Thumbnail graphic by Kim Jao / North by Northwestern

Austin Kelly is no asshole.

But the Communication second-year got plenty of practice playing one in a workshop for Dracula: A Feminist Revenge Fantasy, Really, written by Kate Hamill. For 17 hours in just one week, Kelly got too little sleep, discovered what he joked was the “secret 25th hour” and pretended to be a blood-sucking maniac being hunted down in this feminist retelling of Bram Stoker’s classic tale.

The workshop, which took place Sept. 25-26, 28 and 30, was what director Jasmine B. Gunter calls an exercise in “physical dramaturgy.” Kelly, along with several other Northwestern undergraduates, worked through the play scene by scene, first reading and discussing, then working on their feet.

“I got so attached to this play because it’s really, really, really, really fun to pretend to be a vampire,” Kelly said. “I’m always typecast as an asshole and a man. You put two and two together.”

Gunter, the Master of Fine Arts student who will be directing Dracula, handpicked the students for the small workshop. She said some of the students were ones she had worked with before, while others, like Kelly, she’d seen in auditions.

After working through scenes, Gunter would ask the students to share their thoughts on her process and the scene’s progress. She said that she appreciated Austin’s feedback and dedication.

“Austin was one of the most honest actors in that bunch,” Gunter said. “What I really enjoyed about Austin in that workshop, [was] not only his honest feedback, but also he was willing to push himself to really delve into the work.”

The play, which will be performed in Feb. 2024, is part of the 2023-2024 Virginia Wadsworth Wirtz Center (Wirtz) season. Each quarter, students have the opportunity to do general auditions for both Student Theater Coalition (StuCo) and Wirtz shows. Winter general auditions for Wirtz were held on Oct. 21-22.

Kelly said it can be difficult to get cast in shows due to the tough competition for roles, but said one thing that has helped him is branching out from just being an actor. He’s also a member of The Titanic Players improv group and Playing With Fire, a group that focuses on playback theater.

“I’ve been consistently auditioning. I’ve been getting callbacks. I just haven’t been getting the role,” Kelly said. “Being a part of groups has helped so much because I’ve had a way to consistently create art no matter how much I’ve been auditioning.”

Kelly described the workshop as an empowering experience and a reminder that he is an Actor with a capital A. Although he is a theatre major, a lot of his performance experience at Northwestern has been through his extracurriculars and writing.

Last year, while in a playwriting course, Kelly wrote a play about twin brothers. As part of his research, he interviewed his fellow Titanic Player, Kieran Mulligan.

“He’s a brilliant writer,” said Mulligan, a Communication second-year. “As a [first-year], he got his play put on by the Agnes Nixon Play Festival, which is crazy. That doesn’t happen, and it did.”

Mulligan emphasized how caring Kelly, a twin himself, was throughout the interview process to make sure that he was comfortable with the questions. He described Kelly as someone who always makes intentional choices, especially with his comedy.

Gunter also noted how thoughtful and committed Kelly is, especially as they worked together in the Dracula workshop. She said it was important for her to cast a kind, genuine person to play the villain.

“Austin is the perfect example of ‘I can play this character but at the end of the day, I am not this character,’” Gunter said. “He’s so keen, he’s so observant and you can tell that he cares a lot about the people in the room.”

Kelly said he grew as an actor during the workshop, but he enjoys comedic performances more. He emphasized the importance of the balance between funny and serious.

“If I am doing too much dramatic work or comedic work, I kind of get stuck in those worlds,” Kelly said. “One of the biggest things I advocate for in theater is a balancing of both. You have to have drama for comedy to be funny. You have to have comedy for drama to be dramatic. There needs to be both.”

Kelly said the Northwestern theater bubble can be intense, but that fundamentally, his theater journey is about him. If he doesn’t do theater for a while, he said he goes into withdrawal.

“I’ve had periods where I don’t write anything. I don’t write comedy, I don’t write plays, I’m not performing,” Kelly said. “I get anxious, I get depressed. I don’t know why. It’s partially an obsession, it’s partially I love it, it’s partially self-hatred because I know I’m not going to make any money, it’s partially constantly using that joke. I can’t not do it.”

Kelly said theater made him the person he is today. He said he loves having a million outlets in theater because it helps him approach storytelling, and himself, differently.

“It’s really just a prolonged exercise in empathy for whatever you’re doing in theater,” Kelly said. “As much as you’re analyzing a character or script or designing something, you’re analyzing other people, but you’re also constantly analyzing yourself.”