Taking Her Stand

By: Mark Tarnacki
kit rivers

Kit Rivers '14 remembers well the first time that she made her older brother laugh.

"When you're the youngest kid of five, you're just trying to get your voice heard. It was the greatest day of my life," she says. Today Rivers is making her voice heard far and wide with frequent starring roles on the McCarthy Arts Center stage and with regular gigs at comedy clubs from Burlington to Boston and New York where she performs her often raw, fearlessly observant and peer-popular comedy act.

Her stand-up career began when she took a chance as a first-year student at the annual St. Mike's winter talent show, mustering nerve to try some original material before hundreds of mostly fellow students. The audience loved her. Ever since, she's been trying out stand-up material in more than 100 dates around New England and the Northeast, including clubs in New York City and Boston, with an eye to making it a career. River plans to move to Chicago after graduation and see if she can make it in the Second City.

Looking back, Rivers is astonished that she ever did that first comedy bit at the campus talent show as a first-year. "In hindsight now, having done standup professionally, I think it's insane what I did – I mean, nobody was saying before that, 'You're so funny!' or 'You should do this!" I just thought, 'I'll make them say it after this! At the time you're oblivious to how bad it could be if it goes bad. Which is probably just as well."

A few months after her St. Mike's talent show triumph, Rivers was working at the summer Playhouse and spotted a poster about a coming standup show at a club in Winooski. "I called and lied, saying I'd been doing standup for a year, so she gave me 10 minutes. Fortunately it went well, and the guy who happened to run Vermont Comedy Club was there and soon I got booked at his club, so that's how it happened."

By her sophomore and junior years, Rivers was spending six nights a week at a comedy club in downtown Burlington, doing shows most Friday and Saturdays.

Kit's love for acting began from her first part in a school skit at age four or five. "I was always searching for an outlet like that. I always loved doing theater, but I felt I never quite got it right until I found standup," she says.

Setting the Stage

Attending Saint Michael's as a theater student was meant to be. From Rivers' family's annual summer visits to Vermont to visit relatives, "I just grew to love Vermont so much as a state and a culture. St. Mike's had the Playhouse that we'd go to and I knew coming in I was going to do theater."

"I grew to love Vermont so much as a state and a culture. St. Mike's had the Playhouse, and I knew coming in that I was going to do theater."

Her eventual close mentor and friend, theater professor Catherine Hurst, took Kit to lunch on her first official campus visit. "We talked and talked, and she's been like my second mom here since," says Kit. "She swooped in, and I made this 1,200-mile leap of faith. I love that about Saint Michael's, as far as the kinds of things that can be a normal and expected thing of your professors, like having dinners with students or continuing conversations outside of class."

Rivers says whether it's at her second home McCarthy Theater or in her residence hall or in a seminar classroom, "I've just never witnessed so many people in one place who are all genuinely invested in helping you."

Her senior capstone project as an Honors Program theater major was to star in the onewoman show, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe by Jane Wagner, made famous by one of Rivers' comedy idols, Lily Tomlin, in the 1980s. It's a deeply challenging piece for any actor, demanding that she be "on" for nearly 90 minutes as 10 or more characters, ranging from a bag lady to a confused teen performance artist to society matrons, disenchanted women's rights activists, an African-American lesbian, and a pair of older grandparents.

For that project, Hurst connected Rivers to Mary Carol Maganzini '78, a Burlington-area alumna, to direct the show, which Rivers produced and performed at the Off Center Theatre in Burlington's Old North End in March. Hurst had high praise for the show: "Kit is not only playing a dozen characters in the production but she is producing the show as well. This production showcases Kit's virtuosity and comedic flair and has provided a stunning display of her talent."

Hurst says it was clear from the first time that Rivers auditioned for a production in 2010 "that she was comfortable making bold choices as an actor. She has a brilliant imagination and a rare gift for humor." Rivers many roles on the Saint Michael's stage include leads in Romeo and Juliet, Crimes of the Heart and The Contrast.

Hurst directed her in two comedies, one at Saint Michael's and the other at Vermont Stage Company. "She easily transitioned from a leading role in an academic production to a leading role at a professional theater," the director says. "Whenever she meets an artistic challenge, she embraces it with technical skill, a critical thought-process, intuitive trust and verve." Their student-mentor role also has extended to co-directing an original play, APPetite, about our obsession with social media, which earned honors from the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. Kit also has been a teaching assistant for Hurst in St. Mike's performance classes "She is a bright, articulate student and a superb acting coach," says Hurst.

Saint Michael's Playhouse Producing Artistic Director Chuck Tobin '80 has been a huge fan, from the very first time he met her when she sought him out as a high school senior touring McCarthy Theater during a visit. "She'd arranged to meet with me to find out about the Playhouse, so she came in my office, sat down, and presented herself with such maturity and enthusiasm and insight that it truly made a lasting impression, as if it was just part of her DNA or something," Tobin says. "It's so clear that she knows what she wants and she knows how to go out and get it, fearlessly."

"It's so clear that she knows what she wants and she knows how to go out and get it, fearlessly." - Chuck Tobin '80

Rivers already was proving herself as performer in the department after just a few months; then she auditioned for Tobin for the musical The Drowsy Chaperone. "She was almost like one of the professionals already in her understanding of the audition process as far as being prepared, giving it your all, and demonstrating she could sing, dance and act. She's an unusual, unique person."

By the time her junior year came around, he says, "it was clear to me that a year or semester abroad would be so beneficial to her because she's like a sponge, and already had gotten so much out of the program here that it just made sense to go to London where they teach and perform theater like nobody's business."

She had an unforgettable time studying theater in London, which she credits to Tobin, who, with his wife, Sarah Carleton '80, a professional actor, strongly urged her to expand her horizons. Taking that advice, she applied for and received a Politi Scholarship through the college to cover the costs of studying abroad. She did plays in London along with taking classes "a couple devised pieces and a role in Dario Fo's Archangels Don't Pay Pinball," she says.

Humor for Good

Rivers makes others laugh, but she takes the college's service ethos seriously. She has used her natural gifts to make a difference where she can, putting on comedy shows to benefit charities. After flooding struck Vermont after Hurricane Irene in 2011 she and some friends did several relief shows in Waterbury. She tailors her material to the audience. "Obviously you won't do the same jokes for a group of college kids that you'll do for a show at Waterbury Legion Hall or something with kids," she says.

Along with her senior project's inspiration Lily Tomlin, Rivers says she likes more cerebral comics like Louis C.K. or Ellen DeGeneres. "I like comics that make points and I try to do that myself. I don't like any art form that doesn't understand its responsibility as an art form," she says.

Tom Rivers '66, Rivers' father, a retired English professor who also taught sailing for 40 years, says "Kit was the best of my kids for sailing – that girl is fearless. I could send her up a 60-foot mast and she wouldn't blink."

He thinks Kit's fearlessness comes in handy in her standup comedy now, and that the frequent roughness of her comedy is akin to, say, a Don Rickles, who becomes the vulgar personae being lampooned in order to make a point about the culture. "We have this Rivers sense of humor that's sometimes hard for people to deal with," he says. It's influenced, he thinks, by generations growing up "in an Irish milieu, amid working Italians, French or other immigrant groups, often in a despairing time. But always, too, there was lots of laughter."

- Mark Tarnacki

Learn What Matters