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Team Member Spotlight On Keith Gerchak

Article title image that includes the "Team Member Spotlight" logo that has a theatrical par light for the "o" in spotlight and a featured image of Keith's head shot.

Written by Alex Hargis from an interview with Keith Gerchak

For today's team member spotlight, we sat down with Keith Gerchak and chatted about "Lost and Found in Cleveland," the joys of Thanksgiving dinner, and the satisfaction of seeing long-term projects come to fruition. Keith also provided insight into the power of entertainment to unite us and shared a story to rival all stories about his childhood teacher, Mrs. Gibbons, and how she set him on the path to where he is today.


What do you do at TheatreDNA?

I’m the room designer and planner, meaning I interact with the design architect to shape, plan and configure the performance space and create architectural detailing such as the stage floor construction, seating design, sightlines, and items of that nature as they pertain to the performance space. In a way, I’m like an architectural liaison; or as Michael would describe it, I’m the architainer. And, being a registered architect, I can speak the language with design architects as we’re working through room design, which is very helpful when coming up with the layouts of these highly nuanced facilities.


Have you always wanted to be in theatre consulting?

Well, the way I came about this industry is how most do…by falling into it. I had just moved to New York from Cleveland as a stage actor and was wrapping up a national tour when I got an opportunity to interview for a theatre consulting firm in New England. I took the train from Grand Central and went off the unemployment line two hours later. They said, “You’re hired!” I said, “Great!” And that’s about the time I then met Michael Ferguson and Michael Nishball who already worked at the firm. I believe they introduced themselves as “Big Michael” and “Little Michael.”


So, when did the theatre bug first get you?

It all happened in the blizzard of 1977-78, in Mrs. Gibbons' second-grade class. My mom took me to school one day without realizing that it had shut down due to the weather. Oblivious to the unplowed parking lots and the continuing snowfall, she dropped me off and left. I knocked on the school door, fully expecting it to remain shut. But out of divine intervention, Mrs. Gibbons had decided to come to school anyway so she could catch up on work. She took me in and gave me small assignments periodically throughout the day, checking on me now and then. During that winter lock-in, she helped me discover that I liked to draw, to write, and to perform. And for the rest of that year, I would write her stories for extra credit and make illustrations for homes and other building types. I still have many of these writings and sketches in a yellow-bound binder. During recess, Mrs. Gibbons would have me stand on milk crates and sing the only two songs I knew, which were “High Hopes” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On the Bedpost Overnight.” She would bring in other teachers to watch this three-foot-tall kid sing his heart out each day. And so, it was that snowy day that set me on all my different career paths of architecture, acting, writing, and filmmaking.

A two image collage that includes a photo of Mrs. Gibbons, a middle-aged caucasian woman with short curly brown hair, and a children's drawing of a house on construction paper.
Mrs. Gibbons / Keith's Earliest Architectural Drawing

That’s one of the most endearing origin stories we’ve heard while doing these interviews. Did Mrs. Gibbons ever get to see you perform professionally?

You know, I’m not sure. But one day I received a message about Mrs. Gibbons’ failing health from her nephew, Rory O’Malley (He also went on to be a stage actor and a Tony award nominee) So I wrote a letter that said, “Once upon a time there was a little boy in the blizzard of 1978. And there was this very kind teacher who found out he liked to draw, and to write, and to sing. And thanks to her, that little boy grew up to become an architect, and a screenwriter, and an actor. And that little boy was me, and that teacher was you.”


She read it right before she died. That endeared me to the family and them to me. We've had a bond that will never go away…but that was where it all started.


What would come next for the young Keith Gerchak?

I became a child actor at the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square. And I remember when we would have to travel cross-country with my parents, I found myself sketching buildings from the backseat, sparking a newfound interest in architecture. I eventually co-founded my own theatre company at Playhouse Square alongside my work as an architect in Cleveland. I became a director of two different design firms and Playhouse Square, where I once performed, became one of my clients.

Two photographs of Keith as a youth actor in the musical "Peter Pan". Keith is looking to the sky while Wendy fondly looks out the window.

When did you make the shift, and what facet of the theatre world did you gravitate towards?

