Jessie Lillis ’13 parlays college interests into founding of a theatre company

Seeds of interest sown at Ripon College have culminated in the inaugural 2021 Mackinac Island Shakespeare Festival in Michigan, running through Aug. 29. Jessie Lillis ’13 is a cofounder of the Starling Shakespeare Company which is hosting the festival. She is a native of Coldwater, Michigan.

At Ripon, she majored in communication with a minor in theatre production. “Honestly, a lot of how and why I ended up where I am right now is because of Ripon,” Lillis says. “I always liked Shakespeare, but it wasn’t until I took Ann Pleiss Morris’ ‘Shakespeare in Pop Culture’ class that I really fell in love. Beyond that, Ann is the reason I found the MLitt/MFA program at Mary Baldwin (University), which played a huge part in preparing me to start a company.”

She received her MFA from Mary Baldwin University’s Shakespeare and Performance program with a concentration in directing. “I’ve wanted to start a theatre company for years,” she says. “Even during the times in my life where I foolishly thought I was done with theatre, I still had that in the back of my head as a pipe dream. The reason I chose my MFA program was because it’s built around the experience of running a touring theatre company for a year.

“So, this was always part of the plan, but I definitely didn’t think it would happen so soon. That said, when COVID hit right at the end of my MFA in the spring of 2020, things started to change. Between problematic industry-wide practices that finally got some much needed attention in 2020, to seeing theatres I knew and loved have to close their doors because of pandemic-induced financial issues, it got me thinking more seriously about starting a company. My business partner, Heron Kennedy, and I started having conversations about what our company would value, how we’d operate, and what our goals would be, and everything started to materialize really quickly from there.”

Lillis discovered that running a theatre company requires taking on many different roles: “I’m constantly switching hats between actor, producer, costumer, musician and whatever other needs come up,” she says. “I think back to my time in Ripon’s theatre department and how I’d be downstairs in the shop working on costumes with Susan Hill (retired visiting professor of theatre) and then running up to the theatre to make sure I wasn’t late to rehearsal with Bob Amsden (director emeritus of theatre) or Ken Hill (professor emeritus of theatre). I’m eternally grateful that when I left Ripon I had experience in all different areas of theatre from performance to design to directing to technical elements.”

She says the ability to pivot and change course has been indispensable. “Running a nonprofit is always challenging, but starting one in the middle of a pandemic and trying to produce live theatre is a whole new level,” Lillis says. “The liberal arts education I had at Ripon gave me the ability to tackle problems from different angles. There is no shortage of moments over the last year that could’ve stopped us in our tracks, but instead of giving up and accepting defeat, we looked for new solutions and alternatives to help us move forward.”

Zoe Hazel ’22
Friendship, Wisconsin

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