HOCU | Behind the curtain at CU Theatre Company


Sydney Laput

Kelly Nowlin has been the executive director of the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company since 2015. Nowlin found her passion with theatre in grade school.

By Kylie Corral, Buzz Editor

A community can be shaped by many things, but for Kelly Nowlin, the Champaign-Urbana community and her life have been greatly influenced by the enriching and creative presence of theater.

Nowlin is the executive director of the Champaign-Urbana Theatre Company and has been since 2015. She said that she primarily handles the company’s administrative functions, but also serves as the liaison between board and company members that are present at CU Theatre Company.

Even though she may not be artistically involved in the company, Nowlin said she can often be found working with the artistic director when it comes to seasonal choices for shows and gets involved with staff as well. She added that she has a hand in fundraising, writing grants, overseeing contracts, bookkeeping and more.

It was during grade school, however, when Nowlin first came across theater. Not long after, she found her prior position at the Monticello Theatre Association by rediscovering the stage again.

“I was involved with theater in grade school, high school and church, and I always enjoyed it,” Nowlin said, “I hadn’t been involved for several years, and then in 2010, I auditioned for a show at the Monticello Theatre Association and was given a small part. I fell in love all over again. (Then) I was asked to be their board president, and I reluctantly said ‘Yes.’”

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Although Nowlin said she wasn’t sure she knew what she was doing at first, she eventually went to a two-day theater management conference, adding that she loved every minute of it.

“I remember coming back and telling my husband I felt like I missed my calling. At the time, I was a church administrator. Prior to that, I had been in property management and sales,” Nowlin said. “I had a strong administrative, leadership and business background and felt like I could help. It is essential to have a balance of artistic and business perspectives in a theater organization to be successful.” 

She added that theater establishes a large creative outlet for people to express themselves and that people are generally more productive if they are also engaged in some kind of creative activity.

“Theater helps build confidence, enhances communication skills, teaches how to work as a team and how to adapt and make one more self-aware,” Nowlin said. “These are also skills employers in our community want to see in their employees. Theater also gives our actors and audience a chance to see the world through a different perspective and can help create empathy.”

She said for the audience and the community as a whole, theatre gives people a chance to step away from the world and be entertained for a few hours.

“It is fun because, through my work behind the scenes, I enrich many lives,” Nowlin said.

Although she has had many encounters with the community as an executive manager, Nowlin’s most touching experience was during the summer of 2021. A long time faithful company worker, Bob Weber, was in hospice care, so the theater was brought to him.

“Our youth were doing Driveway Cabarets in place of our regular student production because of COVID-19,” she said. “Driveway Cabarets were mini concerts of show tunes we held in people’s driveways, yards, porches, etc. Another company member, Todd Salen, who worked extensively with Bob on shows, contacted me and booked a Driveway Cabaret for Bob and his wife, Jan. It was a surprise for Bob, and as sick as he was just loved it.”

Nowlin said that the most rewarding experience the CU Theatre Company has ever brought her and the C-U community is called the Penguin Project: a program for students with disabilities. After bringing the project to C-U for six years, Nowlin loved watching the growth of students involved.

“This year after the last show, we recognized some of our artists who will be aging out of the program, and it was rewarding to see their poise and confidence on stage and to know there are kids who have now ‘grown up’ in the theater who maybe wouldn’t have had that chance if not for the Penguin Project,” she said.

Nowlin said she feels lucky to have found a community that values and supports the arts.

“Theater has diversified my friendships. Because of the people I’ve met and care about, some of my views and opinions have changed, making me a better person,” Nowlin said. “I love how theater brings a diverse group of people together, and after working together on a play or musical, they become family.”


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