Kansas City Actors Theatre celebrates 20 years with artists in charge

Kansas City Actors Theatre founders (left to right): Walter Coppage, actor; Tom Mardikes, sound designer and former chair of the UMKC Theatre Department; Elizabeth Robbins, actor, who died in 2006; Gary Holcombe, actor, who died in 2011; James F. Mitchell, veteran stage manager; Mark Robbins, actor/ director; Greg Mackender, composer; Gregg Markowski, finance director for the Kansas City Ballet. Not pictured: Carol Patterson, an arts supporter who died before KCAT’s first production. (Kansas City Actors Theatre)

The company looks to the future energized and strengthened by a recent commitment to diversity

No other way to put it: The founders of Kansas City Actors Theatre had attitude.

Beyond that, the eclectic group of actors, directors, designers and money managers shared a dream: What if theater artists could create their own work, stage plays new to Kansas City audiences and, in so doing, pay themselves a living wage? Their motto was “artist led, artist driven.”

Naysayers presumed that would never work. Artists are, by definition, temperamental souls with volatile egos. How could they possibly manage the tedium of filling out grant applications and balancing the books? Some observers said the organization couldn’t survive beyond a year or two. Now? The company is preparing a 20th-anniversary season.

“I had no idea it would last 20 years,” said actor/director Walter Coppage from Nashville, where the national tour of the Broadway revival of “Funny Girl” was performing in early January. (Coppage plays showman Florenz Ziegfeld; the tour took the road company to St. Louis in late January, but Kansas City was not on the schedule.)

“We had a good combination of folks,” Coppage said of the founders. “We quickly found out our strengths, but it was a learning experience all the way through.”

Coppage, thanks in part to television work in Chicago and elsewhere, drifted away from the organization. That changed in 2020, when KCAT issued a statement on diversity signaling a new direction for the company.

“Without qualification, Kansas City Actors Theatre can and must do better because (KCAT) has been lousy at diversity of artistic and operational leadership, as well as diversity of programming and on-stage and behind-the-scenes representation during the entirety of its relatively brief history,” the statement read. “No amount of past brainstorming, hand-wringing, failed plans, unimpressive steps forward and mere hope make up for that. The time for OUR change, in the midst of societal change, is NOW.”

The statement included a commitment to include BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) to positions throughout the organization, both on and off stage.

The apparent sincerity and candor of the statement got Coppage’s attention, enough so that he wanted to again participate in the company he helped found.

“As one of the founders, and as an African American, I decided to get more involved,” Coppage said. “I saw this was a time for change. KCAT was one of the few organizations that put out a statement that said, ‘We were wrong.’”

John Rensenhouse, an actor and director, joined KCAT in its third season. He is now the board president.

“We readily admitted . . . that we were a very white organization,” Rensenhouse said.

That has changed. In addition to Coppage, the company’s core artistic company now includes actor Chioma Anyanwu, actor Teisha Bankston and actor/director Nedra Dixon, all of whom are African American, as well as Jerry Manan, who identifies as Latinx. (Other board members are Rensenhouse, actor Hillary Clemens, director Gary Heisserer, actor Brian Paulette, actor Victor Raider-Wexler, actor/director Jan Rogge, actor/director Cinnamon Schultz, actor Matt Schwader and director Darren Sextro.)

Bankston, Dixon and Manan also serve on the board of directors.

The company’s home is normally the theater in the downstairs area of Union Station. On occasion the company has staged shows in unconventional site-specific locations, including a funeral home. The trend seems likely to continue.

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead,” 2014. (photo by Jeff Rumans)

Rensenhouse said the company’s finances are stable, although that wasn’t the case when he came on board. An ambitious undertaking in 2006 was the “Talley Trilogy,” three interconnected plays by Missouri-born playwright Lanford Wilson, which no theater had done before. The plays, performed in repertory, were well received.

