Spinning Tree Theatre: A Valentine to the City

Andy Parkhurst and Michael Grayman are the co-founders and partners behind the ever-growing Spinning Tree Theatre.

Good theater, like a baby, takes time to develop. Spinning Tree Theatre co-founders Michael Grayman and Andy Parkhurst are not only nurturing their creative offspring along, they are looking at plays that can be as cultivated as the company. With that comes Motherhood Out Loud, presented Feb. 6 -16 at Off Center Theatre in Crown Center.


As a matter of fact, this New Year’s Day marks the fourth anniversary of Grayman and Parkhurst’s decision to start a small professional theater company. The two men relocated from New York to Kansas City in late August 2010. They contacted Kansas City Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts and by October had incorporated Spinning Tree Theatre. Parkhurst says the name conjures images of branches moving, strength through roots and diversity with leaves and their changing nature from buds in the spring to the vibrancy of fall.

Their non-profit status arrived just in time for their inaugural production, Make Me a Song: The Music of William Finn, in April 2011. “We also enjoy letting the audience use their imagination and that use starts with defining the poetry of our name,” Parkhurst  says. Their goal is to present new, contemporary and classic pieces that are relevant,  thought-provoking and entertaining.

“The 3- to 5-year plan is to find our own theater space,” Parkhurst says. “Right now, we move among venues such as Off Center and Just Off Broadway. We even had Shipwrecked at Paul Mesner Puppets Studios. It was a great space to bring back childhood through the immersion of the story. Sure, we would love our own space, but we are moving and planning with deliberate steps. We have three shows this season and four shows planned for next year. We are growing our patron base.”

Grayman says the decision to move to a third show this year was in response to their fans. The two men are also ensconced in the business aspects too.  They write the grants and handle the day-to-day operations. “There’s always something to do,” he says. Parkhurst says they also seek out advice and have a cadre of honorary advisors who mentor the men. Locally one of the mentors is J. Kent Barnhart, founder and executive director of Quality Hill Playhouse. Managing Director Rick Truman has also given a hand in business operations. “Kent has been so generous. He believes in what we do, but he offers constructive criticism.”

The men also treasure collaboration. “The fact that we can rent a venue and then if someone has some resources we can share, they are most likely offered,” Parkhurst says. “It’s been a great help.”

Their shows have run the gamut from tried-and-true musicals such as The Fantasticks to the more avant-garde Hello Again. In November, a six-person cast offered up their best in Ain’t Misbehavin: The Fats Waller Musical Show. The season will end in May with Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. In February, they offer a Kansas City premiere with Motherhood Out Loud.


“Five out of nine of our shows have been Kansas City premieres and we have to continue to build on that. We believe our audiences crave this,” Parkhurst says. Motherhood Out Loud comes from the minds of 14 leading playwrights including such notables as Beth Henley, who wrote Crimes of the Heart; David Cale, whose Palomino was here at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre; and Theresa Rebeck, whose play Seminar was just on stage at the Unicorn. “Both of us have strong relationships with our moms,” Parkhurst says.  Grayman says he is thrilled to offer a Kansas City audience more Henley and Rebeck. “This is a valentine to our moms,” he says. “As adults, we are friends with our moms. Now we see our childhood and their parenthood as supportive and humorous.” Parkhurst calls it a “smart show.”

Four local actors are gearing up to play in Motherhood Out Loud: Julie Shaw, Natalie Liccardello, Kelly Main and Rick Truman.  The play has been around for a little more than two years.

Truman has been a friend and collegial help in his role as managing director at Quality Hill Playhouse, but Parkhurst and Grayman have seen Truman act. More of Truman’s responsibilities lean toward directing, but during past holiday seasons, Truman played in Kansas City Young Audience’s staged reading of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Christmas Carol. He played Tiny Tim. “It’s been a while since I have done an actual stage production,” Truman says. “I had lunch with the guys and we talked about me needing the right opportunity to go back on the stage. It had to fit in my work schedule.

Initially I didn’t think I would be the right fit, but after reading the play, I fell in love. It’s a funny, tug-at-your-heartstrings show that has the drama it needs.”

Natalie Liccardello also has a day job, but loves to act. She was in Spinning Tree’s Master Class in 2012. “It was my first experience with Andy and Michael. Then I had the chance to read Motherhood and I knew I wanted to be a part. I love monologue shows and have appeared in a few such as The Vagina Monologues. There is always an essential theme that ties all the individual stories together and the nice thing is that if you’re not immediately enraptured, just wait until the next scene. There is a need for the true female voice in theater and that is what drew me to this.”

Julie Shaw’s vocal skills often get her theater jobs, but the chance to present comedy really has appealed with Motherhood Out Loud, she says. “Plus I am the mother of two children, ages 10 and 5. They obviously give me that ‘real world’ experience to call upon … For me, the child who has been diagnosed on the autism spectrum hits me as does the mother who has to lie beside her child’s crib so the child will sleep. I am familiar with that one. I did go through some of the pieces. Being a mom changes your perspective on everything.”

This will be her third show with Spinning Tree Theatre. She played in The Fantasticks and the spring 2013 show, Hello Again. “Andy and Michael take great care in casting and the rehearsal process. They feel so strongly to put on quality productions they love,” Shaw says. “From the first time I met them, I knew these were two people I wanted to be around.”

Kelly Main is the fourth actor to round out the cast. She is also the mother to two sons. It’s her first Spinning Tree show as an actor, but she has seen several of the plays including Shipwrecked!  “I’m not much of a singer so I knew working with this theater company would require just the right role. Motherhood is a tough lifestyle that is not always conducive to being an actor, but this spoke to me.”


Both men are thrilled with the talent in the metropolitan area. “We are still meeting great actors,” Grayman says. “That’s important as we look for the talent. We have a wish list of shows we would like to do and finding the right actors means we can try to program shows based around the right talent. It all has to fall in line.” The other joy is that people seek out Grayman and Parkhurst. “We had about 100 actors at auditions last May. The interest is growing in what we do.” Next season should include four shows. “Our goal is to produce shows that people talk about all the way home from the theater,” Grayman says. “We are constantly planning good choices today so we can move toward a prosperous tomorrow.”

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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