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SAU alumna Kayla Williamson gets first taste of Tony Awards

Kayla standing in front of Tony Awards sign

In the world of live theatre, the Tony Awards is one of the biggest nights of the year. Broadway’s biggest stars come together to celebrate the musicals and plays that have captivated audiences over their year-long runs. Kayla Williamson ’18 was able to experience the magic of the Tonys firsthand.

While the spotlight was on center stage, Kayla worked behind the scenes that night. From covering celebrities on the red carpet to capturing the various performances and live reactions of Tony Award winners on social media, it was a night to remember for her.

With celebrities like Jake Gyllenhal and Tom Hiddleston in attendance — along with Broadway stars and event hosts Audra McDonald and Leslie Odom Jr. — the magnitude of this year’s Tonys felt more dramatic than usual. Despite this being one of the biggest nights of her career, it didn’t seem like the Tonys were even on Kayla’s radar a few short years ago.

“I was in theatre in high school, but mostly because my friends did it. I didn’t really discover my love for theatre until my freshman year of college.”

The drama club at Spring Arbor University at the time, SAU Hearts Drama, was one of the biggest proponents for her to pursue a career in theatre.

As a student at SAU, Kayla was an assistant for the drama program as well as the editor-in-chief for the student newspaper, The Pulse. Experiences like those helped hone her writing and graphic design skills at SAU before she graduated in 2018 and was inspired to pursue a career in marketing and theatre.

She loved the work she was doing so much that right after graduation, she set her eyes on the home of Broadway.

Kayla at table
Kayla at the American Theatre Wing luncheon celebrating the return of Broadway. Photo Credit: Natalie Powers

Kayla moved to New York for an internship at an advertising agency just three weeks after graduation. In the fall of 2019, she was hired at the American Theatre Wing—a New York-based nonprofit organization that provides financial and educational support to all creatives within theatre and is also the founder of the Tony Awards.

The Tony Awards were planned for summer 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic stunted any in-person opportunities. Like most workplaces, the American Theatre Wing moved to remote work for the past year and a half, so planning a new event date was a consistent challenge.

Part of Kayla’s work on the digital team was providing social media lead-up with CBS, constructing marketing plans and promoting anything they were producing.

She had been anticipating this day for a long time, but when it finally came, she had no time to think about the magnitude and meaning of this celebratory return to live theatre.

“On the day of, it was a lot of running around the theatre—I woke up at 6 A.M. after not sleeping until 3 A.M.; it was a long day, but we were all hyped up on adrenaline!”

Even with famous movie stars and Broadway actors around, Kayla did not have time to react.

“During that time, I was focused on, ‘Okay this is what we’re doing.’ Afterward, I fangirled; I was like, ‘I was six feet away from Tom Hiddleston and Jake Gyllenhall.’ Like what!”

But the night itself meant much more to her than seeing famous actors.

Kayla holding a Tony. Photo Credit: Cindy Ord

“As soon as they started the overture, I started weeping. To see all these actors and dancers who were out of work for nearly two years finally being able to do what they love — to gather in the same space and have this shared experience — it was just so magical.”

Broadway shut down at the start of the pandemic in mid-March 2020. Still, a few off-Broadway shows, mostly outdoor productions, persevered throughout the pandemic by adapting to keep in-person shows alive.

By mid-September of 2021, traditional theatre productions like The Lion King, Hamilton, and Wicked resumed to bolster ticket sales and revenue—but off-Broadway shows had been fully active all summer, which are what Kayla feels are just as intriguing, if not more.

“I think the most rewarding part about doing digital marketing in theatre is getting to promote the stories that are told on stage—not just on Broadway, but also off-Broadway.

“Broadway gets the most exposure and helps promote theatre in general, but the nitty-gritty, thought-provoking shows and stories are happening off-Broadway. Being able to promote that is truly amazing and so important to the sensitivity and culture of theatre.”

The saying “life imitates art” rings true in the world of theatre, considering most productions reflect the time period that they’re in.

Over the past year with racial unrest happening throughout the world, more productions like Thoughts of a Colored Man and Pass Over have been able to highlight the experiences of Black people in America onstage. And that’s part of the hope that Kayla wishes to see in the future of theatre—a “new generation of theatre [that] is more inclusive and diverse,” and that showcases different stories to widen people’s perspectives.

“Theatre is so important to your emotional well-being; it’s important to expand your worldview, to expand perspective. Only having one story can be dangerous to knowing and understanding different sides of a story. You don’t have to agree with them, but it’s helpful to understand them to increase empathy.”

For Kayla, that’s what she loves about her job—getting to experience all these thought-provoking stories and promote them for the American Theatre Wing. From promoting theatre productions to running social media at the Tony Awards, Kayla’s career shows that there’s more to theatre than what’s onstage.