About Us

Festival Playhouse is the name of Kalamazoo College’s Theatre Company. We produce three mainstage shows a year, with additional productions featuring work created by our talented students, the Senior Performance Series

Playhouse Front Entrance
The Nelda K. Balch Playhouse (or just The Playhouse) is located at 129 Thompson St. on Kalamazoo College’s campus.

Our Motto: Theatre that is always provocative. Theatre that is always thoughtful.

Our History

Festival Playhouse has a long and proud history. We have always focused on theatre as an educational tool. Festival Playhouse was started by our founding mother, Nelda K. Balch (1914-2011). When she started working for Kalamazoo College in 1954, there was no theatre department. Nelda developed the theatre arts department we know today and created Festival Playhouse as a theatre company.

Festival Playhouse began in 1964 as a summer stock theatre company. We hired professional actors and artists to come work with students during the summer months. Before Dalton and The Playhouse were built, performances were staged on the top floor of Bowen Hall, a building located where the Hicks Student Center now stands. 

Dorothy U. Dalton (1893-1972), our other founding mother, noticed the lack of theatrical spaces on campus and commissioned the Dalton Theatre to be built in the mid-1960’s.

Dorothy was an actress and avid fan of the theatre. It is due to the generous grant from the Dorothy U. Dalton foundation that Festival Playhouse is able to continue doing theatre today.

In the mid-1970’s construction on The Playhouse began. The Playhouse was Michigan’s first thrust stage theatre. Thrust is a stage designed in a way that places the audience on three sides. It was modeled after the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis.

From then on, our founding mother, Nelda K. Balch, began staging shows in The Playhouse. After Nelda retired, the theatre was renamed in her honor. We have staged hundreds of shows on our thrust stage.

We also stage productions in our black box theatre, The Dungeon, as well as the College’s auditorium, The Dorothy U. Dalton Theatre. 

Our Founding Ladies

Nelda K. Balch (July 13, 1916 – May 5, 2011)

Festival Playhouse – the production company of the Department of Theatre – has become a staple of Kalamazoo College due in part to its committed faculty, passionate students, and impressively successful line-up of alumni. But as former Professor of English Conrad Hillberry wrote, “It wasn’t always that way. At first, there was Nelda Balch. Everything else followed.” Nelda K. Balch built the department from the ground up, playing an instrumental role in the construction of Dalton Theatre, The Playhouse, and nurturing a deep artistic relationship with kindred spirit Dorothy U. Dalton that would provide for our first gift establishing “Festival Playhouse” at Kalamazoo College. She carried many titles, including Department Chair, Full Professor, and Founding/Managing Director of Festival Playhouse. Following her retirement in 1981, the Playhouse was renamed the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse in her honor. She continued to teach and direct students for the next four years, and by 1985, Balch had directed and performed in over 200 productions. The Playhouse honored her once more in 1999 by producing the world premiere of her play Return Engagement: A Dorothy Dalton Tribute. Without Balch’s vision of firsts, theatre at Kalamazoo College would not be possible.

Dorothy U. Dalton (October 26, 1890-July 16, 1981)

Dorothy U. Dalton’s passion for theatre stems back from her time as a student at Kalamazoo College, where she starred as Caliban in a production of The Tempest. Following her graduation from Smith College, Dalton continued her passion for the theatre, performing for the Provincetown Players and the Washington Square Players, as well as serving as assistant director for the War Camp Community Services during World War I. When she moved back to Kalamazoo, she became a founding member of the Kalamazoo Civic Players, providing for its development while serving as a board member. In 1958, Dalton and Balch became artistic kindred spirits, each interested in what is now known as “activating theatre” and providing “theatre with a consciousness” that would connect significant and relevant theatre arts with the community. Dalton became an integral partner in the development of the Light Fine Arts Building, the Dalton Theatre, the Dungeon Theatre, and what became the Nelda K. Balch Playhouse. Her dedication to Festival Playhouse continues today in the form of the Dorothy U. Dalton Foundation, continuing to fund the work and the vision of these Kalamazoo Firsts.

Notable Festival Playhouse Alumni

Many people who have done shows on The Playhouse stage have gone on to do great things. Here are just a couple of them:

  • Lisa Kron ’83 – Lisa has written several Broadway shows including Fun Home, Well, and 1.5 Minute Ride. She won the Tony Award for Best Score of a Musical for her work on Fun Home in 2015
  • Steven Yeun ’05 – Steven Yuen is a popular Hollywood actor best known for his work on The Walking Dead (Glenn) and Netflix’s Ojka.
  • Jordan Klepper ’01 – Jordan is known for his political satire on The Daily Show and hosting his own television show Klepper.
  • Joe Tracz ’04 – Joe has written the book for several musicals, including Be More Chill and The Lightning Thief, and has been on the writing team for many films and television shows, such as Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events.

For even more about the work our alumni do, check out our Alumni Page.

Please visit Kalamazoo College’s Archives Page for more information about the history of the department.