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Doane Theatre alumna found her calling through faculty relationships
How does a girl make her way from the small town of Wahoo to the bustling world of Chicago’s theatre scene, and later even onto television? Hard work, a good education, a leaky roof, and more than a little help from her friends, it turns out.
Christine Bolles ‘98 has lived this story. A technical theatre major, she has gone far in her 20+ year career as a scenic artist for theatre and television. A Nebraska native, Bolles has lived and worked in Chicago since 2000, a trajectory that probably wouldn’t have happened without Doane. And a bad apartment.
“After I graduated from Doane I worked theatre in Nebraska for a little while, at the Lincoln Community Playhouse,” Bolles said in a phone interview from her Chicago home. “I was living in an apartment where my ceiling was falling in because of the rain. So I went apartment hunting and I ran into another Doane alum named Amy Beck ’98. She was moving to Chicago with another Doane alum, Amy Johnson ’97. We talked for a bit and she convinced me to throw my stuff in a truck and come with them to Chicago.
“So the two Amys and I caravanned up to Chicago.”
She’s been living there among a sort of mini enclave of Doane alumni ever since.
“There were three or four other Doane alumni near us in the city when we moved here,” Bolles said. “In the city, they really were my first roots here. Three of us still live here within 20 minutes of each other.”
Bolles career blossomed in Chicago, thanks in part to the wealth of knowledge and experience she brought with her. She credits the Doane theatre faculty with helping her find what she’s good at.
“I intended to be an actor to start with, then I shifted to set design, more technical things,” she said. “I cannot stress how much my professors at Doane were such a vital part. They were honest in saying to me that ‘this is your strong point, this is not your strong point.’
“It comes from personal connection, the one-on-one experience where professors get to know you and are comfortable being honest with you to say ‘Christine, you’re not an actor.’”
Bolles says one professor in particular, Erik Selk, put her on the right track, developing a lifelong working relationship in the process.
“[Selk] was my technical professor at the time, who said ‘Christine, you have to do summer stock.’” she said. “I’d have excuses but he’d say ‘this is not just for your career later, this is for you to figure out now if this is what you want to do.’”
Bolles found her calling and immediately set out into the theatre world upon graduation.
“This is what puts Doane so far ahead of other schools,” she says. By the time I graduated, I was ready to join the workforce seamlessly.”
Bolles says she still regularly communicates with Selk. Twenty years later she still turns to him for personal and professional guidance and talks with him on the phone at least once a month.
“I’ve been meaning to get a hold of him this month!” she says, laughing.
Though no longer with the university, Selk was a Doane faculty member from 1992-2006. He says the kind of relationship he developed with Bolles isn’t rare, and that the personal connections encouraged by Doane between students and professors is part of what makes the school great.
“I always appreciated that at Doane,” Selk said in a phone interview. “They always encouraged you to carry learning experiences beyond the classroom. In faculty meetings it was always brought up how we could carry students’ educations beyond the classroom. It was great.”
Selk says he stays in contact with “quite a few” former students, whether or not they’re still in theatre. Selk himself has left the theatre world and is now the executive director of HOPENOW, a housing industry nonprofit group.
“We stay close,” he said. “They ask advice, they want to discuss professional decisions they’re making in their career.”
Selk says he offers the following advice to current Doane students wanting more from their education: Look for learning opportunities outside of the classroom.
“I think Doane’s a great place for that. You have to extend your education into practical experience. If you’re not doing that, you’re wasting your time.”
The advice was good for Bolles, and it led to her successful career as a set designer. You’ve probably seen some of her work, too. Bolles worked on the Oprah Winfrey Show early in her career, and she is currently part of the crew working on FOX Network’s smash hit series “Empire.” Start paying attention to some of the floors and backgrounds, and you just might see the Doane difference on the national stage.
“Empire” is set in New York City, but it’s shot in Chicago, and Bolles is part of that effort making one American megalopolis look like another, but it’s not too hard, she says.
“We just shoot in the older parts of town and that seems to take care of it.”
Bolles and her former college roomate, Catherine Siebel ’98, are both volunteers for Doane's growing Chicago Alumni Chapter.