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Category Archives: performARTS
The international hit musical Les Misérables will open the 2013-2014 season at the White Theatre at the Jewish Community Center.
“We couldn’t be more thrilled,” said JCC’s Director of Cultural Arts Krista Blackwood. “Les Misérables has been a worldwide smash for more than 25 years, but only just now became available to regional theaters. We jumped at the chance to finally bring it to our stage. Les Mis at the White Theatre will be a must see for the 2013-2014 theater season.”
Based on Victor Hugo’s classic novel, Les Misérables is an epic and uplifting story about the survival of the human spirit. The magnificent score includes the classic songs I Dreamed a Dream, On My Own, Stars, Bring Him Home, Do You Hear the People Sing? One Day More, Empty Chairs at Empty Tables, Master Of The House and many more.
Making their directorial debut at the White Theatre are stage director Barb Nichols and music director Martha Risser. The dynamic team has worked together many times in the past, most recently to produce the musical Chess at the Barn Players. “The White Theatre is a tremendous space and lends itself well to the power and expanse of a show like Les Misérables,” Nichols says. “Directing a show in a new space always comes with new challenges, but working with such a talented staff and crew has set the stage for a really special performance.”
The production team also includes prop design by Bill Christie, who worked for American Heartland Theatre until it closed in August. “Les Misérables is a beautiful, thrilling show being produced by a very talented and giving company in the exciting and compelling White Theatre,” Christie says. “I am so pleased to have been asked to contribute to this beautiful effort and be part of such a proud theater family.”
The cast is chock-full of local talent. “Most of these local actors have been preparing for these roles since they first saw Les Misérables on Broadway 25 years ago,” Blackwood says with a smile. “We’re proud to be able to highlight the vast pool of local talent in the Kansas City area as we bring this show to life.”
Les Misérables opens November 9 and runs through November 24. For ticket information, go online to www.jcckc.org/lesmis or contact the White Theatre Box Office at 913-327-8054.
Director – Barb Nichols
Music Director -Martha Risser
Asst. Music Director -Michalis Koutsoupides
Choreographer – Ann McCroskey
Asst. Choreographer -Heide Harrelson-Williams
Prop Design -Bill Christie
Jean Valjean – Robert J. Hingula
Javert -Paul Secor Morel
Fantine – Julie Kaul
Marius - Joel Morrison
Eponine – Jennifer Cannady Thezan
Cosette – Katie Bartow
Enjolras – Brian King
Thenardier – Reed Uthe
Mme. Thenardier – Jeannette Bonjour
Combeferre -Milan Naster
Courfeyrac – Rob Reeder
Feuilly Cory -James Dowman
Grantaire – Alex Bigus
Lesgles – Josh Krueger
Provaire – James Wearing
Bishop / Ensemble – Russ Barker
Gavrouche – Ryan Sanford
Young Cosette – Olivia Loepp
Young Eponine – Margo Roberts
Sniper / Asst. S – Don Arnott
Joly – Brad Clay
Ensemble -Kathryn Major, Chuck Chambers, Chip Buckner, Ali Watson, Lauryn Hurley, Andrea Strickler, Ron McKeown, David Martin, Rebecca Brungardt, Whitney Harper and Katie Meador
Students – Chris Gleeson and Michael Peterson
Lovely Ladies -Meagan Edmonds, Jessica Loschke, Whitney Armstrong, Stasha Case, Cara Hampton, Trudy Hurley, Rebecca Johnston and Vanessa Harper
Mid-America Arts Alliance’s story is part of a recent KCPT The Local Show. Here is the link to the YouTube clip.
Mid-America Arts Alliance is one of those organizations that is not easily definable. They are multidisciplinary, multidivisional, multidirectional and multiregional, but however the agency is classified, their fundamental goal is “More Art for More People.”
A nonprofit regional arts organization, Mid-America Arts Alliance’s many programs include the arts and humanities traveling exhibition programs, ExhibitsUSA and NEH on the Road; professional development for arts professionals and artists; and funding support through grants to artists and arts organizations to enable them to realize their own vision for the arts in their community, says Chief Executive Officer Mary Kennedy.
“We are truly a multidisciplinary organization aimed at more art for more people and that means access, affordability and education. We bridge gaps and connect people in the exhibitions and performances,” she says. “Many of those who benefit from Mid-America Arts Alliance programming come from smaller communities and often rural ones. The organizations that bring in our exhibitions are smaller and provide a lot of services to the community. Our programs are responsive to their unique needs.” Mid-America Alliance serves the six-state region of Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Kennedy has been with Mid-America Arts Alliance for 24 years. She first served as curator of exhibitions for ExhibitsUSA and then took the helm 11 years ago. The organization also has Todd Stein serving as Chief Operating Officer. “It’s inside-outside. Todd supervises the staff and the financial information. I deal primarily with the external relationships, including our 42-member board as well as our funders and partners. I am also in communications with the governmental agencies such as the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services …”
The newly-renovated Mid-America Arts Alliance building may be a new discovery for the Kansas City community, as evidenced during the last several First Fridays, when attendance topped 3,000 guests. What Kansas Citians may not know is the vast reach of the organization. “We handle a six-state region and some aspects are even national. Our activity takes us a lot of different places geographically and with the renovations, we can bring all those resources to a Kansas City audience. Many people still see us just as LIVE! in the Crossroads on First Fridays. That is the tip of the iceberg: we actually reach more than a million people annually,” Kennedy says.