But when the dust settled the company was $100,000 in debt. One reason: Every actor in each show had to be paid for the entirety of the run of all three plays. Another laudatory but costly undertaking, a mini-festival of short and full-length plays by British playwright Harold Pinter, attracted a minimal audience.

Because of that history, Rensenhouse said, the board thinks carefully about meeting audience expectations while striving to do quality work.

“We are cognizant of doing shows that people recognize,” Rensenhouse said. “For the 20th season, we wanted something that was very marketable.”

Rensenhouse said there had been a little — but not substantial — shift in the ethnic makeup of the company’s audiences.

“We have not seen much of a change in our audience patterns,” he said. “Our audience is still older and white. And we’re not losing (ticket buyers). We’ve picked up a little bit of a minority audience.”

Rensenhouse added that if actors of color familiar to audiences from productions at KC Melting Pot Theatre or the Black Repertory Theater of Kansas City are featured in a KCAT show, the company sees a modest increase in minority theatergoers.

Rensenhouse said none of the founders remain involved in KCAT except one.

“Walter Coppage was the only one who came back,” Rensenhouse said. “He’s the only founder still on the board.”

Darren Sextro said he had wanted to stage “Trouble in Mind” for years. The play is a semi-comic depiction of actors of color chafing in a play that requires them to play ethnic stereotypes. But he hesitated to be the sole director of a play from an earlier era that addressed racism faced by actors of color.

“It shouldn’t have a white director,” he said.

Christina Schafer and Forrest Attaway in “A Lie of the Mind,” 2017. (photo by Mike Tsai)

But he added that he had directed Bankston in three productions and believed in her talent and ability. And so they agreed to co-direct.

“I was very aware of Alice Childress, but not the play,” Bankston said.

The diverse makeup of company members and the conspicuous absence of a top-down structure to choose productions makes KCAT unique, according to Bankston. Play titles are suggested, a preliminary list of choices gets whittled down, followed by deep discussions about the strengths of each play and how it fits into the season — or a future season. Unanimity is required for a play to enter production.

The changes have created informal relationships with KC Melting Pot Theatre, founded by Harvey and Linda Williams, and the Black Rep, founded by Damron Russel Armstrong. Armstrong, in fact, directed the KCAT production of Colman Domingo’s “Dot” in 2022.

“I am a huge fan of the work that Harvey and Damron are doing,” Bankston said. “We’re all in this together . . . I love that Kansas City theater is evolving. We’re not done but the needle is moving.”

THE 2024-25 SEASON

“The Lehman Trilogy,” by Stefano Massini and adapted by Ben Power, May 22-June 9, at City Stage in Union Station. The award-winning play by Italian writer Massini follows dozens of characters — all portrayed by three actors — in an epic about an American financial empire begun by immigrants in 1844 and which ultimately collapsed in 2008. The cast has not been announced.

“Trouble in Mind,” by Alice Childress, a playwright, actor and novelist, Aug. 7-25, at City Stage. The play, which was first performed in 1955 and revived to great acclaim decades later, is a backstage story that examines the plight of African American actors asked to portray ethnic stereotypes. The show will be co-directed by Darren Sextro and Teisha Bankston, KCAT’s co-artistic chairs. The cast will include Lynn King as well as Rensenhouse, Jerry Manan and Chioma Anyanwu.

“Dial M for Murder,” the classic thriller by Frederick Knott that has been adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher, Sept. 11-29, at City Stage. The play, which was made as a film by Alfred Hitchcock, is a classic parlor mystery about a planned murder that goes wrong. Katie Gilchrist will direct a cast headed by company member Hillary Clemens.

“Doubt: A Parable,” by John Patrick Shanley, will conclude the season in February and March, 2025. Specific dates are to be announced. The story of an accused priest whose chief accuser, a dedicated nun, remains uncertain of his guilt, will be given a site-specific production at a local church to be announced. Company member Gary Heisserer will direct. The cast will include KCAT members Jan Rogge, Matt Schwader, Christina Schafer and Teisha Bankston.

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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