Dr. Patricia McIlrath founded the Missouri Repertory Theatre in 1964 as a means to integrate professional theater training into the curriculum of academic theater programs in the United States. The years she sat at the helm, McIlrath never lost sight of her educational roots or the development of regional theater. Those first steps are not forgotten as the theater still sits on the campus of the University of Missouri-Kansas City and has grown to a significant regional theater that attracts national directors while nurturing local talent.
Angela Gieras has been in her role of executive director for a year. During her first year, Gieras says The Tallest Tree in the Forest about singer, actor and lawyer Paul Robeson, validated the work they do at the Rep. “The play just seemed to be a wonderful validation of the incredible work we offer. Now, I am probably most excited to bring David Cromer’s Our Town. I have seen Our Town and people walk of the theater talking about how dramatically changed they are by the experience. We strive for that as well.”
“Prior to the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Kansas City was not known for theater,” she says. “The 50th season was designed to celebrate everything that makes Kansas City great and theater great. UMKC and the Rep helped shape an amazing and eclectic vibrant economy for the city. We view our role as the largest regional theater and as such, we can use that role to foster a collaborative environment. For 50 years, we have been creating a family tree that has helped spawn many of the theaters in town.” Gieras believes the success of the theater can be traced back to the original vision of McIlrath and the current vision of Rosen.
Artistic Director Eric Rosen will start his seventh year with the Rep this fall. He credits the genius of the institution created with each artistic leader pushing the direction and creating a stronger presence in the community. “First there was Dr. McIlrath, George Keathley, and Peter Altman. Pat and George helped build the regional theater profile and Peter shaped the national recognition. I think I am fusing those three legacies in that broad vision. I want our theater to reach more people with plays that are entertaining and intellectually rigorous. Every day I am learning and uncovering different parts of this theatrical DNA.”
Rosen explains his excitement for each show. First, David Cromer’s Our Town is considered one of the finest versions of the iconic play, he says. Then he directs The Who and the What at the Copaken. “The acclaimed novelist Ayad Akhtar wrote about what it means to be in America. We are the third theater getting to do this play.” In the spring, he will direct Hair. “It’s going to be a combination of rock concert and a documentary piece on the importance of this musical,” he says. “Then we commissioned Nathan’s play Sticky Traps and I couldn’t be more thrilled with … Of course, Angels in America is a play that changed my life and brought me into this field. It is an honor to bring Gary Griffin in to direct. I would say Angels is the most important play in the past 50 years.”
Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s Producing Director Jerry Genochio, who is entering his 10th season, says his most important role is to expect the unexpected. “I work with the artistic director and mounting the artistic product on the stage; I also direct one or two shows,” he says. This season he will direct An Iliad and A Christmas Carol. “There is an electricity in the air to produce this season. I am directing two plays in a really great theater season.” Altman hired him with the title of associate director for production. A production of August Wilson’s Jitney set him on his journey into theater.
“In 50 years, one of the driving forces has been to create great theater made by people who live and work in Kansas City,” he says. “The expectations are still there to make great theater and to know that the best is yet to come each and every year. We will aim to continue to have the personnel and resources to bring the best works to Kansas City and the region.”
Actor Gary Neal Johnson will again play Ebenezer Scrooge for A Christmas Carol.
Actor Gary Neal Johnson will again play Ebenezer Scrooge this year. “This is my 14th year to play Scrooge and my 30th year in the play,” he says. Johnson stepped into the Rep during graduate school in early 1973. He played Scanlon, one of the patients in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He was away for about 10 years, but returned in 1982, being hired for A Christmas Carol and then Nicholas Nickleby’s evil schoolmaster Squeers and Manus in Translations during 1983. “I was thrown in the hopper and found myself cast in roles of every size. Some of my favorites included George in Of Mice and Men and Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Kansas City Symphony. Character highlights have been Scrooge and Willie Loman, the titular character from Death of a Salesman.”
He also has a small role in the opening show of Our Town. “I am so excited for this concept to be seen here.” He’s also thrilled that Angels in America is part of the season. “Audiences can count a well-mounted, well-staged and well-acted plays. Sure not all are homeruns, but that is what risk is … The Rep has such a great track record for picking winners. I have learned so much about honesty on stage. I have become a better actor because of the Rep.” With the season, Johnson will celebrate his 100th production with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. “It makes my heart sing to impact so many people, especially with the student matinees. Live theater is so great and A Christmas Carol is a terrific introduction to theater with its magic.”
Melinda McCrary, director of Education and Community Programs, has been in this role for about 10 years. However, her experiences with the Rep started as a student of McIlrath. She makes sure that student audiences find an exceptional experience. “The student matinees are a great gauge for us as a regional theater. The out-of-town actors give us high marks. Our student audiences are exceptional and they come from all over the city and the two-state area including Wichita, Topeka, Jefferson City and Nevada. They are some of the most intelligent and responsive audiences. Dr. McIlrath was a mentor of mine and she taught us all to give back to the community. We certainly hope and dream that every student is a future Rep audience member.” About 10,000 to 12,000 students come to the Kansas City Repertory Theatre every season.