That more-than-a-million figure might stun more than a few people. “We may be a small nonprofit organization, but that means we can be nimble and responsive. We are able to do special projects. One example is a community-based mural project that teams a muralist and a design team to express the highs and lows of the community,” Kennedy says. “We just completed one in East Waco and it was a wonderful experience that spoke to the revitalization of East Waco.”
This September, the ExhibitsUSA exhibition that goes up in the new display and work space called the Culture Lab is Our People, Our Land, Our Images. It’s a view of indigenous peoples through the eyes of indigenous photographers. The works will come from places such as Peru, Iraq, New Zealand and North America, and will be on display in the Culture Lab for eight weeks. The Culture Lab is open to the public every Thursday and Friday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m., and on First Fridays. For the First Friday in September, Oklahoma’s Perpetual Motion Dance group will be in the parking lot, and October’s First Friday features Kansas City’s Blue Orleans band.
“We call it the Culture Lab because it is meant to be a place for experimentation. They are works in progress. While we now have the space to share the exhibitions before they go on the road, it’s also a benefit for us. We have never had a place to hang our own exhibitions and modify the educational components if needed. When we can base changes on viewer response, it is a laboratory for improvement and it’s where Kansas City gets to see what we do.” The Culture Lab is a climate-controlled environment and can be regulated much as a museum is, but Kennedy expects it to be another avenue, another access for individuals to have arts experiences. “A lot of people talk about access, but we really live it with our three-pronged approach. We want people to see a safe environment so if they don’t understand a piece of art, we have people here to make the experience richer and offer explanations.”
The next 12 years could usher in amazing growth if Kennedy has her say. “The goal in 12 years is to reach 3 million people a year. We aren’t an organization that rests on its laurels. The staff is strong and the building is a place for them to do their job well. We are constantly evolving too. What do the communities we serve want in programming and what do artists need to be successful? We have to transition programs to keep them relevant to what we do as a regional arts organization.”
Another current project includes the development of a film and media program. “Forty-one years ago, we were founded on the visual and performing art disciplines. We can keep these components, but we see the media arts as such a critical piece, especially with younger people. They want to participate and not just be the recipient of the arts so we have to determine how to manifest that … as the world is changing, so are we.”
Kennedy takes these goals personally. “I got started in the arts because someone else made them accessible to me. I was a kid who didn’t have access and someone reached out. Now I have had a career in the arts. And yes, we claim success on a regular basis. However, there is no end point to this. We are always looking at how to make the next arts experience even better. What keeps people engaged and engaged often does not come from a single-dimensioned organization.”
It’s been around about 100 years, but in that time, jazz has morphed into various subgenres such as free jazz, Bebop, Afro-Cuban, avant-garde and of course, traditional. The subgenres are diverse, but no matter the style, the American Jazz Museum staff and leadership want to make sure that all jazz, from its earliest incarnations in the early 1900s to the music being produced in 2013, is treasured.
Chief Executive Officer Greg Carroll brings adoration for the jazz world each day he comes into work, takes his chair at an arts task force meeting or sharing the museum’s story. It’s a broad, gregarious passion that fills a room like Charlie Parker playing Summertime on his sax. He has been leading the American Jazz Museum for six years. “When I come into the room, just by my presence, I hope people think about the museum,” he says. “I want people to see the American Jazz Museum and the vision that we are a premiere destination.” The components of the museum include the Gem Theater and the Blue Room.
Carroll quotes the mission comfortably. It’s a mission to celebrate jazz through performance, education, exhibits and research. “We are working to be that significant stop in understanding jazz. The vision is to make the place extremely relevant and world class. We want to be a catalyst and connect people with jazz and those people are youngsters, young professionals and more … not just those 50 and older.” Marketing manager Chris Burnett says the museum was originally called the Kansas City Jazz Museum. “Considering the scope and the amount of materials on the Internet, I would daresay we are international,” he says.
Carroll brings the heart of an educator and the passion of a musician to his role as chief executive officer. “I wear three hearts. The middle heart is that musician who enjoys playing an instrument, sitting at the piano and playing or conducting a clinic for band students. That heart fuels the right heart which is the executive. This is the person who looks at the financial statements and moves the organization along. The heart on the left is the educator. I have learned so much through the educational lens. I am a different CEO because of that. I provide orientation and leadership, with an educator’s heart and that passion is always burning.”
