The best place for good theater is . . . the library?
Doug Weaver concedes that it took a while to come around to the idea. When he and others involved in the Equity Actors’ Readers’ Theatre were looking for a new place to stage their stripped-down, script-in-hand productions a couple of years ago, “we kept getting our heads wrapped around the fact that we needed to be someplace theatrical,” the veteran Kansas City actor and director recalls.
But EARTh productions employ no sets. No costumes or props. Rotating actors read the plays, using their voices, facial expressions and little more than an occasional gesture to bring the text alive. It’s simply about the words.
So yes, the more Weaver and his colleagues thought about it, the library made perfect sense.
“Truth is,” he says, “it probably should have been on our radar from the very first.”
EARTh today is happily at home at the Kansas City Public Library, approaching the end of a second season of well-attended and warmly received performances. The first of those, a selection of readings from Studs Terkel’s best-selling book Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, drew an audience of 151 to the Library’s Plaza Branch in September 2018. Seven more performances through the end of 2019 — from a staged reading of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson to the haunting monologues of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology —averaged an audience of 175.
“From the very first time we were at the Library, it just felt right,” says Weaver, who co-founded EARTh with the late Kip Niven in 2010. “Not just the audience, which is people who read and care about words. But the Library made us feel important to them. Every time we did a show, the actors talked about not just the marvelous space, but the way they felt welcomed.
“It has been perfect for us.”
And for the Library, which has incorporated EARTh’s performances into its broad, award-winning menu of signature programming.
Kaite Stover, KCPL’s director of readers’ services, helps coordinate the performances, starting with play selection. She looks for strong literary ties — hence the launch with Terkel’s best-known work — and draws up related reading lists shared through social media and other outlets.
The Library has long embraced the script-in-hand format, partnering previously on staged readings with the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.
The performances, Stover notes, “bring in audiences that we typically don’t reach with our other programming. And the folks who are our regulars get to see something that maybe they can’t afford to see elsewhere. They might not have season tickets to KCRep or the Unicorn because they can get kind of pricey. But they can see a thought-provoking show . . . and as professional a production as you’ll get at KCRep, the Unicorn or the Met.”
EARTh initially performed in the expansive Music and Arts Building at St. Teresa’s Academy in the Brookside-Crestview area, partnering with Kansas City Young Audiences. When that space became unavailable, it went homeless for several years before landing in the Musical Theater Heritage’s 133-seat Stage 2 space at Crown Center in 2017-18. The company was happy there but cramped.
“What we were really looking for was a place that would meld with what we had in our heads for what EARTh should be,” Weaver says.
Staged readings — or readers’ theater — have made something of a comeback in the country since the height of their popularity in the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. The concept was particularly appealing to budget-conscious college, high school and community theater departments that couldn’t think about mounting plays with multiple sets, large casts and equivalent costume needs.
Modern-day companies like EARTh like the idea of using the format to keep great but cost-prohibitive and thus seldom-seen works in front of audiences. Script-in-hand performances run roughly 90 percent cheaper than full-scale productions, Weaver says.
There’s also appreciation for the simplicity.
“I love big shows, have directed many of them and been in many of them and think they’re wonderful,” says Weaver, who serves as EARTh’s resident director. “But this, the idea that the word is king, is ideal for us. You get great actors — Kansas City is full of them — and have nothing in the way of the script and the audience except their delivery. The play gets to be just what it is.”
He and Niven, his close friend and collaborator, formed EARTh a decade ago for the sheer enjoyment of reading various works with other like-minded friends. Last May, after Niven died of a heart attack at age 73, Weaver says he wasn’t sure about carrying on. “I just didn’t have the energy,” he says.
But Kansas City’s theater community was insistent. “I had 20 or 25 actors contact me within a month or a month and a half of Kip’s passing and say, ‘Please tell me that you’re going to keep doing this, because not only do we enjoy it, it’s important for the city,’ ” Weaver says.
Stover confirmed the Library’s interest in continuing.
“And the fact is,” Weaver says, “I know deep in my heart that Kip would come back and kill me if I didn’t.”