Bold, Audacious, Artist-Led

At 15, Kansas City Actors Theatre is One of the Best in the City

Kansas City Actors Theatre beat the odds.

By any conventional measure, the theater company run by a committee system should have years ago blown up in a supernova of egos. But it didn’t. And the quality of KCAT’s work is better than ever.

As someone who has been reviewing plays in Kansas City for more than two decades, I can say that KCAT has mounted some of the best shows I’ve seen, going all the way back to its very first production in 2005: Martin McDonagh’s harsh, poetic satire, “The Cripple of Inishmaan.”

Most not-for-profit theaters operate from the top down, with an artistic director and/or executive director making the big decisions while answering to a board.

But from the beginning, KCAT traveled its own path. The founders were an unconventional mix: Four actors, a stage manager, a composer, a sound designer and an accountant. Not one of them held more authority than another.

This was to be a different kind of theater. A collective. No artistic director. No executive director. No staff. Decisions would be made by committee. And it would try to live up to the ideal of the founders’ motto: Artist-led, artist-driven.

And it would pay a respectable wage to the artists, including Equity actors and stage managers, as well as designers and directors.

The company performs in the 200-seat City Stage at Union Station and began its 13th season in August with two box-office hits: Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” which became the best-attended KCAT show in the company’s history, and Sam Shepard’s absorbing “A Lie of the Mind.”

They were two very different plays representing the company’s range. Light or dark, serious or sublime, KCAT usually delivers the goods.

The KCAT season continued with “King Lear,” a co-production with UMKC at the Spencer Theatre and featuring Theodore Swetz in the title role. The season opens the new year this month back at Union Station with Gardner McKay’s “Sea Marks,” directed by Jan Rogge and featuring Cinnamon Schultz and Darren Kennedy.

When it comes to programming, the collective pursues specific goals: Stage neglected classics, introduce plays to local audiences and try risky, ambitious projects that no other theater would. If a show is a hit, all the better. If not, that’s the price you sometimes pay for staging challenging, unfamiliar work.

Some of the bolder choices include all of Missouri-born playwright Lanford Wilson’s “Talley Trilogy,” a trio of family dramas set in Lebanon, Missouri. The shows were performed in repertory, a first for a Kansas City theater.

The company also produced a group of plays by British playwright Harold Pinter, including his iconic “The Birthday Party.” KCAT matched William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” in repertory with Tom Stoppard’s brainy comedy “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” focused on two minor characters in “Hamlet.” KCAT was not the first company to do so, but it was an ambitious undertaking.

Audaciously, the company staged Sam Shepard’s “True West” with Mark Robbins and Jim Birdsall reprising roles they had played in their 20s at Missouri Rep (now KC Rep). What could have been a self-indulgent disaster was a beautifully acted production of a great play.

KCAT audiences have seen David Mamet’s searing “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a stunning production of Eugene O’Neill’s volcanic autobiographical masterpiece, “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” and Athol Fugard’s vivid South African prison drama, “The Island.”

The founders were Tom Mardikes, a sound designer and chair of UMKC Theatre; Kansas City Ballet finance director Gregg Markowski; stage manager Jim Mitchell; composer Greg Mackender; and actors Walter Coppage, Gary Holcombe, Mark Robbins and Elizabeth Robbins. Another founder, Carol Patterson, a former board member at Missouri Rep, had passed away unexpectedly before the company could announce its existence and stage its first production.

Two other founders would die in the following years: actors Elizabeth Robbins and Gary Holcombe. But the company persevered through personal tragedies, financial uncertainty and a few productions that were simply aesthetic misfires.

Artist-led, artist-driven

“I have to say that Kansas City Actors Theatre, in terms of my professional activity, is one of my proudest things,” Mardikes said. “I’m thrilled that the company is still going, and going strong.”

Mardikes said the company was founded principally to create work for local theater professionals. At the time, there was a feeling voiced by some theater artists, including Mardikes, that there were too few opportunities for local actors at Kansas City Rep under former artistic director Peter Altman. The founding of KCAT was, in part, a reaction.