His joy comes almost daily as he witnesses school groups sitting in the atrium, enjoying jazz storytelling; or, when he witnesses museum patrons who are seeing an exhibit or enjoying an artist and there are all smiles among them because there is such a love for the music. “When I see artists interacting on stage or I see patrons enjoying life and being enriched, it’s worth all the other stuff.” Another role is to be chief cheerleader. “I look for what is in the best interest of the American Jazz Museum. It is implicit in my job to be a community connector and that means to be in the community, not just in the neighborhood.”
The American Jazz Museum’s department of collections & exhibitions specializes in several areas, including: preserving and perpetuating the history of the 18th & Vine area, honoring jazz masters, digitizing its enormous collection of jazz on film, pursuing new acquisitions and artifacts for the permanent collections and presenting a variety of changing exhibits tied to the jazz experience and aesthetic. There are permanent collections and the Changing Gallery which gives space to local and national artists, traveling exhibits and more. Carroll continues, “In terms of exhibits, jazz is still young, and because of that, there are not as many exhibits, so we may have to self-curate and look for loaned artifacts too. We might even some day commission visual artists.”
Then there is the Blue Room, an award-winning jazz club featuring live music four nights a week, but also a part of the permanent exhibit at the American Jazz Museum. The Gem Theatre is the larger venue where the staff has brought such legends as Benny Golson, Chick Corea and Nancy Wilson. “Sure we would love to have Sonny Rollins. Then I would like to see more crossover artists like a Santana or a Bonnie Riatt. Then I would like find a platform for emerging artists. We are seeing schools graduating incredible talent and there are not many venues for these musicians to hone their craft,” Carroll says.
As the museum hits 16 years in existence, perseverance coupled with creative vision will be part of the American Jazz Museum’s future. “I try not to put all of my stock in quantitative measurements. A concert is not necessarily a failure if it doesn’t sell out. I want qualitative and that includes all facets such as presentation and enrichment. Sure back at the turn of the century, jazz was the popular music of the day and everyone went to dance or concert halls to see and hear the new music. It was the pop music of the day. However, today if a hall seats 500 and there are only 300 in attendance, that is not a failure. Jazz is now a niche; it is an acquired taste and not everyone is going to be a jazz lover or even a museum lover. However, we must be aware of our purpose to keep this very important art form alive and well,” Carroll says. “We are a small piece of a larger pie that includes educational programming at schools, jazz festivals, museums, cultural centers, faith-based organizations … all these aim to help keep jazz relevant.”
The other hope for the future is to work collaboratively with the groups in town that promote jazz such as Café Trio, Phoenix Grill, Take Five and Green Lady. “When some jazz venues are successful, others ultimately benefit and are successful. We have a cool opportunity to lift each other up. However, I am not sitting back and watching to see who comes, whether it’s patrons, artists, those who are helping behind the scenes, Kansas City’s historians … I want to see all the positive energy collaborating within the community at large and all of this fueled by the understanding that art makes us all better.”
Burnett says the American Jazz Museum staff will work even harder to share the message so that when people think of Kansas City, it’s barbecue, jazz and the American Jazz Museum. Carroll says the symbiotic relationship with the city is important too. “This is the city’s museum and we have to work even harder to share that statement.”•
By Kellie Houx | Editor
Photos courtesy Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre
Community theater has a strong foothold at 115th and Nall in Johnson County. Tucked away behind the bluffs near the Sprint Center campus, the Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre and all the artistic opportunities that take the stage are sometimes overlooked. For Cultural Arts Director Krista Lang Blackwood, the need to be seen is part of her plans.
For eight seasons, the White Theatre has produced plays, musicals and at least one big summer musical annually. If the plays and musicals call for larger casts, it is rarely an issue to find actors and actresses. Finding an audience that will come to Johnson County from all over the metropolitan community is a little tougher.
“Our shows usually have some Jewish content or reflect a Jewish value. We have been able to increase direct Jewish content with our new visiting artists series, bringing in groups like The Maccabeats and Joshua Nelson’s Kosher gospel. In our community theater, establishing a Jewish connection is not too difficult because Jewish values are human values. Take a concept like tikkun olam, a Jewish value translated ‘repairing the world.’ It’s not just a Jewish value. It’s universal. You can always find Jewish values in theater productions that have nothing to do with Jewish culture. If I can make Jewish connections to Avenue Q, I can make Jewish connections to almost anything” Blackwood says.
In early April, the theater presented The Diary of Anne Frank. “I met with the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, which is also housed at the Jewish Community Campus, and their scholars expressed some trepidation. Turns out the play is stripped of many of the Jewish references one finds in the diary because of Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Mr. Frank has been quoted that he didn’t want it to be a ‘Jewish play.’ For Frank, the play’s mission was to generalize Anne’s experience so that it becomes an existential one, not a specifically historical one. For Holocaust scholars and educators, this is a problem. But it’s also a teaching moment for our audiences,” Blackwood says.
