There is something to be said when the parts of the equation add up to a positive. The actors, directors, designers and stage managers that make up the core artistic group for Kansas City Actors Theatre understand the demands and the rewards of live theater. Collectively, the years of experience prove that they are not green, but seasoned and knowledgeable. That expertise adds up quickly into years of understanding how a theater works, not just in front of the stage, but also the moving parts behind the curtain.
Jim Mitchell, with his background in stage production and design, is a founding member. Actor John Rensenhouse and actress Melinda McCrary joined the group not long after the formation. The three talk about the challenges of a theater company. “We get to choose our own projects,” Rensenhouse says. “So often we are at the mercy of directors and administrators. With KCAT, we get to do what we want. We want to offer great theater and that still guides us. We saw a niche that we could fill. However, there is a great deal of responsibility for this all-volunteer group of core artistic staff and leadership. It is like being your own boss.”
McCrary explains that no one serves as the artistic director, but rather the collective makes decisions. “While we have a president and a board, it is mostly the need to have that structure,” Rensenhouse says. “Mainly we start with the question of what we are passionate about and we move from there.”
The first show in 2005 was the dark comedy Cripple of Inishmaan. Mitchell says the first play set the tone for the theater company. The next year, it was a sort of marathon as the group performed the Talley plays, the trio of plays about a family in Lebanon, Mo. McCrary says those three plays were so strong and furthered the mission and direction of KCAT. “The other great aim is to create a budget and we are committed to paying a professional wage.” Rensenhouse chimes in and agrees that they strive to honor all the theater professionals in town when they hire the actors and others.
In the past few years, they have continued to raise the ante, so to speak. Their fifth season was the illustrious David Mamet-written Glengarry Glen Ross and Boston Marriage. By Season 6, the group added to the mix with True West, Marion Bridge, The Seafarer and Oh What A Lovely War. The most recent season returned to the rotating repertory with The Harold Pinter Project: The Birthday Party and then The Collection, The Lover and Night. God of Carnage was co-produced with Unicorn Theatre in »»
partnership with UMKC Theatre. The last show was Billy Bishop Goes to War, staged at the World War I Museum.
The eighth season starting this August is being billed as a Summer of Mystery. First up, The Mousetrap by Agatha Christie, runs Aug. 8 to Aug. 26 at Union Station’s H&R Block City Stage. Turning the mystery genre on its head, the September show is The Real Inspector Hound by Tom Stoppard. The dates are Aug. 31 to Sept. 14 at Union Station too.
Mitchell says he expects a sort of Gothic mansion for the setting of both “mysteries.” Stoppard, he says, takes the mystery to a different place artistically and intellectually from Christie. “We had a different season on the docket, but that happens. Actor and director Mark Robbins, one of the founders, will direct the first two shows and that will create that continuity to the approach for both shows. I know that I am excited.
“Agatha Christie gives us that broader audience appeal. Tom Stoppard provides that answer to our mission that we need to perform the works of often neglected playwrights,” McCrary says. “I have seen Mousetrap performed a couple of times and look forward to KCAT’s interpretation. It’s almost startling to see the parody with The Real Inspector Hound. I fell in love with both shows again.”
Inspecting Carol by Daniel J. Sullivan continues the collaboration with Unicorn Theatre. The comedy, written in 1991, runs late November through Dec. 23. “It’s that humor that is just the right mix for all of us,” Rensenhouse says. In the late winter, Good People by David Lindsay-Abaire is the second collaboration with Unicorn Theatre. This new play was a Tony Award nominee for best play in 2011. The play runs Feb. 27 to March 24. Rensenhouse praises the collaborations.
The group passed its eighth official anniversary in January. They formed initially to respond to a larger theater company that imported talent rather than tapping the local talent pool. “We may have some ‘pie in the sky’ attitudes, but we have support and we know it is a privilege to produce the plays we want.” McCrary says the loyal theater base in town likes theater. “Look at the number of new theaters popping up seemingly monthly. How do audiences get to all these shows? We know that we are constantly learning about keeping the loyal folks happy and get new folks in the seats.”
Rensenhouse calls KCAT’s vision and its complete history part of a philosophy of trust. “People expect to see good acting and well-written plays.” McCrary agrees that the most direct and perhaps the simplest approach works as they present worthwhile plays from quality playwrights. “As an eight-year-old organization, we are definitely thinking about those next deliberate steps. Will they take place next year or in 10 years?” Rensenhouse says he wouldn’t mind seeing KCAT in its own space. However, opinions vary. “We are fortunate not to have a theater home that requires all the maintenance, but we have an odd freedom that allows us to plan. It would be great to expand our season to even more shows, but summer is good for us right now,” McCrary says. Rensenhouse says the group has had requests to tour and hopes that could be part of the future.
Mitchell says he likes that KCAT acts as a more self-sufficient entity. “We have managed to survive. We have struggled and the business can be rough. We demand that we stay true to our artistic vision and the artistic product. We are proud of the history of the shows and look forward to the future. We are meticulous on choosing a director, but we also seek to cast a wider net. My dream is to see bigger shows and new faces in the plays. We made a commitment to the theater community.” l