At 30, I had a six-month fever that stumped doctors despite numerous tests—blood tests, EKGs, CAT scans—nothing physically wrong. Then, my doctor proposed the idea that I might be on the wrong path in life. This idea was further confirmed by a conversation I had with a family friend shortly after. I confessed I once dreamed of a full-time career in entertainment, not just design. She questioned why I wasn't pursuing it, and this stuck with me until I eventually took the leap. I rented out my house in Cleveland, quit my job, and moved to New York. Transitioning to theater consulting allowed me to focus solely on creative design. I get to truly bask in the thrill of the creative design process, which I must admit makes me the happiest professionally because I just get to do the parts that I love.


Where did you go to school to learn your craft?

I earned my Master's Degree in Architecture at Tulane. Simultaneously, I also took theater classes.


In architecture school did you have a favorite subject or a program focus?

In architecture school, my favorite subjects were studio and architectural history. I even served as a teaching assistant for architectural history courses. Studio was particularly enjoyable because it was a social experiment as well as a learning experience. Pulling all-nighters, collaborating with peers, and defending design choices in critiques fostered critical thinking and personal growth. It was unlike anything else I had experienced before and defined my college years.


And what did your experience look like after you got through school?

After obtaining your degree, you typically enter an apprenticeship, where you work for three years before becoming eligible to take the licensing exam. I actually became a registered architect 25 years ago – last year.


Well, happy archiversary!



Where did you begin your career?

There were three firms. But they were all run by '60s early modernists in Cleveland: Bill Morris, Jack Bialosky, Sr., and Piet Van Dijk. First Bill, who I worked for during the summers, was a residential architect and sole practitioner. Then Jack, or Mr. B as we affectionately called him, did a broad range of building types, where I rose within the ranks to become the institutional studio director. Finally, Piet specialized in performing arts projects.

A two image collage of Keith right out of college working in an architect's office. In one photo Keith is wearing a light denim blue collared shirt and leaning over a drafting table studying drawings.

Who are the people who have had the biggest impact on your perspective and approach to this work? The people that have helped shape you into who and what you are today?

The three individuals who had the most profound impact on my perspective and approach to this work were Bill, Mr. B, and Piet. Bill was a remarkable influence on me. Despite his physical challenges, he was a visionary thinker, crafting innovative concepts like wrapping a baseball field with apartments and hotels and fostering vibrant streetscapes. His expertise in room planning and critical thinking left a lasting impact. Then there's Mr. B, a true showman with a knack for engaging presentations. He trusted me with significant responsibilities early in my career, providing invaluable support and guidance when I felt in over my head. I remember him vividly for how he threw me in the deep more times than I could count, but never so far out that I would drown. Lastly, Piet taught me the iterative nature of design through his unconventional yet effective approach. His methodical tinkering and emphasis on building upon previous work shaped my understanding of the design process. So, there was something to be gleaned from each one of the three people who mentored me, and I think I'm the architect and the designer that I am today because of what I learned from those three.

A three image panel of Keith's three architect mentors. All three mentors are elderly caucasian men dressed in professional attire.
Left to Right: Bill Morris, Jack Bialosky Sr., Piet Van Dijk

Was there that lightning bolt moment where you kind of just stood in front of something architectural or witnessed something theatrically that hit you and made you realize you wanted to do this professionally?

I think it was Mrs. Gibbons. I think that day- that's the lightning bolt for me.


What do you think is the most important trait or skill for what we do?

Critical thinking is really what architectural training is supposed to be about. They call it crits. It's the critiques that when we have spent the last four to six weeks in a design process in the studio, pulling all-nighters based on a program that we're handling, we then have to stand in front of a jury and defend our choices. That is what I do every day, you know- critical thinking to come up with solutions based on the program. You have to have a sense of curiosity, of follow-through, you have to have a sense of attention to detail. But also creativity in the micro and the macro at the same time. It's the subjective and the objective at the same time. And again, it is an iterative process- design. It's like rehearsal for performance. Or, it's like writing a script or editing a film. Design is an iterative, creative process. And it requires all of those attributes.


That's interesting. Lars, our principal of theatrical equipment design, had a very similar response to this question. He specifically used the word “iterative”. It’s not ‘design something with two doors and four walls then call it done.’ It has to go many layers deeper.