The final show of the 2012-2013 season is Hairspray. This year, Johnson County Theatre in the Park and the Jewish Community Center will co-produce the show. “It’s a new collaboration, an experiment. We share much of the same on-stage talent but we are also hoping to expand the community-at-large reach by putting »»
the musical up here and at the park.” The show runs July 13-28 at the Jewish Community Center and then at Theatre in the Park Aug. 2-4 and 8-10.
Hairspray examines the early 1960s and the concepts of social justice, integration and body images. “Audiences can be entertained. Other patrons like to dig deeper and we’ve begun to structure ways for them to do that, particularly with talk-backs after the shows. These interactive meetings usually grow through the run of a show. As an example, in February, we presented the musical Next to Normal. After each show, we hosted talk-backs with social workers, therapists, individuals living with mental illness and their families. Each subsequent performance drew more folks in to the theater and as the show ran, more and more stayed for the talk-backs. That’s theater operating at another, deeper level.” In programming a season, Blackwood says, “the trick is about creating balance and variety.”
The 2013-2014 season starts with Les Miserables 7:30 p.m., Nov. 9, 14, 16, 21, 23, 24 and 2 p.m., Nov. 10 and 17. The musical will again be directed by Mark Swezey the long-time director at the White Theatre. “We snapped the show up as soon as we could,” Blackwood says. “This is a huge show that we have been building towards for the past couple of years …” Other shows and guest artists include Paul Mesner Puppets presents Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, based on a book by Eric Kimmel in late November. Songwriter and public radio host Ben Sidran offers a discussion on his book, There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, Dec. 15. Tim Bair, the artistic director at Johnson County Theatre in the Park, will direct Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs in mid-January 2014. Director Barb Nichols and musical director Martha Risser take on Stephen Sondheim’s Company in February. Shane Bertram Baker presents his show The Big Bupkis! A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville March 9 and 10. Director Darren Sextro will work with community actors in To Kill a Mockingbird in April. Jewish rocker Rick Recht arrives April 27. Monty Python’s Spamlot, under the direction of Swezey, ends the season in July.
And if Blackwood could look into the future, she would want more people around the metropolitan area to find the White Theatre. “Our main goal is to create community through arts. I often get asked about what special rules people need to follow if they are seeing a show at the Jewish Community Center. ‘Do I need to wear a yarmulke or keep kosher?’ The answer? Our theater is no different than any other theater in town, in that aspect. Come as you are and enjoy the show. AND, as a bonus, parking is really easy.” Blackwood adds with a smile.
The 2014-2015 season will be the 10th Anniversary Season. It will be a combination of harkening back to then looking forward, Blackwood says. “Community theater is about building community through the arts. Think of all the families whose children are a part of our shows who become regular theatergoers because of it. It’s not just about entertaining, but we are creating a community of people who appreciate the arts.”•
With the recent world events, who couldn’t use a good laugh? And who delivers that better than Neil Simon?Come enjoy an entertaining production sure to tickle your funny bone as the Jewish Community Center presents the Neil Simon comedy “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” in the White Theatre. Performances are Jan. 5, 10 and 12 at 7:30 p.m. and Jan. 6 and 13 at 2 p.m. The White Theatre is located at the Jewish Community Campus, 5801 W. 115th St., Overland Park, Kansas.
This production features the talents of seven local actors under the direction of Mark Swezey.
Krista Blackwood, the JCC’s director of cultural arts, said Simon got his first big break back in the early 1950s as a staff writer on Sid Caesar’s fabled television series, “Your Show of Shows.” “Laughter” is a fictionalized look at the backstage chaos that went into producing that show, one of the landmarks of television’s golden age.
The story surrounds the fictitious Max Prince, star of his own popular comedy-variety series. The show is a hit on the East Coast, but network executives insist that it’s too sophisticated for the Midwest. Prince is pushed to dumb down the show, and comedy ensues as he struggles to meet the demands of too many masters.
Prince uses his writing team as a line of defense, hurling humorous invectives at each other and anyone else within earshot while writing the show.
Blackwood said the show was created in historical context.
“It’s 1953, only eight years after the slaughter of World War II and right in the middle of the witch hunt that was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare. The politics of the time presented both context and challenge to the writers, Simon’s surrogates for the Your Show of Shows writing team; Lucas (Simon), Ira (Mel Brooks), Kenny (Larry Gelbart), Val (Mel Tolkin), Carol (Selma Diamond), Milt (Carl Reiner), and Brian (Michael Stewart),” Blackwood said.
“Meanwhile, the Sid Caesar-inspired Max Prince tries to stall network honchos who want to trim his budget, shorten his running time, and change his style of humor, deemed too urban and Jewish for suburban America. Angst burbles between the laughs, but the closest thing to a true joke about Senator McCarthy is Milt’s description of him as ‘a United States senator who giggles like Porky the Pig,’” she said.
