The University of Massachusetts Amherst
University of Massachusetts Amherst

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Not Just Another Song-and-Dance Man

Chemical engineering junior Kevin Cunningham might be a veteran thespian, having acted in many productions throughout his days at Braintree High School and the College of Engineering, but don’t forget. He’s also an engineer. That’s why, when he tried out for his most demanding role in the UMass Theatre Guild production of Sweeney Todd, he left nothing to chance. He engineered his performance in advance so he could bring plenty of chemistry to his character.

“To prepare for Sweeney Todd before I auditioned, I listened to the sound track, and learned the songs,” he recalls. “So I was able to sing through all of his songs in my first rehearsal and focus on polishing the role. I was already into my character. He’s a very energetic youthful character, so I had to amplify that within myself and sort of accept the mindset of the character I was trying to become.”

And such a character! In Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, Kevin's character, Anthony Hope, is the alternate hero. A young sailor aboard the ship Bountiful, he discovers Sweeney Todd floating at sea after his escape from an Australian prison colony. He befriends Sweeney and helps him get to London for various adventures, not to mention many a song-and-dance.

Since coming to UMass as a freshman, Kevin has played in four Theatre Guild productions. Do the math. That makes one per semester. Meantime, he maintains a 3.9 GPA, does undergraduate research in sustainable energy, goes to several rehearsals per week, and loses himself in such colorful alter-egos as Anthony Hope.

The question is this: While doing this whirling dervish act, how does Kevin keep his own molecular structure from flying off into space?

“One thing I’ve gotten from theater,” he explains, “is very good time management, because we rehearse five days a week, from about 7:30 to 10:00 p.m., when most other students are doing their homework.”

But he believes the rewards of wedging his theater commitment into the tough curriculum of chemical engineering far outweigh the demands.

“You gain so many satisfying relationships,” he exclaims. “We’ve had some pretty large casts for the last few shows, and those people become instant friends. You see them around campus all the time, and you just say, ‘Hey!’ I’ve also learned a lot about myself through acting out different parts.”

One thing Kevin didn’t design or expect is that his theater experience would propel his professional development as a chemical engineer. But that’s exactly what happened when one of his colleagues in the Theatre Guild helped get him an undergraduate research gig that could very well launch his whole career.

“Over the summer I worked in Professor Tom Russell’s lab in polymer science,” Kevin says. “I actually got into that because of the Theatre Guild. Kathleen McEnnis, who is in the guild and also a grad student in polymer science, ended up getting me an interview with Professor Russell. So my theater experience has already paid off professionally.”

In Dr. Russell’s lab, Kevin was producing thin polymer films and testing them to correlate wave speed with mechanical properties. Next year, he hopes to pull that research together into his senior capstone honors thesis. Beyond that, it will fit nicely into a future that he has already pre-designed as if scaling up a new energy source for production. After Kevin took a class with Chemical Engineering Professor William C. Conner in alternative energy engineering during his sophomore year, he knew exactly what he wanted to do as a professional engineer: nuclear fusion engineering.

“It’s what I think is an up-and-coming energy source that harnesses the power of the sun through hydrogen fusion to create energy,” he notes. “That’s what I’m interested in getting involved in. I really think that in the future it’s going to be a very important, and very green, source of energy. I would like to get involved in both the chemical engineering and the materials science engineering aspects of fusion, including reactor design of different components.”

Kevin is specifically interested in a project called the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor, or ITER (Latin for “the way”), now being built in the South of France. In preparation for his foreseeable future, he has also worked with Professor David Ford of the Chemical Engineering Department doing research into gas-and-oil separations during bio oil filtration.

Meanwhile, Kevin won’t be letting any energy crops grow under his feet. This semester in the Theatre Guild, he plans to do the key job of “dramaturge,” the person who researches the show being produced and gives presentations to the cast and director about the historical significance and symbolism of the story.

Too bad there’s not a role as a tight-rope walker, because Kevin would be instantly in-character as he does his balancing act in the Chemical Engineering Department.

“Don’t be afraid of your course load,” he advises future students. “Don’t be afraid you won’t have time to do anything else. That’s not even close to true. There are so many organizations on campus, or you can even start your own. It definitely enriches the whole experience.” (September 2010)