‘An Exciting Page Turn’

In a New Partnership, Fishtank and The Living Room Will Share Black Box Space in the West Bottoms

For more than 10 years, audiences at the tiny Fishtank Theatre saw experimental theater, mini-musicals, offbeat plays, solo performances, Fringe Festival shows and singular events such as a 24-hour live reading of a memoir by Alaska governor (and failed vice-presidential candidate) Sarah Palin.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away at an old warehouse that housed The Living Room Theatre, people were seeing adaptations of Roger Corman movies, a revisionist bare-bones production of the classic musical “Carousel,” a bloody Shakespearean tragedy or two, original works by local playwrights (including a holiday musical), a few productions that incorporated the old building’s freight elevator, and a memorable staging of Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” which required the audience to move as a group from one scene to the next on more than one floor.

In short, these two theaters epitomized the alternative performing arts in the Crossroads. A few shows at the Fishtank used the former retail space’s big picture windows for an audience seated in chairs on the sidewalk. The Living Room had two vast floors suitable for a wide range of theater styles and an art gallery. But then the Crossroads began to change. The building that housed the Fishtank at 1715 Wyandotte was sold. More recently, The Living Room came to the end of its lease on the converted warehouse at 1818 McGee.

But more than a year ago, Heidi Van, the Fishtank’s curator, found a whitewashed 1940s-vintage cinderblock garage in the West Bottoms that she believed would work nicely for small productions. And in February, the companies issued a joint announcement: They would enter a formal partnership and share the space at 1060 Union Ave.

The venue, called the Black Box, is a separate not-for-profit entity with Van serving as its founder/manager. Since Van took possession, it has become a space for small theater companies and independent producers to stage shows. The new partnership will bring technical upgrades, including the Living Room’s seating and lighting instruments.

“It makes so much sense,” Van said. “We are all doing the same kind of things, so it makes so much sense to be doing it out of the same space.”

Rusty Sneary, who co-founded The Living Room with Shawnna Journagan in 2010 (a year after the birth of the Fishtank), said he and Journagan had considered becoming a nomadic company for a while. Now they don’t have to.

“We and Heidi have worked together for years and she’s directed stuff here,” he said. “We’ve always had a great relationship as brother-sister small theater companies here in the Crossroads. We’ve shared resources and been friends a long time. It was a no-brainer that we would continue to work together and assist each other for a long time.”

The two companies launched a fundraising campaign in March to match a $25,000 gift from Theater League. If successful, Sneary said there could be additional money-raising drives.

“One of our biggest goals with this campaign is to basically raise rent for the Black Box for an entire year,” Sneary said. “It will also allow us to welcome new companies into the space as well, for a very affordable rent.”

Each company will maintain its distinct not-for-profit status. Van will continue as artistic producing director of the Fishtank. Sneary will remain the artistic director of The Living Room with Journagan as the executive director.

Van said the old Fishtank space covered about 400 square feet. So the Blackbox, with about 1,600 square feet, was a step up. The Living Room’s venue on McGee, on the other hand, covered about 15,000 square feet, so Sneary and Journagan will have less room to play with. But Journagan said that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Above: Rusty Sneary, artistic director of The Living Room theater, and Heidi Van meet at the Black Box space at 1060 Union Avenue in the West Bottoms, where Van’s Fishtank Theatre is entering a partnership with The Living Room. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Robert Trussell

Robert Trussell is a veteran journalist who has covered news, arts and theater in Kansas City for almost four decades.

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