The JCC is offering two special learning opportunities in connection with “Laughter on the 23rd Floor” through its Jewish Life and Learning programs. Rabbi Moshe Waldoks, a storyteller, community activist and stand-up comedian, will present an overview of Jewish humor following the Sunday, Jan. 6 matinee (about 4:30 p.m.). Rabbi Waldoks is co-editor of “The Big Book of Jewish Humor,” now in its 26th printing. He is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline, Mass., and holds a doctorate in Jewish intellectual history.
The rabbi will see the production prior to his talk; his presentation, “A Very Funny, Historically Comprehensive and Deeply Moving Overview of Jewish Humor” is free. It is not necessary to attend the performance to come to the rabbi’s presentation.
On Monday, Jan. 7, the rabbi will give a free noon-hour presentation in the Multi-Activity Room at the Jewish Campus; his talk is entitled, “Discovery the Divine within Us: Redefining Prayer.”
“We’re thrilled to have Rabbi Waldoks visit our community,” said Jill Maidhof, director of the JCC’s Jewish Learning & Life department. “He shares a love of laughter as both a cause and effect of how as Jews we view ourselves and the world around us.”
For more information on the rabbi’s presentations, please contact Maidhof at (913) 327-8077 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Laughter on the 23rd Floor” is rated PG-13 for adult language and situations. Tickets for this production are $14 for members, $20 for (general public) and $10 for students (college and under). Tickets may be purchased by contacting the box office, open from 3-6 p.m. Monday through Friday at (913) 327-8054; or you may purchase tickets online by visiting the JCC web site at www.jcckc.org/boxoffice.
The Jewish Community Center provides programs and activities to people of all ages throughout the Greater Kansas City area regardless of race or religion. For more information, visit the web site www.jcckc.org.
Lucas—Jason Patrick Pollard; Overland Park
Milt—Bret Custer; Overland Park
Val—Joe Caronia; Kansas City, MO
Brian—Ken Schmidt; Olathe
Kenny—Dave Fullerton; Overland Park
Carol —Jennifer Coville, Kansas City, KS
Max Prince—Alan Murray; Kansas City, MO (*He is executive director of Children’s TLC)
Helen—Katie Meadors; Olathe
Ira—Reed Uthe; Kansas City, MO (note: He is a teacher in Blue Valley Schools)
Artistic Director, Playwrights, Actors and More Unite for Distinctive Theater
In ancient folklore, the unicorn was often seen as a creature with the ability to bestow magical and medicinal properties. Here in Kansas City, the Unicorn Theatre may just be the place for a medicinal balm for the spirit and a magical journey that looks at a different place in contemporary culture.
For almost 40 seasons as a theater and nearly 35 under the watchful eye of producing artistic director Cynthia Levin, the Unicorn Theatre stays true to a mission to produce provocative and new plays. Levin seeks out living playwrights who can spend time in the theater, developing the production, and listening to their written words take shape. The ever-growing innovation of emerging and established actors, directors, playwrights, designers, technicians and administrative staff is another key component to the theater’s mission.
In 1974, three UMKC Theatre graduates rented an old warehouse in the historic River Market area and called it Theatre Workshop and produced the first show. In two years, the theater was creating a reputation of taking on world premieres and gaining grants. Ten years after the founding, the theater joined the Actors Equity Association, the national union for professional actors and stage managers. In 1986, the theater moved to its current location at 38th and Main.
“It’s difficult to take the time to look back because we are always moving forward,” Levin says. “Not a lot of theaters reach the age of 40, especially those of our size. I would say in the last 20 years, we have felt the strengths of this theater and it just keeps getting stronger. We have solidified our place in the community.”
Levin appreciates the longevity, but she also relishes the work that so many have done to nurture the Unicorn Theatre. “This theatre is my extended family. My entire adult life has been spent here and I treasure the people I get to work with. The commitment to concentrate our efforts on contemporary work is so critical and we must keep evolving or risk becoming stagnant.”
There’s no fear of stagnation at the Unicorn Theatre. Levin strives to find diversity in the voices she presents on the Mainstage or the Jerome Stage. “About 25 years ago when I was searching for plays by African-American women, which no one was doing, I found it was a difficult task due to what was being published. My goal has always been to seek out plays by those underserved voices and that includes race, gender and sexual orientation.”
The two most time consuming aspects of her job are searching for plays to fill a thought-provoking season and the hiring the actors, artists, directors and more. “I take great care with this,” she says. “If these two things are not successful, nothing else matters. These tasks are never done. I also help lead the business side, along with Managing Director Jason Kralicek. There are eight full-time staff and at least 125 artists that are hired during the season. During the day, it’s the business of fund-raising, marketing and more. In the evening, it’s about the stage and the stories.”
