Friend crush: Katy Nahra, Ann Rocarek and Christian Aanestad

A behind the scenes look into the friendship of Theatre West directors Katy Nahra, Ann Rocarek and Christian Aanestad.

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Courtesy of Katy Nahra

Katy Nahra, Ann Rocarek and Christian Aanestad pose in front of a sheet stained with fake blood after the 2019 spring musical, "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street."

In the morning, the three meet for coffee ahead of their busy days. At lunch, they are gathered around the dining table in room 102, definitely not gossiping about their students. In the evenings, they can be found in the auditorium blocking scenes, building set pieces and planning for the upcoming production. This is just an average day for the iconic trio of Theatre West directors made up of art teacher Christian Aanestad and English teachers Katy Nahra and Ann Rocarek. 

In the summer of 2018, just months out from the upcoming production of “Miracle on 34th Street,” Theatre West was in dire need of a technical director. Sitting at Bluebird Diner discussing the issue, Rocarek asked Nahra who she would choose to fill the empty position if she could pick anybody. Enter stage left: Aanestad. He was the perfect match for the position, whether he knew it yet or not. 

“I didn’t feel like I was qualified,” Aanestad said. “I’m still not actually, technically qualified. I didn’t know how to run a lightboard. I didn’t know how to run a soundboard. I didn’t know how any of it worked.”

He agreed to take the position with the understanding that it would be a temporary arrangement and that he would do the job while they looked for someone else. Afterall, Aanestad had never worked in the theater before. He called auditions “tryouts,” rehearsals “practices” and intermission “half-time.” 

In hindsight, I think I was looking for a new creative outlet artistically, and I didn’t realize that this could be it.”

— Christian Aanestad

However, Nahra’s unexpected pitch came to Aanestad at an opportune time for him. 

“In hindsight, I think I was looking for a new creative outlet artistically, and I didn’t realize that this could be it,” Aanestad said. 

And so the first act began, three teachers at West High would soon become the best of friends, each of them play a vital role in the other two’s lives, in and outside of the theater. 

Nahra and Rocarek’s families are close in both a literal and figurative sense. They live near each other, and sometimes people even think they live together because they refer to their area as where “we live” and their children as “our kids.” The two have supported each other as colleagues and fellow parents by balancing their workload among each other. 

“It got to the point where we said if we’re going to keep doing this, we can’t burn out … So, Ro was kind enough to offer to do a show when I was on maternity leave with [my son] Charley. It went really well,” Nahra said. “And then I think she got the bug for [directing] too and was like, ‘Actually I really enjoy the creative process and doing all this’ so we said, ‘Well why don’t we each take a show, but instead of one of us always doing a musical or something we just flip flop every year?’”

Besides Rocarek taking the directing role in “West Side Story” during Nahra’s maternity leave, the two started their alternating director plan for the fall play in 2018. When one of them is directing the actors, the other is the production director. Meanwhile, Aanestad keeps track of all the tech crews working behind the scenes. They all balance the stress and responsibility of putting on shows with each other.

There’s always one of us that is stable. We’re always allowed to have freak outs, but out of the three of us somebody has to be stable. And it’s funny how it changes.”

— Katy Nahra

“There’s always one of us that is stable. We’re always allowed to have freak outs, but out of the three of us somebody has to be stable. And it’s funny how it changes,” Nahra said.

“If a run is stressful, I can’t relax until I figure out why. I think the best thing about our team is that we don’t stop until it is done right,” Rocarek said. “We just keep making changes until it runs smoothly.” 

Throughout the course of a show, there can be many stressful situations, especially as the show nears with tech weeks and set build days making for long amounts of time spent in the auditorium. In order to prepare for big days like these, the group tries to find a way to spend some time relaxing together.

“Meeting for coffee in the morning has become a tradition for us. It’s a nice way to gear up for what are usually very chaotic and challenging days, especially when we are in the middle of a show,” Rocarek said.

If there ever are instances where it becomes too stressful or one of the three cannot be around for any number of reasons, the other two take everything into their hands, no questions asked. Being able to work with friends like that is one of their favorite parts of the job.

“You can just walk away and know that it’ll be taken care of and know that there’s no hard feelings about it,” Aanestad said.

They support each other in the important moments — both the devastating times and the joyful ones.

“When my mom was sick and I had to just get out of here for a couple months, Ro took everything over,” Nahra said. “I [didn’t] have to worry about anything. And when she [had] her baby or when I had my baby, you know, you just take care of each other.”

Our kids talk a lot about Theatre West being a family and, as cheesy as it sounds, it is true for the directors as well.”

— Ann Rocarek

The support they share for each other and everyone involved is essential to each show and the only way for it to run smoothly. Additionally, Aanestad believes the three of them being teachers makes them better directors. This component of teaching is something all three try very hard to implement in the theater program. Aanestad is looking forward to seeing students he had on crews as freshmen taking on leadership roles and sharing the skills he taught them. 

“The key is to get it passed down. That’s one of my goals,” Aanestad said.

The sense of community and learning that Theatre West exemplifies is one reason many students feel welcome and comfortable in the program.

“Our kids talk a lot about Theatre West being a family and, as cheesy as it sounds, it is true for the directors as well,” Rocarek said. “There are times during a production that I am at school more than I am at home, so I don’t think I would keep doing this job if I didn’t love working with these people.”

Nahra and Rocarek are both only children, but have become sisters to each other. Now they have found a brother in Aanestad. They joke like siblings too, Aanestad even teased that he is still just filling in while they look for someone else to take the job.

“I think we’re still on that temporary status. I think we’re still looking,” he said.

Nahra refuted, “No, we’re not.”