John Kelly in the Spotlight
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The first band after intermission was getting situated on stage when I entered the Temple of Doom (a.k.a. the light booth). John Kelly gave me a wave and I took a seat next to him, cringing at the deafening sound of acoustic feedback that momentarily filled the house of the theater. Kelly looks indifferent, proceeding to peel his tangerine without a flinch. He’s probably heard that same screeching sound thousands of times (that’s not hyperbole).
A few days later, in the theater again, with another successful MA show under his belt among countless others, Kelly prepares for the next show. He leads a small army of students up to the catwalk above the theater house to begin suspending his arsenal of lights in a specific and intentional layout, unique to this show because, as Kelly insists, “every show is different. Even if you feel like you’re doing the same kind of thing, every piece is different. Every show is unique.”
With unparalleled ease and finesse, Kelly navigates through always half-chaotic, half-organized shelves, stacked to the ceiling with the equipment he handles almost every day, picking out the desired Source Four Ellipsoidal light. Kelly is the king of the theater building; he knows the ins and outs of every nook and cranny of that place like nobody else. What’s more, Kelly knows MA better than most, having witnessed the school’s evolution and growth from its infancy, as a student, to what we know today, as a teacher, some 30 years later.
“It’s actually hard to separate what’s changed because of the school and what’s changed because of the culture.”
While we sit in the hallway of the theater, John describes what he remembers about his time as a student and about the most significant changes he’s witnessed since then.
“When I was here, in front of one of the old dorm buildings that were just around was the student smoking lounge,” he says.
“The idea of a thing like that happening now – that’s absurd! And that’s not just the school changing, that’s our entire culture changing,” Kelly explains. “I’d say the other change is that there were a lot more private places to just kind of hang out and hide and create your own space. I think the lack of autonomy [today] is kind of a negative.”
It becomes very clear at this point that these ideas of autonomy, independence, and individuality, are very important to Kelly and central to his identity. Anyone who has ever seen Kelly at school can infer these values pretty immediately; most high school teachers don’t wear combat boots, a vest covered in edgy-looking patches, or style their hair into a 2-foot-long braided ponytail, occasionally with a brown fedora on top, but that’s John Kelly. Some say he looks like a punk-rock Indiana Jones, which is not a bad way to describe his Burning-Man-inspired look.
“This vest gets a fair amount of attention. I’m very proud of pretty much every patch, it’s something that has meaning to me,” he says, at which point I ask him to explain the significance of the most eye-catching patch that says, in large white letters, The First Church of the Jerk.
“Jerk Church is a group of friends of mine who are mostly Burning Man people. They just started meeting Sunday afternoons in someone’s backyard. Someone had the idea of just ‘let’s play music’. And it was very non-judgmental, no one is a bad singer, we will not criticize anyone for not knowing how to play their instrument, we’ll just come and do stuff, and it became a regular tradition. It was a really great community and it was kind of church-like.”
Kelly loves this sense of community, especially within the counterculture, which is evident in most of his passions. He spoke in length about his love of the Burning Man festival, which he attends and works at every year with his son, a sacred tradition of theirs. Above all else, what he appreciates most about the annual, artistic gathering in the middle of Black Rock Desert, Nevada, is this same sense of community.
“The top thing [about Burning Man] would definitely be the community of people, just the folks I work with every year, and a lot of them I only see there… It’s definitely the group of people I’m working with and spending time with”.
At this point Kelly becomes a confusing character, cherishing both autonomy and strong community at the same time. His devotion to Burning Man stems from both the communal sense and the “radical responsibility” expected of everyone attending the event, both of which seem to contradict each other. This same contradiction persists elsewhere in his life, but somehow does not seem to serve as an obstacle for him. In terms of his role at Marin Academy, this contradiction manifests in the fact that his work requires solitary time and values individual creative freedom while, simultaneously, is part of a group effort to create something larger than himself: the show.