The details and nuances of a stage production often go unnoticed, but are some of the most integral pieces in the overall product. At Northwestern, students are encouraged to take part in all aspects of the theatrical ensemble, not just the main roles. For former student Keely Wright-Ogren, this education led her to success in the field of sound design, after she was recently awarded the 2017 Robert E. Cohen Sound Achievement Award from the United States Institute of Theatre Technology (USITT).
Ogren is an Orange City native and originally pursued a major in film at Northwestern. After the major was cut, Ogren continued on with a theatrical emphasis since that area has always been a passion for her.
“I’ve always been interested in working with technology in art. My dad is a computer programmer, and I think I developed my curiosity for how things work from him,” Ogren said. “Growing up in Orange City, and being best friends with the daughter of two NW theatre professors, I was heavily involved in theatre arts and even spent time with the students and faculty of NW’s theatre department as early as my middle school years.”
After switching to an audio-visual work-study student under current professor Drew Schmidt, he encouraged her to continue working in AV technology and incorporate her passion for arts with it. Ogren credits much of her decision to continue on with sound-design and projections with Schmidt’s influence.
Currently, Ogren is studying theater at the University of Idaho, where she has also spent a month studying at the Moscow Art Theater in Moscow, Russia, as well, which is home to theater icons like Anton Chekhov and Konstantin Stanislavksy. During her time in Idaho, Ogren credits Dr. Matt Foss with influencing more of her growth.
“It has been an endless study in what it means to be altruistic and truthful when telling human stories,” Ogren said. “I learned to draw inspiration from the archeologists and anthropologists. The most important question for every production is: How can we work together to dig deep into the earth of text, carefully brush away the dirt from the bones, and find the essence of what makes this story worth telling?”
One of the strengths of NW’s theater department is its ability to encourage work from an ensemble to be valued equally, and Ogren has come to appreciate that value more than any other.
“The metaphor I like to use for this is the concept of potential energy, the energy everything at rest carries within it, waiting for the opportunity to kinetically release,” Ogren said. “To me, the best artists are the ones who are just crackling with this potential energy. When two or more of these artists come together, suddenly you release a kinetic flood of creativity, passion, and hard work, all for the purpose of telling truthful, important human stories.”
As far as her award goes, Ogren is forever grateful for the honor and recognition she has received as a young artist, but she still has the humbling belief that theater is not about a single person
“At the end of the day, this award is not for me to feel proud of my skill or creativity, because theatre is a communal art, and it is done with the humble hard work of many,” Ogren said. “Rather, this award and the others in USITT’s Young Designers & Technicians category are a sign that the older generations of theatre artists believe in and support their early career counterparts.”
As Ogren continues pursuing her career, she hopes to encourage others to consider the importance of the smaller aspects of theater that lend themselves to the whole. Sound design is a nuanced field, and Ogren’s passion for it is clear.
“In order for us to explore the depths of human stories, we must always consider the sounds that we hear and feel,” Ogren said. “It could be music, or the lilting speech pattern of a performer, or even a minute of utter silence; all of these can stir our hearts and tilt our heads.”