In more than three decades, the enthusiasm and energy of Levin flows to the staff and the actors. “In choosing the people, I am constantly learning and intentionally involved. We bring in specialists. If we are working on a play about death row, then we bring in people from the community who spent time on death row. It’s about doing the research. We are often the first in the Midwest to tackle certain subjects.”
Four more productions are up for the 2012-2013 season. In late January, the Unicorn will buzz with BlackTop Sky by playwright Christina Anderson, a native of Kansas City, Kan. Anderson attended Brown University and received her master’s in fine arts from Yale. “It’s another world premiere, our 57th” Levin says. “Christina also spent time with the young playwrights group at the Coterie. Ironically, as a professional playwright, she’s never been produced here. It’s exciting because she’s a young African-American female who shares a non-traditional story. There’s a sort of magical realism to her work. The dialogue has a poetic and hip hop quality. Three young people are at the intersection of their lives and they are asking questions that apply to any one regardless of race or class.”
Anderson is going to be a big deal, Levin says. “It’s the coolest thing to be at the forefront of new American theater. I am interested in what young playwrights have to say. We are often part of that playwriting process. There are many steps before a play hits a stage, probably 12 to 18 months before production begins. It takes time.”
David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People hits late February. Levin describes the play as another look at the struggles in certain neighborhoods. This time, the scene is set in south Boston where the working poor are trying to rise above their circumstance. “It’s funny and sweet and a wonderfully written play. So often, plays tell us how to think or feel but I love scripts like Good People that allow you to draw your own conclusions.” This play will be co-produced with Kansas City Actors Theatre.
Levin takes up the director’s role with My Name is Asher Lev, by Aaron Posner and adapted from the novel by Chaim Potok. “Again, we look at family and culture. This time, it’s an ultra-orthodox family and the idea of their son becoming a painter, which comes into conflict with their strong religious beliefs. Immigrant families often wanted their children to have a trade, not a hobby. The friction comes from culture and religion. Asher clearly needs to be a painter to become a whole person. Following one’s dreams and desires can be a tough road.”
The season ends with Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop in June. The main character is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The setting is the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, the night before his assassination and right after he gave his speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” which foreshadowed his death. “He is visited by a ‘cleaning woman’ who must prepare him for what is to come. We get to know a very human side of Dr. King. It is an incredible play.” says Levin.
Plays allow an audience to vicariously experience many of the values and characteristics of the people who populate the planet, Levin says. “People we may never get an opportunity to know and places we may never get to see. I look for plays that are relevant to our community and the times that we live in, plays with a social conscience. I want people to learn something in our theatre that they did not know before they walked in.”
Levin has to stay on top of the latest topics and trends. She examines the news and what issues will become part of theater. It might be warfare, AIDS, marriage, attention deficit disorder to name only a few. “I can’t rely on a catalogue of plays already published. I have to look at what is being written today. I know we will aim for those scripts in 12 to 18 months.”
As for the stages, Levin still thrills at the intimate theater spaces. “I can take an artistic risk with a theater that seats 150,” she says. “Those who are seeking something different find us. We may work on our own production or we seek out collaborations with other groups. Inspecting Carol in December was a co-production with us, the UMKC Theatre Department and the Kansas City Actors Theatre. It’s about making the most of our resources and maintaining great relationships with colleagues.”
“We work closely with the Coterie too. I will be down there in January, directing Number the Stars. Jeff Church (the Coterie’s artistic director) often directs here. I hope people in Kansas City know what they’ve got here. I’ve stayed in this city because of the incredibly committed support I have felt from the audience and funding community and the amazing number of talented artists. This is not only a great city to make a living as an artist but it has also become a great city to see art!”
Legendary modern choreographer and teacher Martha Graham once said, “We look at the dance to impart the sensation of living in an affirmation of life, to energize the spectator into keener awareness of the vigor, the mystery, the humor, the variety, and the wonder of life. This is the function of the American dance.”
The women and men at City in Motion Dance Theater honor that spirit with the Modern Night at the Folly. This year marks the 10th anniversary production Feb. 9. This concert builds upon City in Motion’s mission to foster the development of high-quality contemporary dance programming and expand the dance audience in the Kansas City metropolitan area. Since 1985, City in Motion has provided opportunities for local choreographers to present their work through the Choreographers’ Showcase at the former space at 700 West Pennway and at the New Dance Series at Penn Valley Community College Theater.
The co-artistic directors are Dale Fellin, Andrea Skowronek and Stephanie Whittler. Skowronek is one of the five original founders of City in Motion.
“Not only one of the original founders, but one of the original dancers in the company,” she says. “City in Motion fulfills a special cultural niche. There’s the school of dance, the performance series and the professional dance company. We are also unique because we are in midtown so we attract a very diverse population of students, faculty and staff. The children’s dance theater has 19 children and 10 are on scholarships. We want to make dance accessible. If someone has the interest and talent, but a lack of funds, we want to help.”
