Diego Rivera-Rodriguez thinks back to 2019 when he began his journey at the University of Kansas and for the first time witnessed the theatre and dance department’s iconic season opener tradition.
His freshman self had no idea that he would graduate four years later as the recipient of an award tied to that 65-year tradition, he said.
Faculty and staff in KU’s Department of Theatre & Dance nominated and presented the 2023 KU graduate with the Kilty Kane Award for his “outstanding contributions” to the University Theatre.
Rivera-Rodriguez, a Lawrence local who graduated in May with a degree in Theatre Performance and Film Production, said emotion overcame him when he was presented with the award at the department’s end-of-the-year banquet.
“It definitely took me very much by surprise, but also it was a pretty big moment for me,” Rivera-Rodriguez said. “I really really love the community and the family there and so when they called my name, I definitely started crying. It was a really special moment.”
Rivera-Rodriguez’s love for theatre began during his senior year at Free State High School in Lawrence. He decided to give it a try and the connection stuck, he said.
The award, named after the late Jerome Kilty, who was an American theatre actor, writer and director, the Kilty Kane Award is presented at the conclusion of every school year to a student who is leaving the program after making a lasting impact.
Kilty was the first guest artist to have a leading role in KU’s then-newly built Murphy Hall in 1957, playing Falstaff in a production of “Henry IV, Part 1,” the award webpage says. A cane was brought from Scotland to serve as his personal prop in the production, and it has since been used in his namesake to recognize the contributions students have made to the department.
The “Kilty Kane” bears the name of every past recipient of the award. As tradition, a first-year student is selected out of the crowd at the Theatre & Dance department’s annual Rally and prompted to “tap the kane” three times on the stage, thus officially opening the new season, the webpage says.
Throughout his four years at KU, Rivera-Rodriguez performed in a variety of plays and musicals — like one of his favorites last year, “Everybody,” in which he portrayed one of many characters facing an existential crisis.
His final project in the program was “Cabaret,” and performing felt like a full-circle moment. Becoming increasingly comfortable on stage reaffirmed the path he’s on, he explained.
“There was the ‘Cabaret’ one that was last spring. It was definitely really really special being my last project and then kind of working with the same people that I worked with freshman year, but just to be able to see the growth in myself … I mean, I’d say that was probably one of my favorite projects.”
He also helped direct and edit as part of his film major.
“Working with actors and then also cinematographers just ends up being really fun,” Rivera-Rodriguez said. “And I mean, there’s just some sort of magic that comes alive, especially in the editing room. When something actually comes together like how you envisioned it, nothing really beats that feeling.”
Planning to move to Chicago in about a month to seek a career in acting and film production, Rivera-Rodriguez said he’s already started auditioning for jobs in the Windy City. However, his time growing up in Lawrence and then becoming a Jayhawk is not lost on him.
“I’m just super thankful for KU and all the staff, faculty and people I met there for just being some of the most fun and pleasurable people to work with,” Rivera-Rodriguez said.
Fellow KU Class of 2023 graduate Asher Suski received the Kuhlke Humanitarian Award for humanitarian service to the department, a department news release said. The award is named after KU alum William Kuhlke, who was the very first recipient of the Kilty Kane award in 1958. Including Rivera-Rodriguez and Suski, KU’s Department of Theatre & Dance recognized 59 students for academic merit and contributions to departmental performances at its banquet in May.
Visit the Department of Theatre & Dance’s website to see the full list of award recipients.