The most hyperbolic possible headline would read "28-Year-Old Canadian Takes Over Dad’s Garage!" to announce the selection of Kevin Gillese as the Inman Park playhouse’s new artistic director. Currently the artistic director of Rapid Fire Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta, Gillese takes the reins at Dad’s in January, following his six-week European tour with Scratch, a long-form improv format he co-developed with Arlen Konopaki. Gillese, who once performed on Dad’s stage while still a teenager, will be the company’s fifth artistic director, following Kate Warner and co-founder Sean Daniels.
How well do you know Dad’s, and how well do you know Atlanta?
I know Dad’s a lot better than I know Atlanta. My first taste of international improv was coming to Dad’s for the World Domination TheatreSports Tournament in 1999. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of working with Dad’s at other festivals, and bringing Dad’s up to Canada to work at my festival. During the interviews, they didn’t have to convince me that they were a cool, creative company. I already knew that. The opportunity to work with them was a carrot to me. I know the company quite well, but Atlanta will be a new experience for me.
Have you always lived in Canada?
Yes, but for the past several years I’ve been working a lot as a touring performer. My mail goes to Edmonton, but I’ve been spending six months out of the year on the road. I won’t be doing that as artistic director of Dad’s, but I will be pushing Dad’s to do more touring.
What goals do you have for the theater?
My first goals are to step in and get to know the company before I start to make sweeping statements. I don’t see it as super-appropriate for me to come in and start shooting my mouth off, especially since some of Dad’s artists have been there since the theater was founded. I do want to see growth in our relationships with companies outside Atlanta, both by going out and bringing other artists in.
Dad’s produces a mix of weekly improvised shows and theatrical productions of scripted plays. How much of either of those do you do at Rapid Fire?
We don’t do anything scripted that’s not company-generated. When I took over, I started pushing shows that we created and then produced. I’m not sure of the proportion [of improvised to scripted productions] at Dad’s — I think it’s 50-50 — but at Rapid Fire, it’s more like 90-10.
How old are you, if you don’t mind my asking?
I turn 29 on Christmas Eve. I believe I’ll be the youngest person in the improv ensemble, which’ll be exiting and slightly intimidating. I’ve been working with Rapid Fire since I was 15 years old — I volunteered to clean up the theater so I could see shows there for free. I’ve been on staff for four years, first as associate artistic director, then as artistic director.
Some Atlanta theaters like Dad’s and Actor’s Express have had problems with turnover at the top. How long do you imagine working in Atlanta?
Honestly, I have no idea. If things are working out great, I want to be around for as long as I can. But if they don’t work out or they don’t like me, I don’t want the theater to feel like it’s stuck in a dysfunctional relationship. I know that Dad’s is hoping and I’m hoping that it’s a perfect fit and I’ll spend the next three to five years with the company. I don’t want to come across as negative, but I’m moving to a new country, to a region that’s very different from my home. They took a risk on me — bringing somebody in from Canada — so I hope to be there for years and years.
Can you describe your original solo show Wisdom Teeth?
Wisdom Teeth is a hip-hop-based solo show that I wrote, a combination of hip-hop, storytelling and slam poetry. It’s out of my own true-life stories, loosely framed around a series of failed relationships and experiences as a touring performer. It’s intense, it’s dark, it’s non-comedic.
Some of the improvisers in the Dad’s ensemble have comedic personae that they sometimes return to, like the way Lucky Yates is almost a Rat Pack-, retro-style entertainer, or Matt Horgan is a clean-cut regular guy. Do you have that kind of comedic persona?
Yes, but I want to make it clear that this is the persona I project as a comedian, and not the persona I project as an artistic director. When I’m performing, I often have the party guy vibe, the kind of guy who says he’s drunk even when he’s not drunk. As artistic director, my true self is far less out of control. I’m really ambitious but I try to be sensitive, to balance my alpha male go-get-the-goals personality and to make sure that no matter what’s going on, everybody’s happy.