With the Modern Night at the Folly, Skowronek knows the evolution from performing at the Westside Christian Church where choreographers could present a developing piece, but the desire to up the artistic quality called for a venue change as well as a new name. “The big change was having the submitted works adjudicated by a dance professional from outside the region. The interest has grown and we get choreographers calling months in advance to apply.”
Kansas Citans who love dance and seek out new and original works become the best audience for a Modern Night at the Folly, Skowronek says.
She even references Graham’s early pioneering days in modern dance, plus the eclectic nature of Alvin Ailey. “By the 1960s, modern choreographers were breaking all the rules. New rules were created and then even some of those were set aside. The rebellion was against the confines of toe shoes and now we add aerial dance, performance, hip hop and breakdancing. Modern dance is its own unique category and we are better for it. Audiences look forward to it with completely new pieces and new choreographers who are showing off the latest trends.”
There will be 10 pieces for about a two-hour show. “It’s just simply inspiring,” Skowronek says. As in the past, this performance will take place at the beautiful, historic Folly Theater in downtown Kansas City. This performance will be fully produced by City in Motion, with technical direction by John “Moose” Kimball and production direction by Crystal Robins.
Robins, who has served as production director for three years, has made that full circle in coming back to City in Motion. “I have been part of City in Motion for years. I took classes as a child and then I taught at the studio. I went to the UMKC Conservatory and majored in dance performance. I danced professionally but I found myself drawn back here.”
City in Motion strives to grow dance in the community. “The choreographers find accessibility with the Modern Night at the Folly. Many don’t often put their works on a professional stage with proper lighting. It’s an opportunity to be seen by peers and the dance community. Simply put, it broadens the dance community’s opportunities. Choreographers get to promote themselves and take their work to a bigger stage.” Robins says the first year, 25 choreographers submitted works for judging. The number jumped to 32 last year. She expects close to 40 this year. “I started getting calls in June from interested choreographers,” she says.•
What performing arts venues are some of the oldest in the Kansas City metropolitan area? There’s the Gem Theater that opened in 1912 as the Star before being renamed in 1913. How about the original Midland which opened in 1927? A few months later in early January 1928, the Uptown Theater opened. A more rough-and-tough venue, Memorial Hall, opened in 1925. Then there’s the art deco looks of the 1936 Municipal Auditorium and the adjoining Music Hall. However, the grand dame of all these buildings is the Folly Theater, 112 years old and the recipient of recent facility improvements, and soon, a new marquee sign.
The Folly Theater, wrapped in its brick façade, like a burlesque dancer before she takes the stage, is more than just the building, but a true fixture in Kansas City’s history. Executive Director Gale Tallis says the Folly is like the counterpoint to the Kauffman Center. “We are the veteran hall similar to Carnegie in New York while the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts is new and more similar to Lincoln Center.”
Completed in 1900, the Folly Theater and adjacent Edward Hotel were the center of the theater world in Kansas City for many years. Designed by Kansas City architect Louis Curtiss, “The Grand Lady of Twelfth Street” was managed from 1902 to 1922 by a legendary character named Joe Donegan, who brought the biggest showbiz names in the country to Kansas City. The Folly stage played host to vaudeville and burlesque greats such as the Marx Brothers, Fanny Brice and Gypsy Rose Lee, as well as prizefighters like Jack Dempsey and Jack Johnson.
In the 1970s, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and restored to its early glory through a monumental renovation effort. Tallis says the building was close to demolition, but luckily city leaders, Joan Kent Dillon and Willliam Deramus III saw value in saving the Folly.
“We produce three series – the Folly Jazz Series, the Folly Kids Series and the Folly Cyprus Avenue Live Series. In Addition, our rental clients such as the Harriman-Jewell Series, Friends of Chamber Music, Alvin Ailey II, the Heartland Men’s Chorus and the Kansas City Women’s Chorus. There are unique events such as the American Red Cross Genevieve Byrne Speaker Series or a bodybuilding competition, for instance. City in Motion hosts recitals here as does Betty Tillotson and her school of dance,” Tallis says. “There’s such diversity in programming. Just think about the people who have sashayed, swayed or walked across the stage.
As an example, just in the month of November, performances include the Heart of America Youth Ballet’s Cinderella; Harriman-Jewell Series with opera great and hometown star Joyce DiDonato; Friends of Chamber Music with pianist Jonathan Biss; Cyprus Avenue Live presenting American singer-songwriter Roseanne Cash; and the Kansas City Civic Orchestra. “We treasure the diverse audience, and this year, we are bringing in some younger jazz musicians such as Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen Dec. 14,” Tallis says. “Of course, we applaud Cyprus Avenue Live’s diversity such as Los Lobos, Randy Newman and Blind Boys of Alabama. Even the unique teaming of Bill Shapiro with the Wylliams/Henry Contemporary Dance Company was such an experience.” Tallis says the performers like country singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne, gospel artist Mavis Staples and opera soprano Renee Fleming find a palpable energy on the stage.
