A New Weekly Program Will Air at Noon Fridays on 90.1 KKFI-FM
And so the artists at Kansas City Actors Theatre wrestled with the question all theater professionals have confronted this year: What are we gonna do?
The COVID-19 pandemic basically shut down theater everywhere — Kansas City, Chicago, New York and all points in between. Actors Equity Association, the union for actors and stage managers, enacted strict guidelines that largely prevented conventional rehearsals. When and if theaters can reopen, social distancing requirements will dictate greatly reduced seating capacities — no more sold-out houses, in other words.
(Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in an Instagram live chat with actress Jennifer Garner in early September that if a vaccine is developed that could be 70 percent effective, then by mid-to-late 2021 “I think you can walk into a theater without a mask and feel like it’s comfortable that you aren’t going to be at risk.”)
Two companies — MTH Theater at Crown Center and the Unicorn Theatre — opted to try the “virtual” route by producing shows that would be recorded without an audience and made available to audiences for streaming.
But at KCAT, the company’s artists found hope in an old historical model — radio drama. Radio drama was huge from the 1920s through the ’50s, as networks beamed soap operas, mysteries and westerns into living rooms across the country.
So KCAT is revisiting that tradition with Kansas City Actors Radio Theatre, a weekly program that was scheduled to kick off at noon October 2 on 90.1 KKFI-FM, the community radio station. Scheduled initially to run at noon Fridays through March next year, the weekly broadcast will present new performances of vintage radio dramas, including Agatha Christie’s “The Case of the Careless Victim” and “A Murderous Revision” from the old “Suspense” series. A comedy, “The Bickersons,” will also be in the rotation.
But the crown jewel of the lineup will be a new work by actor/playwright Forrest Attaway called “Kansas City: 1924,” a 10-episode historical drama that takes an imaginative look at the city’s florid history of politics, crime and cattle.
The shows will be broadcast as well as streamed on the station at KKFI.org/listen.
After each episode’s premiere, it will enter the mix on the Kansas City Actors Theatre podcast.
The actors’ lineup features company members and performers closely associated with KCAT, including Hillary Clemens, Walter Coppage, Nedra Dixon, Brian Paulette, Shawna Pena-Downing, Victor Raider-Wexler, John Rensenhouse, Jan Rogge, Cinnamon Schultz and Matt Schwader.
Attaway, whose previous works for the stage include “Worth,” “The Grave” and “Chainsaw: The Musical,” said he envisioned KC in 1924 as a city on the verge.
“I picked that year for a very specific reason,” Attaway said. “I knew I wanted to do it during prohibition. And it’s an important (presidential) election year because it was the first time since women’s suffrage (in 1920) that the women’s vote was important. And it was the year before the Pendergast machine really came into power.”
All the significant political struggles were within the Democratic Party. Republicans, at least in this part of the country, were relegated to the sidelines. And then there was Kansas City’s deserved reputation as the “Paris of the Plains.”
“Kansas City was very much like Las Vegas,” Attaway said.
Attaway said he felt free to play with historical facts as it suited his dramatic purposes.
“I don’t have to be historically accurate,” he said. “I just can’t be historically inaccurate. One of the major tropes in the narrative is the Mafia fighting against the Livestock Exchange. So it’s cowboys versus the Mafia. Who wouldn’t want to see that movie?”
Attaway also pointed out that 1924 was the year that the Kansas City Monarchs won the Negro League World Series. And, it almost goes without saying, jazz was thriving. African Americans figure into Attaway’s storyline significantly.
Among the actors are Mark Robbins as a local mob boss; Matt Schwader as a member of the Chicago mob sent to KC to keep his head down; Jan Rogge as “the queen of the Livestock Exchange”; Gary Neal Johnson as a Texas oilman; Scott Cordes as a bartender; and Walter Coppage as a reporter for “The Call Kansas City.”
Attaway said he’s never attempted a radio drama before. Nor does he have any memory of hearing them as a kid.
“I remember my father taking about ‘The Lone Ranger’ (on radio),” he said. “I always thought radio itself just lends itself to a kind of theater of the mind . . . This is the first time I’ve done anything like this, man. My hope is that my intelligence is high enough to make this work.”
Veteran actor Victor Raider-Wexler, a long-standing KCAT member, was tagged to direct. Raider-Wexler said he is old enough to carry fond memories of radio dramas from childhood.
“I was 12 before we got the television set, so that big radio in the living room was the center of everything,” he said. “And we were just whisked away. For me, it was just absolute magic.”
Trying radio drama made sense to Raider-Wexler. He said he had watched a few plays performed via the Zoom app but found them boring.
“I’ve got no template,” he said. “I’ve got nothing to guide me. I’m trying to shape it into something that’ll make people come back.”
One fact of life in Kansas City, though, makes his job a little easier.
“This city has more good actors than any place I’ve ever been,” Raider-Wexler said. “We’ve got terrific actors, and I think we’ve got some of the best in our company.”
For more information, visit www.kcactors.org