“It was a like a jailbreak,” Mardikes said. “We had a situation where local talent was being demeaned and a few of us got together. We had always talked about wouldn’t it be cool if we started our own theater. Conceptually, it was about ‘artist-led and artist-driven.’ That meant artists were going to make artistic decisions. We were going to do what none of us had ever been allowed to do. None of us had ever been involved in play selection or decisions about who would be good to direct.”

Actor-director John Rensenhouse (who staged “And Then There Were None” in August) chairs KCAT’s nine-member artistic committee. At one time he held the title of managing director, a paid position. The company now has a full-time director of development and marketing and a part-time business manager. Rensenhouse added that a full-time production manager is also on the company’s wish list.

During his years with the company, Rensenhouse said, there’s never been a serious discussion about going to a more conventional structure, with an artistic director and/or executive director — even though he said the committee system can be cumbersome.

“Democracy is not the most efficient type of government,” he said. “Our (board) president sort of serves as unpaid executive director . . . We are still in the process of working through the inefficiencies of our unique structure and trying to find a way to make everything work smoothly and not tax any one person serving in a volunteer or board-member capacity.”

The goal remains the same: Don’t waste money on overhead. Pay it to the artists.

“The bottom line is that it’s honoring the mission of the organization,” said board president Darren Sextro, who is also a stage director and Rensenhouse’s domestic partner. “It was agreed upon that there would never be one artistic voice and we continue to honor that. We also want to make sure that as much of the money as possible flows to the artistic staff rather than administrative costs. Thus far, for 13 or 14 years, we’ve been able to struggle through with a board of directors.”
Hits — such as “The Gin Game” and “I’m Not Rappaport” — are always welcome, but Rensenhouse said some shows failed to find audiences.

“We suffer at the box office on occasion,” Rensenhouse said. “The Pinter plays were probably our least-attended shows in our history, but those shows were so good they needed to be part of the mix. The Edward Albee one-acts (‘At Home at the Zoo’), people stayed away from in droves.”

Of the founders, only Gregg Markowski remains on the board, although others, including Walter Coppage and Mark Robbins, have sometimes returned to direct or perform.

There’s a lot of discussion

KCAT was never a true repertory company, but it has acquired some of the characteristics of one. Audiences have seen individual actors play a range of roles, often opposite players with whom they have shared the stage in previous productions. Sometimes, artists known as actors, such as Schultz, will direct.

Schultz in 2016 delivered a riveting performance as the doomed Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and this season returned to direct Sam Shepard’s “A Lie of the Mind” in the fall. The cast of the Shepard play included her husband, Brian Paulette, who has been seen in numerous KCAT productions, as well as veteran actress Jan Rogge. Rogge, as it happens, will be directing Schultz in this month’s production of Gardner McKay’s “Sea Marks.”

Schultz, Paulette and Rogge are all on the artistic committee, which Schultz said basically operates on a “majority rules” basis. The committee decides which plays will be in a season and often chooses directors and actors for specific roles.

“There’s a lot of discussion,” Schultz said. “We start the process for selecting a season several months in advance and we start by everyone bringing ideas. And we read a lot of scripts if we haven’t read them before. And we discuss what people are passionate about — what would be good for KCAT and how it would balance the season.”

Someone else on the board suggested Schultz as Blanche DuBois, she said. But she brought up “A Lie of the Mind” because she had directed a truncated version of the Shepard play at Johnson County Community College. She wanted to tackle it again in a full-length professional production.

It happened to be her first professional directing job.

“This is the first time, truly, for me being able to explore (my) capacity as a director, and I have to admit I was extremely nervous that people wouldn’t listen to me,” she said. “But everybody was unbelievably respectful.”

Committee deliberations almost always yield positive results, Schultz said, but they can be contentious.

“It’s had its ups and downs,” she said. “Whenever you get a group of strong-minded people together, opinions come out. But when you have the right people who are ultimately respectful of each other, you always walk away happy — or at least satisfied. We listen to each other. I honestly think that’s how it’s lasted this long.”

Coppage, who played Polonius in the company’s 2014 production of “Hamlet” and two years later directed “The Island,” said he is no longer on the board but is pleased to see the company’s continued life.

“The reason I joined was that for me it was another theater, which meant more local contracts on the street and more jobs for actors and designers and directors,” Coppage said. “Since then a lot more theaters have come along. The town has grown and that’s what I wanted to see happen.”

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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