Defining Spinning Tree Theatre might be a difficult undertaking. The four-season young theater company’s co-founders, Andrew Parkhurst and Michael Grayman, continually challenge themselves and those actors and crew who join them.
“We are committed to offering intelligent and beautiful plays and musicals,” Grayman says. Parkhurst adds that diversity is also important. “This season, we have focused on producing pieces that have strong female voices with Ghost-Writer, Violet and Black Pearl Sings.” The founders’ strong commitment to diversity enables them to attract Kansas City talent to their projects.
One of the most recent successes, critically and financially, came with the contemporary musical Violet. Board members and patrons alike view Violet a a turning point. “The play really aimed at looking at the underdog,” Parkhurst says. “Now there are many who want to see how we will grow and follow our instincts and hearts.
Spinning Tree’s mission captures the need to reflect the diversity of Kansas City, presenting new, contemporary and classic pieces that are relevant, thought-provoking and entertaining. “We aim to meet our audiences halfway. If they attend a show to be entertained, we appreciate that. If there is something deeper to be gained from play or musical, even better,” Grayman says. Parkhurst wants to see patrons unite their feelings and thoughts. “When we see that in our patrons, we are challenged to do better theater.”
Grayman has the title of artistic director and Parkhurst, managing director. “We share responsibilities,” Grayman says. “We select the plays and musicals together.” The two learn together as well, Parkhurst explains. “It is a methodical approach and nothing is off the cuff because we know that we impact the company and the organization’s future,” Parkhurst commented.
As the young theater grows, Spinning Tree has doubled season subscriptions. They now present four shows a season. According to Parkhurst, one such challenge is finding a permanent theater with 100 to 130 seats. Right now, the theater company has used Just Off Broadway Theatre, Quality Hill Playhouse, Paul Mesner Puppets Studio and Off Center Theatre. “Location is of enormous importance,” says Grayman. “Our patrons are loyal and follow us, but if we want to add a fifth or sixth show, our own place will be advantageous,” Parkhurst explains.
While Parkhurst and Grayman look for a permanent location, they are still moving forward with two more shows for this season. The first is Frank Higgins’ Black Pearl Sings March 6-22. “It is an intriguing piece. I saw Frank at an event and he told me about the success in other cities with the show,” says actress Nedra Dixon. “When Michael and Andy talked to me about the role, we agreed that as Frank is our homegrown playwright, it was about time to have the play staged here.”
According to Higgins, an instructor in playwriting, theater history and dramaturgy at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, this play had its first reading in town around 2006 at the Rockhurst Reading Series and then started a trek through the nation, landing in theaters in Virginia, Texas, Florida and Ohio. Now Higgins is thrilled to see this Kansas City premiere.
Higgins’ play echoes the story of legendary bluesman Lead Belly, whose work was recorded by folklorist John Lomax for the Library of Congress around 1933. “I tossed around the idea of what a person would go through for that one song. I then thought that the sociological interest would be heightened by making the characters women. So that is where we find Pearl and Susannah. Pearl is in a women’s prison farm and singing the songs from her parents and grandparents. Susannah is seeking out the songs for the Library of Congress.”
Dixon plays Pearl. “I remember my grandfather from Louisiana singing Do Lord Remember Me? It was just such a pure form. It will be a gift to sing these songs.” She also likes Pearl as a woman. “She’s a survivor, on a mission and when she sees a kindred spirit in Susannah, a woman who wants to find her place in the world, it all works. The audience sees their strengths and capabilities,” Dixon says.
Vanessa Severo calls Spinning Tree Theatre “fearless” in play and musical selections. “I am overjoyed that Frank gets his play performed here. I am baffled no one has done this.” Severo will play Susannah. “It’s a great piece for women and I know the audience will walk away moved.”
The fourth production is Fiddler on the Roof April 23-May 10. Gary Neal Johnson takes on the role of Tevye, a poor Jewish milkman with five daughters. “For 10 years now, I have told folks that my ‘bucket list’ roles are Willy Loman and Tevye. The Kansas City Repertory Theatre, a few years ago, cast me as Willy Loman and now I get to be Tevye,” says Johnson.
Grayman and Parkhurst indicate that this musical production will be more intimate and focus on character development. “With a modest theater, there is richness in finding the intimacy. Not only do the actors achieve a more introspective tone so does the audience,” Johnson notes.
Julie Shaw plays Golda. Fiddler on the Roof marks her fifth show with Spinning Tree and she applauds Grayman and Parkhurst for their support of their actors and the collaborative nature of acting. “On a personal level, I love the opportunities they have given me. Golde’s a devoted mother to her daughters and loving to her husband. When I was offered the role, I was excited to be playing opposite Gary Neal; it’s icing on the cake. I love the music and the story. Michael and Andy will get to the heart of it, strip it down and nurture it to present a beautiful story about people, their faith and a country they love.”
Next year’s season will include West Side Story, a musical with strong ties to Grayman and Parkhurst. They met on the 40th anniversary Broadway and European tours of the musical. “We are going to tell and dance the story,” Grayman says. “We started with a dream.” Parkhurst reaffirms that they are happy utilizing the local pool of talent and providing theater to a receptive community. “Our hearts are getting rich,” Grayman says.