Cheryl Weaver (KCRep)
Remembering Cheryl Weaver, Paul Tyler and Lou Jane Temple
I might as well start with the truth: I’m angry.
Cheryl Weaver, one of the best actors I was privileged to see perform, died of cancer June 7. She was 65. Actors tend to be larger than life by nature, and so their departures seem correspondingly heavy. You remember them less as they were in private life than by the indelible effect they summoned onstage.
This is the part that makes me angry: Weaver’s passing was part of a pattern of gifted performers whose lives were cut short.
Elizabeth Robbins died of cancer in 2006 when she was 51. She had delivered memorable performances at Missouri Repertory Theatre (now Kansas City Rep) and the Unicorn, among other companies. She was a founder along with her husband, Mark Robbins, of Kansas City Actors Theatre.
Karen Errington died in 2011 at the age of 49 after a second bout with breast cancer. Errington was a skilled musical theater performer who excelled at comedy but also demonstrated an impressive dramatic ability at times.
Comic actor and singer Debra Bluford, who was virtually an institution at the New Theatre and its predecessors, Tiffany’s Attic Dinner Playhouse and the Waldo Astoria, died in 2019 three weeks after a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
These women were skilled artists. They were loved and respected by their families and peers. And there is no question that had they survived, they would have continued to grow as artists, continued to surprise us with their talent, continued to create memories for themselves and us.
Cheryl Weaver: A Class Act
I had seen Weaver onstage at the Rep, the Unicorn, the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, the Coterie, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and the long-gone American Heartland Theatre. Her resume included performances at the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco, the Dallas Shakespeare Festival and the Purple Rose Theatre Company (founded by Jeff Daniels) in Michigan.
She was always a class act. She seemed equally comfortable performing farce and tragedy. And she could produce a perfect Cockney accent — which she was called on to do at least once that I recall in the Rep’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol.”
“Cheryl was a person of grace, beauty, humor, creativity, strong work ethic, wit, intelligence and a seemingly bottomless well of life energy,” one obituary read. “She had an enormous heart. She had an absolute belief that people should be free to be whatever they wanted to be, love whoever they wanted to love, and be happy in their life. She didn’t just say it. She acted on it.”
Paul Tyler: “Keep Tending the Net”
Weaver wasn’t the only loss. Paul Tyler, who passed away on May 30 at the age of 68, was a respected figure in the Kansas City arts community. More than that, he was beloved. At least that’s the word more than one person used to describe him.
Tyler retired in 2016 after serving 14 years as the grants director of ArtsKC-Regional Arts Council. In that position, he was responsible for getting money into the hands and bank accounts of grants recipients.
In an in-depth interview with Julie Denesha of KCUR-FM at the time of his retirement, Tyler explained that for years he had tried to explain how the arts could be powerful and, at the same time, extremely fragile.
“A strong, thriving arts community is kind of like a net,” he said. “It can reach out and harvest great riches back to the community, and yet when any individual part of the net is frayed or torn or broken, it leaves a hole and it’s hard to mend.”
In that light, he said arts organizations and individual artists had a basic responsibility moving forward.
“Keep tending the net,” he said. “Keep trying to make it stronger. Keep building those connections. Find those relationships and cultivate them.”
Well-known opera tenor Nathan Granner, in a post on Tyler’s Facebook wall, shared this memory: “My first time seeing Paul, he was putting giant post-it notes up on the walls, with ideas of exactly how we wanted to be seen, represented, supported as artists in Kansas City. I had no idea how much his penmanship and dedication to this exercise would ultimately change my life, but at that moment I could see that he was in earnest…”
Granner remembered Tyler as someone always in motion, planning, mentoring, facilitating for countless artists in every discipline. He was always striving for more partnerships, more granting opportunities . . .”
Karen Paisley, artistic director of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, wrote that Tyler took her seriously when she told him she wanted to start a theater company and took her seriously again when she asked how to apply for grants.
“Your kindness and humor and spirit, commitment to excellence, and…gentle, but fighting spirit set you apart from others,” Paisley wrote. “The arts scene in Kansas City is better because of you.”
Lou Jane Temple: “The Weirder the Better”
Lou Jane Temple, who made a mark as an author of cookbooks and mystery novels, a restaurant owner, keeper of multiple shops and friend to alternative theater in Kansas City, passed away on May 29 on Tybee Island, Georgia, where she lived with her daughter. She was 74.
A review of Temple’s career suggests someone who never quite got beyond the 1960s, a creative soul who would spontaneously involve herself in projects that had virtually no chance of paying for themselves.
Lisa Cordes, in a reminiscence posted on Facebook, recalled that the inaugural production of a new theatre group called Eyes Wide Open staged a play called “Cowboy Mouth,” by Sam Shepard and Patti Smith. It couldn’t have happened without Lou Jane.
The show “was held in the loft/warehouse/home of Lou Jane Temple,” Cordes wrote. “We barely knew this woman who opened her home to us for a play she had never seen, and filled it with an audience of beautiful, creative, hilarious humans. She threw a party afterwards (actually, the whole thing was a party), filled her kitchen bathtub with booze, and let us use her bedroom (crammed with the inventory of her recently closed November Pink shop) as a dressing room.”
That afternoon, during rehearsals, actor Scott Cordes found Temple in her kitchen and asked, “Come on, is this too weird?” To which Temple replied, “The weirder the better.”
Lisa Cordes wrote that “for the next few years, with the opening of Cafe Lulu, Lou Jane made space, served food, and gave permission to a community of the wonderfully weird to take crazy risks, and eschew institutions and their gatekeepers. She made space where I could write and perform about AIDS, war, censorship — whatever was burning a hole in my gut.”
Describing Lou Jane as a “rare hybrid of Bohemian and Midwestern Mom,” Cordes concluded with a sweet tribute: “RIP Lou Jane Temple. You were a role model for risk-taking and reinvention. Thank you for the enchanted spaces, food, and community you created.”
Mark Manning, an alternative theater veteran, recalled that he went to work at Cafe Lulu in 1989. Opening night was his first work shift. He introduced her to crazed theater artist Ron Megee.
“After the first year at Cafe Lulu, Lou Jane, Ron and I created a Monday night show called ‘The Spoken Word,’” Manning recalled in a long Facebook post. “It wasn’t an ‘open mic,’ we actually curated each show, created a special running order, and while writers were a big part of the show, eventually the performance artists took over.”
Those Monday night shows led to the creation of the alternative theater company Big Bang Buffet. And the audiences were diverse.
“‘The Spoken Word’ could be wild, packed, loud,” Manning recalled. “Audiences were part of the show. High school kids from Johnson County sat drinking dark coffee and smoking cigarettes in a room full of artists, writers, neighborhood folk and unsuspecting Monday night diners. Lou Jane was our Art Mother, feeding us all, giving us a job, reminding us to love each other and keeping the show alive.”
These memories recall a time in Kansas City when creatives could be unbound, unorthodox and spontaneous. There was a real alternative theater scene, and nothing was packaged. It was art that existed in the moment.
Heidi Van, playwright, director and actor, reflected on the deaths of these three people.
“Kansas City lost three sweet souls this week,” she wrote in a June 5 post. “Cheryl Weaver, Paul Tyler and Lou Jane Temple made such an imprint on the arts community and touched the lives and hearts of so many of us. Their love and passion contributed to the richness of the artistic landscape, and their impact will always remain, reminding us to embrace our own passions, creativity and love for the arts and each other.”