There's something about using onion skin, the layering of sheets of paper as you are sketching out the iterative process of the design solutions. That is design. That's why onion skin works so well. That's how I design. I don't design in CAD. I have to have pen to paper.

A top-down view of Keith's worktable, which includes numerous drawings and translucent sketch sheets, pens, a scale rule, and a calculator.

What is the project that you have enjoyed working on the most?

Choosing a favorite project is tough, like picking a favorite child. However, the Musco Center for the Arts at Chapman University holds a special place for me. There's also a church in Hudson, Ohio that was a huge undertaking in my 20s, managing everything from design to zoning meetings. Both projects hold fond memories, but the experience of working at the Musco Center with Pfieffer Partners, particularly as a theater consultant, stands out.

A three image panel featuring finished architectural photos of the auditorium of the Musco Center for the Arts. One image is a view from the house looking at the stage. Another image is the viewpoint backstage. And the last image is taken from the stage looking out into the audience.

Is there a project that you've looked at and you just kind of marvel at what it must’ve taken to pull that off?

I mean, the only building that has ever left me completely gobsmacked was the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It's a stroke of genius, unlike anything I have ever seen. I was inside for probably six hours, just taking it all in. I took videos everywhere I went; every spot—every 10 feet—offered a different vantage point and a completely different landscape. There's so much happening in that building; it's a little mind-blowing.


What’s one artist, living or gone, that you would want to talk to over coffee?

I'd love to sit down for coffee with the three architects who mentored me, especially since they've all passed away. It's been 20 years since I last saw them, and I'd cherish the opportunity to hear their stories again and share my own experiences with them all on this side of the table.


What’s the most important thing you’ve learned in your career?

Two key points come to mind. Firstly, aim to be a well-rounded individual. This depth of experience and understanding allows for more insightful and empathetic design solutions. Listening is just as crucial as speaking in this process. Secondly, a valuable piece of advice I received was from Mr. B on my first day of work. He shared a story emphasizing the importance of gathering all the facts before reacting. This wisdom has proven invaluable both professionally and personally, reminding me that things are seldom as dire as they may initially seem.


How do you think our industry, in its little way, can make the world a better place?

From my perspective as a screenwriter, entertainment serves as a powerful tool to remind us of our common humanity. Throughout history, during times of struggle like World War II and the Great Depression, entertainment has united us despite our differences. Instead of dividing, it brings us together. I prefer to see entertainment not as escapism, but as a unifying force.


Okay, left turn. We're going to get off of the professional stuff, and I want to get a little snapshot of your culinary identity.

My what?!


Your culinary identity.

Culinary…Oh God. Okay (laughs nervously)


What's your go-to comfort food?

Thanksgiving dinner. Yeah. I could do Thanksgiving dinner all year long. Turkey, gravy and stuffing (Gluten-free, of course). Cranberry sauce straight out of the can. Sweet potato casserole. Green beans-au-gratin and a glass of wine. Yeah, I could do it every day.


Now oddly enough, when you were rattling off all the different dishes at Thanksgiving, I don't think I heard anything sweet.

I'm not big on dessert. Yeah, I never had a sweet tooth.


I wish I could say the same.

(both laughing)


What makes you happy lately? How do you spend your free time?

Working on distribution for the film I co-wrote, produced, and directed, "Lost & Found in Cleveland." It's incredibly satisfying to see it come to life after 10 years. The premise of the film embodies the American Dream. Much like "Antiques Roadshow," where everyone has a captivating story to share, it's about giving people a platform to tell their tales, highlighting the significance of each individual's dreams and experiences.

A two image panel of Keith's filmmaking experience. The image on left is Keith on set giving director notes to Martin Sheen. The photo on the right is Keith in a tuxedo and posing for a red carpet function.


That’s a beautiful answer.


You may already have this in the pipeline. But if not, then you're welcome for this free amazing advice. The story about that little boy in a blizzard with his teacher sounds like a great story to be told.

Thank you.


Yeah, I could see you writing, directing, and starring in that one.

(both laughing)


As we wrap up this insightful Q&A session, we hope it has shed light on our team's dedication and passion for theatre consulting and design. But remember, our ensemble extends beyond just those featured here. To truly understand the depth of our collective vision and expertise, we invite you to meet the rest of our talented team.

Discover their stories, experiences, and contributions on our "About Us" page at


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