‘Worm girl’ working for greener theater
CHAMPION — Kathalina (Kat) Thorpe plays many roles, including mom, graduate student and assistant, technical designer, researcher and philanthropist.
However, one persona created the happiest of moments: Worm Girl.
It was in 2020 at the Georgia Undergraduate Research Conference when someone pointed to her and said, “You are the Worm Girl!” And Thorpe has worked hard to be recognized for this beloved character, which has spurred a movement.
As a graduate student and teaching assistant at Kent State University, she also was the technical designer for Kent State Trumbull Theatre’s Summer Stock production of “Rent.” But she agreed to take part, when approached by Eric Kildow, assistant professor and theater director, on one condition: She could build the set using sustainable and green strategies.
After all, it is her passion. Thorpe, aka “Worm Girl,” is dedicated to green research and to improving waste reduction within the theater.
“Theater is inherently wasteful because sets have to quickly go up and down,” she explained. “The crew and cast literally take a sledgehammer to everything created and then we wheel in three or four dumpsters and eventually that waste ends up in landfills. Theater cannot survive like this.”
THE START OF A MOVEMENT
Before coming to Kent State, Thorpe became involved with the Broadway Green Alliance (BGA). According to its website, this industry-wide initiative educates, motivates and inspires the theater community and its patrons to implement environmentally friendlier practices on Broadway and beyond.
For “Rent,” Thorpe and her assistant, Kenzie James, an undergraduate at Kent State, planned to create a set using 25 percent green solutions. However, they estimated that number at closer to 50 percent by the time the show opened.
She used wood from another play and screws instead of nails, so they easily could disassemble every piece of the set. She took foam bricks from another set and used leftover paint and sawdust to create the mortar. The cast will carry ’90s-style pagers made from painted wood scraps.
“This is all trial and error,” Thorpe said. “It’s fun to create these things that not only save money, but help save the environment.”
She hopes theater departments can use money saved on purchasing energy-efficient necessities, like washing machines and lightbulbs.
To become invested fully in the BGA, Thorpe needs a department head, and she is hoping that will be Kildow. They first met when she was working on her associate degree at Coastal Carolina Community College in Jacksonville, North Carolina.
“Eric was my mentor in North Carolina, and he kept me going and provided me an opportunity to create my first set design,” she said. “I took many of my cues from Eric and he has inspired me to teach theater.”
After grad school, Thorpe plans to teach. As a graduate assistant, she enjoys working with undergrads and teaching them the discipline of theater, coupled with the rewards of environmentalism and community service. In one of her recent classes, students learned sewing and, in doing so, stitched together more than 50 stuffed animals to give to local foster children.
Thorpe has been researching how effective earthworms, also known as Red Wigglers, are at breaking down costume scraps. Her ultimate goal is to see if they will break down synthetic fiber.
She already has found these worms will compost natural fiber fabric waste. Last fall, her research earned a “Fan Favorite People’s Choice Award” at Kent State’s showcase. And she plans to continue her research and share her findings with the Theater Department and the Fashion School.
Thorpe was born to a military family in Jacksonville, N.C. She grew up in Richlands, N.C., and graduated high school in 2006. Her mom is a farmer and her father and stepfather, who raised her, are both veterans of the U.S. Marine Corps.
Her family raised sheep, horses and other animals, and she describes herself as a 4-H girl. After receiving an associate degree from Coastal Carolina Community College in 2015, she earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Valdosta State University in Georgia in May 2021. She is about to begin year two of a three-year program in scenic design at Kent State University at Trumbull and plans to graduate in May 2024.
She is a single mom of two: Anwynn, 4, and Georgie, 11. Georgie has severe autism, which has opened up opportunities for Thorpe to learn more about the neurodiverse population.
“Being a single mom is a challenge,” she said, “but I grew up looking for ways to improve the lives of everyone around me. We get tunnel vision and forget about these little things.”
Thorpe explained her philosophy as a mom, teacher, technical designer and now-famous “Worm Girl” as “the scenic route.”
“My innovative and creative drive is one of the fun aspects of what it means to be me,” Thorpe said. “Raising a child with autism teaches me to evolve, overcome, and think outside the box and this has inspired me to continue to examine the little things that I can change and affect.”
Thorpe said her set design for “Corktown” at KSU Trumbull this fall also will be at least 25 percent green.