Building Community through the Arts

Photo courtesy Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre

Community theater has a strong foothold at 115th and Nall in Johnson County. Tucked away behind the bluffs near the Sprint Center campus, the Jewish Community Center’s White Theatre and all the artistic opportunities that take the stage are sometimes overlooked. For Cultural Arts Director Krista Lang Blackwood, the need to be seen is part of her plans.

For eight seasons, the White Theatre has produced plays, musicals and at least one big summer musical annually. If the plays and musicals call for larger casts, it is rarely an issue to find actors and actresses. Finding an audience that will come to Johnson County from all over the metropolitan community is a little tougher.

“Our shows usually have some Jewish content or reflect a Jewish value. We have been able to increase direct Jewish content with our new visiting artists series, bringing in groups like The Maccabeats and Joshua Nelson’s Kosher gospel. In our community theater, establishing a Jewish connection is not too difficult because Jewish values are human values. Take a concept like tikkun olam, a Jewish value translated ‘repairing the world.’ It’s not just a Jewish value. It’s universal. You can always find Jewish values in theater productions that have nothing to do with Jewish culture. If I can make Jewish connections to Avenue Q, I can make Jewish connections to almost anything” Blackwood says.

In early April, the theater presented The Diary of Anne Frank. “I met with the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education, which is also housed at the Jewish Community Campus, and their scholars expressed some trepidation. Turns out the play is stripped of many of the Jewish references one finds in the diary because of Otto Frank, Anne’s father. Mr. Frank has been quoted that he didn’t want it to be a ‘Jewish play.’ For Frank, the play’s mission was to generalize Anne’s experience so that it becomes an existential one, not a specifically historical one. For Holocaust scholars and educators, this is a problem. But it’s also a teaching moment for our audiences,” Blackwood says.

The final show of the 2012-2013 season is Hairspray. This year, Johnson County Theatre in the Park and the Jewish Community Center will co-produce the show. “It’s a new collaboration, an experiment. We share much of the same on-stage talent but we are also hoping to expand the community-at-large reach by putting »»
the musical up here and at the park.” The show runs July 13-28 at the Jewish Community Center and then at Theatre in the Park Aug. 2-4 and 8-10.

Hairspray examines the early 1960s and the concepts of social justice, integration and body images. “Audiences can be entertained. Other patrons like to dig deeper and we’ve begun to structure ways for them to do that, particularly with talk-backs after the shows. These interactive meetings usually grow through the run of a show. As an example, in February, we presented the musical Next to Normal. After each show, we hosted talk-backs with social workers, therapists, individuals living with mental illness and their families. Each subsequent performance drew more folks in to the theater and as the show ran, more and more stayed for the talk-backs. That’s theater operating at another, deeper level.” In programming a season, Blackwood says, “the trick is about creating balance and variety.”

The 2013-2014 season starts with Les Miserables 7:30 p.m., Nov. 9, 14, 16, 21, 23, 24 and 2 p.m., Nov. 10 and 17. The musical will again be directed by Mark Swezey the long-time director at the White Theatre. “We snapped the show up as soon as we could,” Blackwood says. “This is a huge show that we have been building towards for the past couple of years …” Other shows and guest artists include Paul Mesner Puppets presents Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, based on a book by Eric Kimmel in late November. Songwriter and public radio host Ben Sidran offers a discussion on his book, There Was A Fire: Jews, Music and the American Dream, Dec. 15. Tim Bair, the artistic director at Johnson County Theatre in the Park, will direct Neil Simon’s Brighton Beach Memoirs in mid-January 2014. Director Barb Nichols and musical director Martha Risser take on Stephen Sondheim’s Company in February. Shane Bertram Baker presents his show The Big Bupkis! A Complete Gentile’s Guide to Yiddish Vaudeville March 9 and 10. Director Darren Sextro will work with community actors in To Kill a Mockingbird in April. Jewish rocker Rick Recht arrives April 27. Monty Python’s Spamlot, under the direction of Swezey, ends the season in July.

And if Blackwood could look into the future, she would want more people around the metropolitan area to find the White Theatre. “Our main goal is to create community through arts. I often get asked about what special rules people need to follow if they are seeing a show at the Jewish Community Center. ‘Do I need to wear a yarmulke or keep kosher?’ The answer? Our theater is no different than any other theater in town, in that aspect. Come as you are and enjoy the show. AND, as a bonus, parking is really easy.” Blackwood adds with a smile.

The 2014-2015 season will be the 10th Anniversary Season. It will be a combination of harkening back to then looking forward, Blackwood says. “Community theater is about building community through the arts. Think of all the families whose children are a part of our shows who become regular theatergoers because of it. It’s not just about entertaining, but we are creating a community of people who appreciate the arts.”•

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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