Alumnae Spotlight showcases amazing Laurel women and the paths they have charted since graduation. Whether they are doctors, designers, artists, authors, scientists, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, engineers, pharmacists, or civic activists or volunteers, Laurel women inhabit nearly all careers and corners of the world helping to make it a better place. Our alumnae and the journeys that they have taken speak to the essence of a Laurel education and what makes this School and the community of women who call it their own distinctive. This space highlights their fascinating lives and the mountains they continue to move. If you would like to be featured in our Alumnae Spotlight, or know of an alumna who might, please email Julie Donahue.
December Alumnae Spotlight
Susan Kessler ‘95
As Executive Director and Co-Founder of The Bushwick Starr Theater, as well as Associate Chair of the Skidmore College Theater Department, Sue Kessler ’95 has ample opportunity to express her creativity and help foster the growth of creativity in others. As a New York-based theater artist and producer, Sue has dedicated much of her life to connecting people in meaningful ways through art. The Bushwick Starr began simply as a rehearsal space for Fovea Floods, an experimental theater company of which Sue was a part. She was instrumental in helping to transform this rehearsal space into a full-scale black box theater, attracting performance artists to the then up-and-coming exciting community of Bushwick, Brooklyn. The Bushwick Starr has flourished into an OBIE award-winning theater that the New York Times deemed “a bright spot on the Off Off Broadway map.”
Additionally, Sue is in the process of developing a Theater Management program at Skidmore College, where she earned a BFA in Studio Art. She serves as the Co-Chair of the Saratoga Springs Arts Commission for the Mayor’s Office. Sue attended Laurel from First through Twelfth Grade. She and her sister, Alice Kessler ’00, are members of the Green Team.
What is the most important thing you learned at Laurel?
In a word, empowerment. Laurel taught me the tremendous value of letting my voice and my ideas be heard, without any burden of doubt. I remember my first week of college, having my first real experiences with a coed classroom, and noticing immediately the gender divide. The girls spoke up far less in class, and seemed too easily boxed out of conversations, etc. Not I. I kept raising my hand and sharing my ideas, and each time I did that, I felt so lucky and so proud that Laurel nurtured me and fostered my confidence and identity. I definitely still draw on that to this day—knowing that I should never be afraid to express myself. It’s a huge gift and has served me well in all of my endeavors.
What do you think makes a Laurel education distinct?
Laurel cultivates a vibrant learning environment where young women can safely express themselves, stretch themselves, ask questions, take risks, and share their ideas without fear of failing. It provides a holistically supportive and well-rounded education, and one that is so important in this day in age, where young women need more than ever to be encouraged and empowered as they discover their voices. And, I love that Laurel isn’t heavy handed about its approach. Empowering and celebrating young women happens every day there— it’s natural, it’s the norm— so you leave wearing this cloak of knowledge that yes, you are capable of great things, of course you are!
Did you always want to pursue a career in the performing arts?
I was always a bit of a Renaissance woman, so I dabbled in visual art, performing art, music, and literature (I also played field hockey!), and I continued to explore those forms at Skidmore, taking full advantage of its liberal arts curriculum. My intention was to become a photographer and/or filmmaker, but theater kept pulling at me. I think I eventually gave myself over to the performing arts for two reasons. First, it’s a community. As a visual artist, you often work alone, or in your own world of ideas, anyway. I learned that I thrived far more in a social and collaborative environment. Second, I fell in love with the power of live performance to engage people, ignite conversations, inspire ideas, and transcend barriers. Living in the digital age that is so saturated with media, the experience of witnessing live performance is becoming more and more rare. I feel strongly about fighting for this experience. In the simple act of choosing to enter a room as either a performer or audience member and share that space for an hour or two— fully commit that time to one another with your cell phones off and your digital comforts out of reach— there is a special and important kind of communion that takes place in that room. People listen more. They allow themselves to be more open. Perhaps they are enlightened or leave feeling changed, hopefully in a good way. Perhaps an unexpected conversation has begun or a new idea is sparked. I believe that having these real-time encounters with one another is vital to a healthy culture, and I’m proud to be one of the gardeners tending to the performing arts soil.
What drew you to Skidmore after Laurel?
I actually had my heart set on going to a visual arts conservatory in New York City. Skidmore was sort-of a back-up plan. My dad taught at University School for over 30 years and was close friends with the then-headmaster Rick Hawley, whose daughter was at Skidmore. My dad said, “Please just apply to one school that’s not in NYC—some place in a nice safe college town—how about Skidmore? Jessie is there and seems to love it.” So I applied almost begrudgingly, but I’m very relieved I ended up there.
Describe your journey co-founding The Bushwick Starr.
It was really an accidental journey. I never planned to run a theater—one thing kept leading to another and in many ways, I just followed the breadcrumbs. As we were developing the loft space into a theater for our company (Fovea Floods), the neighborhood around us also was developing. More artists were moving in, and we started to realize that we had the opportunity to open our doors to the public and make a community space. After a couple of years of experimenting and trying out different models, that’s when I realized (along with my partner, Noel Allain) that we wanted and needed to be more than just a venue. We wanted to be an arts center with a strong vision, a supportive home for artists, and a hub for important community interactions. At that point, things really kicked into gear, and we charged forward with full intentions of becoming a vital and thriving arts destination. The biggest challenges we’ve faced, and still face to this day, have to do with real estate. Our neighborhood in Brooklyn has been rapidly gentrifying for years, so there’s a looming threat of being priced out or displaced in some way. In the future, we are making plans to secure a new, more permanent home for the Starr. It will be a bigger venue, with more space and amenities for our artists, audiences, and staff— but best of all, it will be on the street level, where we’ll be able to open our doors to our community in a more meaningful and productive way. We have hopes for a little cafe and/or community art space on the ground floor. Fingers crossed!
Tell us a bit about Skidmore and the work you do there.
Skidmore is still the dynamic liberal arts environment I remember it to be, and it’s really nice to be back. When we moved here (because my husband took a full-time teaching job in the Theater Dept.), I had no designs to work at the college. But the college quickly approached me about helping to develop a Theater Management program, which is something they had wanted to do for some time. I basically oversee the Theater’s producing operations, including creative fundraising and marketing, audience development, curation/programming, and artist conservancy. I mentor a group of talented and dedicated students who fulfill various management positions throughout our performance seasons.
What do you love most about your job(s)?
I love that I’m dedicated to supporting artists being seen and stories being heard. I love that my work reaches the public and has the potential to spark change. I love the inherently positive nature of making art. And I love, again, the sense of community that is both offered and received— sometimes in the most unexpected ways, in the most surprising places— through making theater.
What do you do in your spare time?
I read, mainly biographies lately. I play music with a very casual and humble “band” up in Saratoga. I knit. I take pictures. And I color in coloring books with my 5-year-old daughter, Willa.
What advice would you give to current Laurel girls?
Celebrate who you are, even when—especially when—things get tough, or people don’t seem to understand you. As a young person who is still discovering who you are and what you want in life, it’s important to listen to your natural instincts, trust your inherent morals, and let your inner compass guide you. In the words of Joni Mitchell, one of my favorite power females, “It all comes down to you.”