Kate leads audience members through a production of Shakespeare in the Arb at Nichols Arboretum in Summer 2014.

Carrying a flag adorned with multi-colored streamers, Kate Mendeloff led hundreds of theatergoers for two decades into the depths of the Nichols Arboretum.

Each summer, the University of Michigan drama professor directed a cast from all corners of Ann Arbor in a production of “Shakespeare in the Arb.” Every five years, that play would be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” a comedy filled with magical themes.

Mendeloff led those in attendance from scene to scene with her colorful banner, acting as a sort of pied piper for the magic of her productions, her family said.

“It’s almost like she was leading them into her world,” her husband Jeff Curtis said.

Mendeloff, 69, died Saturday, April 15, in her Ann Arbor home from pancreatic cancer. She leaves behind a legacy that combines her passion for theater, her students, and her family.

“She loved bringing stories to life and I think she was always a teacher,” her daughter Hannah Curtis said. “It was giving students and other actors a space to perform and sort of find parts of themselves.”

Mendeloff was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and later moved to Baltimore where she grew up. Drama was part of her entire life, her daughter said, as she graduated with theater degrees from Yale and Princeton.

She taught at Towson State and the University of Maryland-Baltimore County before moving to San Francisco, where she became director of the Tale Spinners Theater group. She loved diving beyond the script in the productions there, her daughter Nora Curtis said.

“In her work, she explored the literature of the text and used it to really think about the context and what was going on with the playwright at the time it was written,” Curtis said.

Mendeloff moved to Ann Arbor in 1990 with her husband and two daughters. She spent the rest of her life as a drama professor in the university’s Residential College, directing students in Greek comedies to Russian dramas.

She began experimenting with plays in unique spaces during her first decade in Ann Arbor, producing a Chekhov play in the Residential College courtyard. This experimentation led to “Shakespeare in the Arb” in 2000.

“She’s always loved Shakespeare,” Hannah Curtis said, adding that “Midsummer” was her mother’s favorite. “I think that play just felt like such a perfect fit for the Arboretum.”

The productions always start near the Arb’s famous peony garden right during peak bloom. Mendeloff would lead those in attendance from scene to scene located in the main highlights of the space: the peonies, a garden full of fairy figurines, the main valley, the Heathdale, and the Meadow.

“She just loved living in that fantasy world,” her husband said.

The annual summer shows connected Mendeloff with dozens of actors, from university students and faculty to Ann Arbor residents. As news of her passing spread, numerous actors shared how she impacted their lives.

“She helped us see the magic in nature, and in language, and in company,” longtime performer Brittany Batell said.

“She was a second mother to me for the last 25 years and to countless others for countless years,” said Graham Atkin, who co-directed the last Arb show alongside Carol Gray in Mendeloff’s place. “If there’s to be any solace, it will come from our trying to be for the next generation what Kate was for us.”

Mendeloff’s health waned in the last few years of her life, her family said. That did not stop her from collaborating on last summer’s 20th show in the Arb, as well as a university play detailing the history of the School of Social Work.

Even as her condition worsened, her passion for teaching and directing remained, Hannah Curtis said.

“It was very hard to let that go,” she said.

Mendeloff also loved being a mother, her daughters said. She would decorate the house with paper cutouts, conduct treasure hunts, and fostered their senses of imagination and magic, Nora Curtis said.

Her motherly nature lasted through her final days in hospice, as she entertained friends and family as they said farewell for the last time, her husband said.

“She said that she always wanted to have a salon and have people come in for her to entertain and for them to entertain each other,” he said. “She got it for three days, and she was just so happy.”

One of Mendeloff’s final wishes is that people donate to Shakespeare in the Arb to keep her midsummer’s night dream alive for future generations, her family said. For more information on the show, visit its website here.

"University of Michigan professor touched lives of hundreds through magic of theater" Originally published April 19, 2023 in MLive. By Samuel Dodge.