams? I think those are two very different conversations. Expectations that we can continue paying the bills and can continue reaching and touching the lives of young people across our community and beyond. Just before COVID started, we expanded a little bit and started an outreach program in Fulton, partnership with their brick district Playhouse, we are exploring opportunities to do that, again in some other communities locally, but outside of Columbia and kind of expand our footprint a little bit, if you will. You know, we used to do five to six shows a year. Right now we're doing three shows a year. Part of that is staff capacity. Part of that is the restrictions put on us by COVID and the funding levels because of COVID impact. So I certainly hope to get back to more productions annually. We are getting ready to sit down and do some strategic planning. And that's exactly what we're going to talk about: what are the next 5,10, 15 years of TRYPS look like? What do we want to do? Who do we want to be? What does it all mean?
IW, 22:05: And what are your dreams for the future of TRYPS?
CD, 22:07: I really dream about a touring company that can go statewide. Send adult actors out statewide. There are so many smaller communities in our great state here that don't have any opportunities like this for young people, either to participate in or even to view live theater, because there are significant impacts on a child's life from both experiences, both participating and viewing. And so one of the big dreams I think is definitely to develop a touring, adult touring, company that can take live theater to these kids and can, with a handful of actors and a van load of supplies, you know, produce theater all over the state.
HJ, 22:57: Thanks again to Corey and Ian for sharing their conversation with us and to everyone else who worked to make this episode of Vox Voice possible. Jack Taylor was the supervising producer, Julia Wu was the pre-interviewer, Ian Wesselhoff was the interviewer and Sophie Stephens was the promoter. Heather Isherwood is Vox’s editorial director and Halle Jackson is Vox’s multimedia editor. And finally, thanks to you for listening. I'm your host, Halle Jackson. See you next time.