With professional acting experience as well as a master of fine arts degree from one of the best actor-training programs in the country, Laurel Koer?ner is finding a home at Tabor College as she completes her first semester as director and assistant professor of theater.
?It?s been good,? Koerner said. ?It?s been kind of a quiet entrance, so I think a lot of students are still finding out about the new people on campus.?
With her predecessor, Judy Harder, directing the fall production of ?Godspell? as the capstone of her 26-year tenure at Tabor, Koerner could ease into her new assignment with the added benefit of having a resource close at hand.
?Judy has been a great mentor already,? Koerner said. ?We had a wonderful experience working on ?Godspell,? where she very warmly welcomed me into that process and gave me some creative responsibility for a couple of the scenes.
?We continue to meet often. She has a lot of insight and a lot of wisdom to share, and is offering it very generously.?
No stranger to small towns, Koerner grew up in Sandborn, Iowa, a town of about 1,400 people.
?If you ask my parents, they would probably say they saw it coming for a long time,? Koerner said of her interest in theater.
?But theater did not have a role for me in my life really until my junior year of high school. Even then, I saw it as a way to improve my stage presence as a singer. I was using theater to train myself to be better at something else.?
A theater scholarship drew Koerner to nearby Dordt College in Sioux City.
?When I got there and saw the level of commitment among that group of people who were participating in theater?a level of professionalism, of intellectual curiosity, passion, creativity?I went, ?Wow, I want to do what they are doing and be what those people are.??
While at Dordt, she met and married Ethan. When they graduated in 2006, both went on to earn master?s degrees in theater at Bow?ling Green State University.
They returned to northwest Iowa, where Laurel taught at Dordt for a year and Ethan taught at Northwestern College.
From there, the couple headed to Los Angles, where Laurel earned a master of fine arts degree from the prestigious California Institute of the Arts.
?It?s an outstanding actor-training program, very interdisciplinary in its perspective,? she said, ?They?ve structured things to make sure the arts are always intersecting each other. So there would be a band practicing in the same area where we would be doing tai chi. It also serves as an art gallery, so all the latest animation students? work would be hanging around you.?
Laurel and Ethan had been living and working professionally in the Dallas, Texas, area for a year when she found out about the opening at Tabor.
?I really wanted to get back to teaching in a Chris?tian context,? she said. ?I applied for a lot of jobs, but the one at Tabor seemed right up my alley.?
For the fall semester, Koerner taught Theater Appreciation with 40 students in two sections, and Acting I class, and an Acting the Song class that she developed herself to support the work happening in the college?s music program.
?I wanted to meet those vocalists in a way that would focus on the performance of the material rather than just vocal technique,? she said.
?That?s been a lot of fun. I have a wide range of students in that class who are working on very different genres of music. It?s great to watch them gain respect for each other?s work as well.?
Koerner said exposure to theater can be helpful for every student, regardless of their career direction.
?Even if you don?t continue to practice it or participate in community theater or educational theater, it gives you skills that you will continue to use for the rest of your life.?
Leading the college?s theater program into a new era will be Koerner?s most public challenge. She wants to be thoughtful about the future.
?I think it?s really important to look at what?s already here and ask what?s valuable, what works, what are the traditions that should be honored,? she said.
?Then, of course, to come in and say, ?What do I begin to do to sort of take it to the next level, and add my own fingerprint???
Koerner said it is important to her that theater takes care of the audience.
?To me that means making offerings, inspiring, stirring, shedding light, giving joy, offering an experience that maybe opens something new for somebody,? she said.
?That includes work that is difficult, but work that is also funny and lighthearted and gives joy can also be complex. I think art should be concerned with truth, and the truth isn?t always beautiful.?
Koerner has already selected the show for the college?s spring production: ?The Glass Menagerie? by Tennessee Williams.
?This is a new one for me,? she said. ?I wanted to do a play that has a relatively small cast size so I could focus on developing the skills of the actors, and go back to the roots of good storytelling?that we don?t necessarily need the big, flashy set and the great lighting to actively and engagingly tell a story. The craft of acting actually does the most to achieve that.?
One advantage Koerner enjoys is access to Ethan?s creative skills. He will be developing the set and lights for the spring show.
In addition to teaching as an adjunct faculty at Tabor, he?s involved in a similar way with the theater programs at Bethel College and Hesston College.
?I really admire his work, and know I can?t do what he does?and he says the same about me,? Koerner said. ?I think that sort of mutual respect means we?re finding ways to use each other?s skill sets to benefit one another?s work.?