For Geoffrey Kershner, the beginning of Endstation Theatre Company marked an ending of sorts as well. After years of traveling as a graduate student with Florida State University’s School of Theatre, he—along with fellow MFA student Krista Franco—went to Germany and toured theatres across the country. Franco, who is Endstation’s production manager and scenic designer, recalls seeing a modern adaptation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” and feeling “moved to make theatre that I could creatively invest new ideas into.”
This and other shows and theatres in Germany inspired the two students to form their own company, and upon seeing a production called “Endstation America” in Berlin, Kershner had the name: Endstation Theatre Company.
“The name [Endstation] is the final stop on a train line,” Kershner says.
“In founding Endstation, I returned to my home in Virginia to create theatre. With home being my final destination, after a number of years of travel, the name felt appropriate.”
Thus, Endstation Theatre Company was born in Amherst County.
A decade later, Endstation is delivering high-caliber, groundbreaking productions to large audiences every summer.
Like the best plays, Endstation’s story is dynamic, replete with successes, challenges and myriad changes—many of which took place in the early part of 2015.
Last year’s temporary closing of Sweet Briar College, which had been Endstation’s home since 2006, was an unforeseen obstacle for the company and for Kershner personally. “It was terrible initially,” he says. “Sweet Briar is where I grew up, and my father is a professor there. At first, it was personal because my father lost his job. The Sweet Briar home had also been essential to the company.” Despite the setback, however, Endstation quickly found a new home at Randolph College. “For Endstation, [the temporary closing] escalated a relationship with Lynchburg,” Kershner notes. “The company had been doing more and more work in Lynchburg because our largest audience base was in the city.
When the closure happened, we quickly mobilized to keep the company in a safe spot. Randolph College stepping up to support us during that time was huge. I think a Lynchburg home is an exciting venture, and I am excited for a new chapter at Randolph College.”
Kershner was named Executive Director of the Academy Center of the Arts in May 2015, but he remains an Endstation board member and hopes to direct for the company again. During his time as artistic director at Endstation, Kershner saw the company grow due to their focus on community. “We were always very interested in our specific community and how theatrical activity would excite and inspire this particular audience in Central Virginia,” he remarks.
“From this, our focus on ‘theatre of place’ was born. Our work was inspired by the location. Whether it was the site-specific work or creating original work inspired by local history or lore, we always started with this area as inspiration for our work.
The landscape, the history and the people are incredible for theatrical creation.”
Kershner recalls his work on Endstation’s 2011 production of “Hamlet” with particular fondness: “Making that work was an inventive and truly collaborative process and was also profoundly personal.
Walter Kmiec, Endstation’s new artistic director, was Hamlet. [The play] deals directly with mortality in a profound way in this play. Walter had lost his mother that year and the performance he gave remains the highlight of my directing experiences. His performance was deeply personal, selfless, dynamic, raw and moving beyond words.”
Kmiec and Kershner met at Florida State University (FSU) in 2004, and when casting Endstation’s first show in 2006, Kershner gave Kmiec a call. Since then, Kmiec has worked as an actor, writer, and director at Endstation before becoming artistic director last year. He cites Hamlet as his favorite role as an actor, calling it a “dream role” that was very personal due to his mother’s death. As a director, his favorite production to work on has been “The Two Gentlemen of Virginia.”
“I enjoyed working on ‘The Two Gentlemen of Virginia’ because I had co-written the show, and I had the original idea,” Kmiec says.
“I sometimes worried during the creative process that people would stop coming to our shows if I did a terrible job, which I think is just part of the anxiety of being an artist. The fact that it did well means a lot to me, and I consider it one of my personal highlights.”
In his role as artistic director, Kmiec wants to continue honoring and advancing communities across central Virginia. “Perhaps my main goal as artistic director is maintaining the artistic integrity of the company while expanding our reach in the community,” he remarks.
“Endstation has always considered itself a company that is community-centered, and my goals for the company very much reflect that stance. I want us to be engaged in the community in all aspects where theatre is concerned: education, entertainment and cultural ecology. We, as artists, should be helping to bring the community together however we can. Our work should promote discourse that helps advance the community while also helping them at times to step away from the daily grind; achieving both is what I strive for.”
Kmiec also hopes to see continued growth and change for Endstation in the coming years. “I want us to become regular fixtures at major community events, to become partners in city-wide initiatives, and to be a place where people can come to use theatre as a means of personal and community growth,” he says.
“I want to expand our presence beyond the summer, producing shows during the holiday season or taking shows on tour to schools and community organizations. I would like to see Endstation become a household name in Lynchburg and Amherst.”
A few months before Kmiec was named artistic director, Katie Cassidy was named Endstation’s managing director.
Like Kershner, Franco, and Kmiec, Cassidy also received her MFA at FSU, where she first heard about Endstation. She worked as a stage manager for Endstation’s productions of “Our Town” and “In Sweet Remembrance” in 2014 before becoming Kershner’s assistant and subsequently managing director.
Cassidy, like her colleagues, cites Endstation’s commitment to the Lynchburg and surrounding communities as a major source of the company’s growth and success.
“I think our mission to strengthen our community through the theatrical exploration of its people, its landscape and its history has really resonated with our audience,” she says.
“Whether it’s Thomas Jefferson and James Madison portraying 80s rock stars in ‘The Two Gentlemen of Virginia’ or exploring the class divide in Lynchburg at the Texas Inn in ‘Counter/Top,’ our Community-Centered New Works program has given central Virginia 10 new works in our company’s history. Our theatre is so community-focused, I don’t know how we could have done it anywhere else.”
As managing director, Cassidy strives to collaborate with other organizations to build an arts community. “As a rising tide lifts all boats, Endstation believes a strong and supported arts community can only improve all organizations in the region,” she notes. “For example, Endstation Theatre Company produced their first production outside of the summer season in February 2016 bringing ‘The Whole Bunch’ to schools around the central Virginia area. ‘The Whole Bunch’ is a new work based on educating Lynchburg elementary schools on the importance of healthy eating. Endstation’s production visited 16 schools, performing 18 shows in 10 days plus four public performances on Randolph College’s campus. We reached over 4,500 students in two weeks of touring.”
In its 10 year history, Endstation Theatre Company has thrived on change, and it will continue to do so in the future, but one thing remains constant: the strong camaraderie of its team.
“The artists, the team: I love them so much,” Kershner says. “They gave me the best nine years of my creative life, and none of our work would have been possible without so many selfless, gifted and dynamic individuals.”
“If I didn’t love the people I get to work with, I wouldn’t be a part of the organization anymore,” Franco remarks. “The designers, directors, performers, and staff I get to work with each year are truly amazing collaborators who help Endstation produce the high quality work that we do.”
“I’m incredibly lucky to be working with such amazing people,” Kmiec says. “The Endstation family is still strong after all these years, and I’m excited to see how that family grows and adapts in the coming years.”
“We really do love each other and the work we create, and I think that shows in our productions,” Cassidy says. “Theatre is such a collaborative art that if you can find a group of people who you love and want to make art with, it’s such a wonderful thing. I am so lucky to work here.”
By Emily Hedrick