All the plays this season except for Santaland Diarieswill have matinees. “Over the years, Death of a Salesman resonated with kids who have seen financial problems within the family and the roles of children with parents. Kids are so sophisticated today and they do respond to even the most challenging material. I am sure Our Town will imprint on this generation. David Cromer’s involvement is beyond exciting and I am proud to share that. The Who & the What, a contemporary play about faith and family from Pakistan, is important. The Iliad is an exciting retelling of classic piece.” McCrary also agrees with Rosen that Angels in America is one of the most important plays of the 20th century. “Nathan Jackson’s Sticky Traps should resonate too. He goes into the schools and he’s a huge hit with the high school students.
Honorary Chairman Bill Nelson has been involved with the Rep for almost as long as he has been here in Kansas City. He and his wife moved to the community more than 25 years ago. “The Rep was one of the first groups I got involved in … I discovered the excellent regional theater. We still need that regional Tony Award, but despite that, I am ecstatic about what has been produced on that stage.” Now, he is glad that the Copaken Theatre is up and adding a new dimension to what can be offered. “I am proud that we opened the first entertainment venue in the Power & Light District with the Copaken. It’s that smaller theater that gives us flexibility and those who live in the Northland and downtown have a closer theater to attend. We are eager to develop a younger demographic. Bunni Copaken and I raised the money and it all worked to stage more plays.” One of his favorites was Janice, the first show at the Copaken.
Nelson says Rosen is that breath of fresh air that blew in and brought new works. “He’s also broadening the use of local actors while inviting stellar actors and directors like Moises Kauffman and David Cromer. I am thrilled that we are also being recognized nationally over the past three to four years with A Christmas Story, Venice, and Clay. We have staged plays and sent them out into the world, including New York and California.”
The Importance of Being Earnest
Playwright Nathan Louis Jackson may be part of the energetic future spoken of by the others. He is currently the playwright-in-residence for the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. The Washington High School graduate attended Kansas State University and then went to Julliard School for graduate school. “When I was in high school, I attended a performance of August Wilson’s Jitney at the Rep. I remember saying that I wanted to work with the Rep as I became interested in writing. It’s a dream come true to be at home in the city I love.”
Jackson is the playwright for the final show of the 2014-2015 season with Sticky Traps. His plays Broke-ology and When I Come To Diehave been produced at the Rep. “My biggest plays have gone up at the Rep and to be part of the 50th season is incredible. I know that Eric has made a great commitment to doing new shows.” Sticky Traps looks at a family that encounters an intolerant church that protests during the funeral of a family member who committed suicide. “The female lead takes actions to remove the people from in front of the church,” he says. “It’s timely with a certain church in Kansas that protests. When I Come to Die is about a botched execution.” During this 50th season, Jackson’s Sticky Traps, will run April 24 to May 24 on the Copaken Stage.
Jackson expects leadership from regional theaters to continue. “Honestly, the quality is just as good. Eric (Rosen) brings in quality artists and recruits from here. The work is truly fearless and thought-provoking. The shows speak to us and to the audiences. Our audiences are also part of the future. The feet that walk in the door are important. Theater can’t be just for the elite.” He also believes the Rep’s future will include more writers of color, more women writers and younger audiences.
For the future, Johnson suggested the addition of a “very experimental stage where new plays could gain a reading. “We have been fortunate to have leadership that is so creative. I can only imagine what creative concepts we have yet to explore.”
“In the past year, the greatest lesson I have learned is that passion and big ideas can inspire and motivate people. I am able to produce plays that entertain and enlighten an audience,” she says. “The big ideas are about moving us toward the future.” As the theater moves into the future, Gieras says she hopes for an audience development initiative. “To become a stronger theater, it takes a tremendous amount of time, analyzing the past and aiming for future growth. All of our ideas are big and passionate. The Rep continues to offer a variety of plays which challenge and entertain. We continue to be a collaborative place.”
When Rosen moved from Chicago, he knew his Chicago theater artists, but was unsure of Kansas City’s artists. “I didn’t know I would find passionate artists, but I found a great resource with our Kansas City artists,” he says. “When we started, I wanted to have theater that is adventurous and fearless. As we move into the future, we have to be willing to take even more risks and be willing to take on controversy. We are a theater without fear. We come to the theater and it is a communion of telling live stories without cell phones and without distraction. It has to be an adventure and we will win no matter if we see a musical, a drama or a well-executed comedy. That is what gives us our staying power. We all feel more alive.”
As the theater moves into the future, Nelson wants the theater to continue to diversify the audience in every respect including age and race. “We usually have 50 and older gray-haired audiences. I want us to put together plays that appeal to more audiences and wider audiences; I would like us to afford to do more musicals; I am a big fan of Cole Porter and I would love to do Showboat. We have the leadership on the staff with an executive director and an artistic director with incredible strength. The legacy that has been built is there. Now we have to roll up our sleeves. If younger folks want to be involved, you are welcome here,” Nelson says.
McCrary hopes the future includes an increased presence in the schools. “We have to be vital on their home turf as well as ours. I would appreciate more workshops and even more diversity in the stories. When the Rep turns 100, those kids in A Christmas Carol will be around to see the anniversary and hopefully they will be the ones who will nurture those next classics.”