An experience is defined as the fact or state of having been affected by or gained knowledge through direct observation or participation. Tallis says the Folly provides an intimate space to experience performances. “The audiences feel close to the performer and vice versa. The acoustics are beyond parallel. Think about this way … in 1900, the concept of amplification didn’t exist. Performers had to have help from the building itself. When it was restored, the original beauty was returned as was the desire to be one of the best theaters for performance.”
Children and families also find a place at the Folly Theater with the Kids’ Series. In this next season, children will find some familiar stories being told on the stage: Charlotte’s Web, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Skippy Jon Jones. On April 4, a group of Kansas City musicians will share a narrative about jazz, aimed at young listeners.
As executive director and part of a small staff, Tallis wears many hats. She not only schedules the talent on the stage, she has to make sure the building is looking its best. To mark its revitalization, and the 30th performing arts season since the Folly was saved, on Nov. 3 there will be a benefit called “Light the Lights.” Vocalist Sam Harris, the original Star Search winner, will perform tunes from the Great American Songbook and a few pop hits.
The crowning achievement for the evening will be turning the switch on the new marquee. “The Folly has not had any sign since 1974. The revitalization will continue to remind people that we are an exciting performance venue.”
Even the history and the ghost stories perpetuate the allure of the Folly Theater. Over the years, Folly employees and theater-goers have told some strange tales. A former custodian reported seeing a mysterious male figure in a bowler hat, who some believe is the ghost of Joe Donegan. The ghostly figure of a woman in a long gown rushing toward the stage, as if late for her cue, has also been described. “When we give tours to younger kids, tweens and teens, the ghost stories really draw them in.”
Where does a 112-year-old building go from here? As part of Kansas City’s history, the movement is forward and in the right direction, Tallis says. “We have great support here. In addition, we continue to present world class acts. In order for the Folly to thrive, we need patrons to come to our shows, become donors for our cause, and to remember the historic value of the Folly. Kansas City supports its artists and its venues. We want to continue to fuel that energy. Even the New Century Follies group, bringing burlesque and vaudeville back to the theater engages the audience, and brings a new, young and artistic energy to the theater as it continues to thrive.”
The inaugural performARTs groups – Coterie Theatre, Kansas City Chorale, Quality Hill Playhouse, Charlotte Street Foundation, Paul Mesner Puppets and the Kansas City Actors Theatre – met at a KCPT to talk about what the outcomes of the series that not only provided a printed story in KC Studio, KCPT produced a piece on the selected groups airing multiple times in the next 12 months on The Local Show.
Executive Director Joette Pelster says the Coterie Theatre used the exposure through the performARTs series as a want to raise funds to send Lucky Duck to New York. “The audiences are those we want to be in front of when you look at the magazine and public television,” she says. “The work represents a comprehensive and institutional piece for us.”
The Kansas City Chorale’s executive director Don Lancasty calls the chance to be part of performARTs an investment. “We had record breaking sales and we really believe significance can be placed on the combined article and feature on KCPT.”
With the spotlight firmly on each organization for two months, Rick Truman, managing director of Quality Hill Playhouse, says both the print and television pieces offered readers and viewers a chance to see the broader range of the performing arts venue. “We leveraged the coverage online and the ability to share the work. We gained some repeat customers.”
John Rensenhouse, actor and president of the Kansas City Actors Theatre, and Audrey Porsche, marketing and development director, both applauded performARTs. Rensenhouse says the ability to put a copy of the article and a CD with the Local Show segment in grant proposals is a plus. “It’s marketing we can’t afford to do,” he says. “We doubled our subscriptions.” Porsche says the information in the e-blasts helped. “We were fortunate to be one of the first six organizations, but this attention to the arts means support for the arts as a whole.”
Marketing & Community Relations Manager Jen Vogrin says Charlotte Street Foundation, which just marked 15 years in the community, is not an easy organization to label. The group’s mission is to serve as a catalyst for grassroots arts and artists in the visual and performing arts. “The channels of communication have opened with a local magazine and a local show featuring local artists.” She said the Artist Walk & Talks at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art will continue this fall and into the spring.
Paul Mesner, whose organization, Paul Mesner Puppets is celebrating its 25th season, was the last to be featured in the first round, says the chance to be part of performARTS brings even more notice to the quality productions and the reach the group has.
This year, six more arts organizations begin with The Folly Theater (November/December 2012); Unicorn Theatre (January/February 2013); Kansas City Ballet (March/April 2013); Jewish Community Center – Performances at the White Theatre (May/June 2013); American Jazz Museum/Gem Theater (July/August 2013); and Mid-America Arts Alliance (September/October 2013).