Kristin McLaughlin Mitchell is Helping Transform West Chester's Theater Scene
The founder and artistic director of the Resident Theatre Company made it her mission to bring Broadway to the borough.
Kristin McLaughlin Mitchell has been on a mission to bring Broadway to West Chester. This September, her tireless work comes to fruition as the Resident Theatre Company launches its first full season.
A New York native, Mitchell spent most of her life on or around the stage—a love cultivated at an early age by her parents. At age 7, she was accepted into the School of American Ballet. As the years progressed, Mitchell was asked to commit full time. Instead, she hung up her slippers and returned to high school, where she began pursuing musical theater. “It really worked out great because I had the ballet technique that helped me be a theater dancer, and then was an actor and a singer, as well,” she says.
After college, where she studied musical theater, Mitchell returned to New York to work as an actor, singer and dancer, eventually breaking into directing. Over the years, she’s been involved in the production of Avenue Q, The Music Man, Bye Bye Birdie and Beauty and the Beast, among others. Landing a directing gig with Broadway’s Lend Me a Tenor alongside Emmy-winning actor Stanley Tucci proved significant. “That was kind of the turning point of my career, in terms of going from being an actor to being a full-time director,” says Mitchell, who then took directing roles all over the country. “I realized that my entire trajectory throughout those years had really led me to directing, even though that hadn’t been my goal initially.”
All of that made her want to start her own theater company. In 2013, she moved to West Chester to be with her future husband. The pair had a chance meeting earlier in New York, one in a series of serendipitous events. Shortly after relocating, Mitchell discovered that West Chester’s Uptown! Entertainment Alliance was looking to create a multiuse performance space, ultimately landing on the old armory on North High Street. It seemed she’d found a potential home for her percolating idea.
Mitchell knew her concept had to be different enough to attract an audience, so she decided to play to her strengths. Her goal became importing Broadway, particularly New York actors, designers and crew members. “Everyone is competing for the same live-entertainment dollar and patronage,” says Bob Lohrmann, a former actor at People’s Light in Malvern and the current resident director of Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. “Some other places in the area do original programming and develop new plays, which is wonderful, but Kristin had a specific vision about her experience in New York and bringing that to West Chester.”
In 2014, she approached Uptown!, where her ideas were met with enthusiasm. “It was lining up. It was all falling in my lap. I just couldn’t ignore that,” Mitchell says.
Though it lined up perfectly, there was ample work to do. While it was a one-woman show at the onset—and for much of the time thereafter —Mitchell soon found herself with some help. Mark Allen, the director of academics at the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School and the founder and director of its Center for Performing and Fine Arts, along with Lohrmann and five others, joined RTC’s advisory board to bat around ideas, confident in Mitchell’s ability to make it possible. “She approaches things from the standpoint of an actor and a performer, so she has that sensitivity. But from her work as a director, she also has a big-picture outlook. It’s really hard to find people who have both,” says Allen.
Over the course of several years, they chipped away at the mission and raised funds. “Professional theater is more expensive than people realize. We’re doing these shows at a level where we are committed to pay all of our actors a living wage and our designers fees that they would get in other professional theaters,” Mitchell says. “We’re really trying to court people who have Broadway résumés.”
Donors proved willing to make that vision a reality. Around 50 people joined the company’s Founders Club, donating $5,000 each. It’s a testament to both Mitchell’s vision and her effervescent personality. “She’s just one of those people that everybody is drawn to. She has that charisma, a magnetic personality,” says Allen.
The work didn’t end there. While the Uptown! Knauer Performing Arts Center was being built, Mitchell and RTC put on multiple performances in smaller spaces. The first full-length show, Spamalot, debuted this past spring. Early reactions to the Broadway concept were overwhelmingly positive. “People respond to quality, to excellence, to talent. All of those things are the hallmark of what RTC is all about,” says Lohrmann. “Kristin was bringing people in from New York—these young, talented singers and dancers—and let them loose. People’s jaws would drop open at the level of talent that was bracing the itty-bitty stage.”
They hope that buzz will carry through the fall, when RTC kicks off its three-show debut season. Next to Normal will be the first RTC show to grace the intimate 14-row Uptown! theater—which still smells of new carpet—at the end of September. In December, it will follow up with a holiday favorite that has a twist, A Christmas Carol: A Live Radio Play. To close the season in late March, RTC will take on Woody Allen’s Bullets Over Broadway. “I think it’s a really good season. There are some challenges that will expand the audience’s sensibilities about music and musical theater, and yet there are some things that are surefire,” says Lohrmann. “I think everybody is going to have a good time. I know that the quality is going to be top-notch.”
Mitchell hopes the variety will whet audiences’ palates and help her gauge what types of theater they like most so she can gear future seasons, at least partially, to those sensibilities. She would also like to expand the offerings, including a five-show season and children’s theater. And she’s looking to grow her Rising Star program for teens who want to pursue careers in performing arts.
The past few years have been a whirlwind for Mitchell, and she’s excited to finally see her efforts pay off. “It’s been an amazing process. I’m busier than I’ve ever been in my life,” she says. “It’s definitely a labor of love.”