KENNY MIHLFRIED grew up on the Northwest side of Chicago near Hiawatha Park, two blocks from Saint Francis Borgia Church and School. At home, he recalls music. The sound of some fugue or sonata slowly being learned and committed to memory, mostly by his older brother, Bob, on one of two instruments—the piano or the violin. For a time, his mother took piano and guitar lessons. At age 7, when asked if he would like to follow his brother’s lead, Kenny pointed to the piano as his instrument of choice. He took lessons until he was 14, owing infinite gratitude to his teacher, Sister Marie Paul Haas.
Storytelling was an essential and formative part of childhood—arguably, of anyone’s childhood. But it was also a familiar activity in Kenny’s home. It was not uncommon to hear the clatter and bell of his mother’s typewriter as she conjured a new poem or memoir onto paper. It was not uncommon to find his father peering through the viewfinder of his Canon F-1, or poring over some portrait he’d taken, maybe a still life, speaking of a certain shadow he’d purposefully placed and the story that came with it. In such surroundings, Kenny was not shy of sharing the products of his own imagination with the world, small as that world may have been.
As a young boy, Kenny was drawn to movies—in particular, the unseen forces behind their creation. He often told others he wanted to be a movie maker. Live productions ensued, which emulated the mechanics of motion pictures (fade-ins, fade-outs, music montages, end credits scrolling by on paper), but were essentially puppet shows. Bob was frequently roped in to run lights and sound. Later, as video cameras became more commonplace, Kenny seized the opportunity to put something on “film” so to speak. As its writer, director, score composer, prop manufacturer, and star actor, Kenny embarked on a feature length project called Lost. Though the production was abandoned after a few minutes of footage, Kenny was not discouraged. He embraced the experience of working with human actors—not stuffed animals—and dreamed of the future.
Pages of a scrapbook reveal mimeographed programs from a number of productions Kenny appeared in circa 1990-93. These were live shows, many of them musicals, landmarking the first time Kenny set foot onstage as an actor. Though the stage itself was the floor of a gymnasium and the acoustics were, as one can imagine, very gymnasium-like, his involvement in these productions yielded more than a little affirmation that Kenny could indeed act and sing. But it wasn’t achieved without the tireless leadership of Kathleen Margevich, director of said productions and teacher of the after-school drama class from which the shows emerged. In the four years he attended Kathleen’s drama class, invaluable lessons were learned. Improvisational muscles were stretched. The word “ensemble” began to mean something.
While in his first year of high school, Kenny appeared in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Chicago Theatre. Thanks to plenty of encouragement and coaching from Kathleen, he and many others from Hiawatha Park’s drama class had successfully auditioned for the children’s chorus and were then slated to perform in the show from November 1993 to March 1994. The rehearsal and performance schedule was grueling. Schoolwork bulged out of bookbags. Tempers flared between some of the kids and even Kathleen. A degree of distress was inevitable, given the circumstances. Still, Kenny looks back on these days with a sense of importance and accomplishment. He reserves a special seat in the back of his memory for Kathleen and the things she made possible.
Kenny attended Saint Patrick High School where he met future Co-Founder and Artistic Director of The Gift, Michael Patrick Thornton. Michael was involved in an upcoming production of The Odd Couple and, knowing Kenny had some acting experience, invited him to audition for one of the roles that was still open. Kenny got the part but the show never materialized. Throughout the rest of their high school years, Kenny and Michael collaborated on various projects, including two feature length video films, the first of these (Tiny Little Creek) earning a “best feature” award and public screening at the Chicago Youth Film and Video Festival. Kenny shot and edited both movies and composed music for the second (Trolling Atlantis). In 1997, Michael’s play, Adjacent Rooms, was independently produced and enjoyed a brief run at Chicago’s Wright College; Kenny served as lighting designer and score composer.
In 1998, now in their second year of college, the two joined forces on a third video feature—What the River Said. Except for certain scenes in which he played a supporting role, Kenny was behind the camera once again. The movie was shot in Iowa City and brought back to Chicago where Kenny went to work on edits and music. Progress was piecemeal; rough cuts were only shared every couple of months during sporadic sojourns to Iowa City. Clocking in at nearly three hours, the project was finished in May of 1999. For what these video features lacked in technical grace—shot as they were on consumer grade VHS tape with available light and no sound crew—they seemed to make up for such shortcomings in the uniqueness of their cinematic language, especially the last one. If nothing else, they provided Kenny with a safe playground on which to test untried techniques, often pushing his Panasonic camcorder to its candlelit limits or, later in the editing room, experimenting with how fast, how slow, and in what order stories can be told. At one point on location, he wore roller skates to be a human dolly. Some ideas worked; others didn’t.
At Columbia College, Kenny excelled at the theory and practice of filmmaking. He revered the medium which he was now finally learning to use—motion picture film; 16mm. Suddenly, his movies looked like movies. He felt like an ice sculptor chiseling ice for the first time, having previously limited himself to blocks of cheese. He adored the tactile/emotional connection of being able to hold a piece of film up to the light and see a moment chronicled in time—maybe a facial expression—changing, almost imperceptibly, over 24 fractions of a second. Edits were made with razor blade precision. Literally, a razor blade was used to cut the film. Soon, Kenny learned the ropes of digital editing, which was still quite new at the time. He then wrote, directed, and shot Under His Wing, a ten-minute short which garnered a screening at the film department’s “Best of Tech II” festival. After making a handful of short films in his first two years, Kenny shifted focus to concentrate on screenwriting and directing. He wrote three feature length screenplays—Libertyville, Roomies, and The Sick Rose. He also took a songwriting class, ruffling some of the music department’s faculty; he hadn’t taken the prerequisite courses, but was allowed in since he was technically a film student. Two of his songs—Here in this Time and Karaoke Santa Claus Hayride—were performed at the end of the semester’s class recital. He graduated in 2001.
It wasn’t long before Kenny was invited to join the newly formed Gift Theatre Company. He made his first entrance modestly enough by crashing into a nurse’s station on a bicycle, as the Phrygian in Orestes 2.0. Other early roles included Crawley in The Countess and Tommy/Michael in Language of Angels. It was actually more common during the first several years of The Gift to find Kenny working on sound design. Starting with Language of Angels and ending with The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Kenny and his brother, Bob, created soundscapes for eleven Gift productions. Kenny also wrote music for seven of these, highlights being Long Day’s Journey into Night, The Clearing, and The Glass Menagerie—this one featuring Bob on violin, Kenny on piano. There are indeed fond recollections of tech week for Menagerie—of Kenny perched precariously atop a ladder at 1 AM hanging speakers from the grid. This was The Gift’s brand new theatre at 4802 North Milwaukee and the first time it was being wired for sound. When he heard that mournful violin pour into the space, it was a moment of validation.
As time went on, Kenny-the-actor took on more sizeable roles at The Gift: Sir Charles Sturman (The Clearing), Dr Spivey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), Jason Posner (Wit), Sigmund Freud/St. Thomas (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot), Tuzenbach (Three Sisters), Douglas Eden (Absolute Hell). Eventually, Kenny pushed himself to tackle more challenging roles such as Betty/Edward (Cloud 9), Richie (Streamers), Jerome (Good for Otto), and Eric (Cosmologies)—these last two being world premieres by David Rabe.
Current projects include a book of poetry and an album of songs. The production of his album, Hindsighted, has been a collaborative effort between Kenny and Bob since 2014. Once the album is finished and released, Kenny-the-songsmith intends to reconnect with Kenny-the-filmmaker and see what kind of conversations come up. A series of music videos may be on the horizon, perhaps even to be shot on VHS. But probably not.