Outdoor Theater: Starlight and Shakespeare Take Different Paths

Rich Baker, Starlight Theatre CEO (photo by Jim Barcus)

Two Kansas City professional companies that traditionally attract the largest summer theater audiences, this year are going in different directions.

The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, which scrapped its summer show last year amid surging COVID-19 infection rates, recently announced that its planned production of “The Tempest” this year was also cancelled.

“We were fully prepared to work within local health guidelines and safety presents our production this summer in Southmoreland Park,” an official statement announcing the cancellation read. “But due to extremely strict COVID-19 safety protocols from Actors’ Equity Association, mounting a production would have been both logistically challenging and prohibitively expensive.”

Equity is the labor union for actors and stage managers and any Equity member theater — which includes the Shakespeare Festival and Starlight — is obliged to follow union protocols. The union had imposed strict guidelines on member theaters but more recently relaxed those rules to accommodate shows in which all crew and cast members had been vaccinated. 

Meanwhile, Starlight Theatre, the venerable outdoor venue at Swope Park which until last year attracted tens of thousands of spectators to its season of summer musicals as well as concerts, has announced a season of shows which will begin with a concert version of the musical “Godspell.”

Starlight, like the Shakespeare festival, is set up as a nonprofit organization.

Rich Baker, Starlight’s CEO, said cancelling the 2020 season cost the organization about $4 million, including lost ticket revenue. 

“In a normal year any money we make on the show goes to overhead and building maintenance,” Baker said. “The one thing that saved us a little bit is that donations actually went up. People told us to just keep ticket money or roll it over.”

The first show scheduled this year is a concert version of the musical “Godspell,” which will be performed without an intermission. Under union rules, Starlight was not obligated to hire Equity actors for the concert, but Davis said he decided to sign union actors anyway.

“If you do it as a concert you do not have to hire Equity actors but we will,” Baker said. “We’ve always been an Equity house. Let’s face it, nobody has much work if you’re an actor.”

Baker said he has had repeated conversations with staff at the Kansas City Health Department about safety precautions. He said the theater will be equipped with touchless faucets and toilets as well as a mobile ordering system for concessions, all with the goal of limiting physical contact between people.

Although the Starlight season has been sketched out and budgeted, it won’t necessarily be a done deal until Equity signs off. The plan is for representatives of Starlight and the MUNY (the Starlight equivalent in St. Louis) to meet with Equity as soon as early May. 

The Starlight theater season, if nothing changes, is as follows: Concert version of “Godspell,” June 2-27; “The Illusionists,” a touring production, July 20-25; “On Your Feet,” based on the life and career of singer Gloria Estefan (and produced jointly by Starlight and the MUNY), Sept. 7-12; and “Escape to Margaritaville,” the national non-Equity tour of a jukebox musical built around songs by Jimmy Buffett.

Baker said an additional musical is a possibility.

“Don’t be surprised if we do announce another show,” he said. Thanks to vaccinations and increasing numbers of people who have had COVID (including Davis), he said he expects conditions to continue improving.

“By the time we get to our last two shows in September, everything will be fine,” he said. 

Garrett said the Shakespeare festival considered several options, including doing a scaled down production with a handful of actors. Ultimately, she said, there were too many unknowns and potential costs to proceed.

“There are still questions about what happens this summer with the (COVID) variants,” she said. “There was nothing we could do safely that made fiscal sense. And also, we’re in a very weird moment in time. We can’t just turn on a dime and walk into a theater and go. We have to build everything (including the outdoor stage). And that takes a lot more moving parts than if you just walk back on the stage.”

Garrett’s final thoughts: “It’s crazy time, Mister.”

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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