Students and Audiences Alike Reap Benefits of UMKC Graduate Theatre Program

Nationally, it enjoys high ratings; locally, the productions are not-to-be-missed.

UMKC Theatre students (from left to right) Ken Sandberg, Charlie Spillers and Jamarr Love performed in “The Way of the World” by William Congreve last February. Photo by Manon Halliburton

Area theatergoers who haven’t experienced productions by UMKC’s graduate theatre program are missing out on some great shows, such as the funny but shocking “Oh, Beautiful,” by Theresa Rebeck, and William Congreve’s “The Way of the World.” As theatre professor Ted Swetz announced in the planning for Congreve’s Restoration-era comedy, “Get ready, for the shackles have been hilariously thrown off.”

Both plays were part of the 2016 – 17 roster of timely and provocative works, embodying theatre department chair Tom Mardikes’ objective “to produce exciting master works and not-to-be-missed plays that are new to Kansas City.”

Last season’s “Desire: An Evening of Plays Based on Six Stories by Tennessee Williams,” fulfilled both objectives, marking the play’s first production since its New York debut in October 2015 and earning a thumbs-up from theatre critic Robert Trussell as a “smartly packaged production, which showcases impressive local talent on and off stage.”

For students, the UMKC theatre experience is an immersive one. “Being an MFA candidate in the acting program at UMKC is like waking up in an alternate universe where every color is brighter, every taste bolder, and every smell heightened by sheer practice of awareness,” says Emilie Karas, a first-year student.

The program’s origins date to the 1930s with community performances through the university’s English Department. It was expanded in the ’60s with rotating professorships and in 1972 became a separate department. Since 1981 UMKC has offered Missouri’s only Master of Fine Arts in Theatre with two degrees: Acting/Directing and Design/Technology.

[block pos=”right”] “Being an MFA candidate in the acting program at UMKC is like waking up in an alternate universe where every color is brighter, every taste bolder, and every smell heightened by sheer practice of awareness.”
— Emilie Karas, first-year student. [/block]

The program today enjoys the status as one of the top 15 of more than 400 national graduate programs.

The faculty of 18 full-time members, augmented by a roughly dozen adjuncts, includes Swetz, who is the Patricia McIlrath Endowed Professor of Theatre and Head of Acting, and instructors in physical theatre, acting, voice, playwriting, technical theatre, costume technology, stage management, scenic design and lighting design. Felicia Londre, Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Theatre, presides over theatre history.

Productions expose students to a range of settings from Roman times to the Civil War era and up to the present. Featured plays have explored themes of bigotry, isolation, loneliness, sex, power, ideology and teen angst. And what could be more relevant to our current political climate than the ambition, intrigue and love of country issues of “Julius Caesar,” or the elements of ideology and activism of “X: Or, The Nation vs. Betty Shabazz”?  Amanda Dawson Boyle, class of 2012, called her time in the program “life-changing.”

Theatre program graduates have gone on to illustrious careers. Jason Chanos is now KC Rep’s associate artistic director. Nick Gehlfuss and Paolo Andino have acted on television dramas, including “Shameless” and “Chicago Med.” David Bianco has performed in “Heneral Luna” from The Philippines (shown at the Cannes Film Festival), and the musical, “Marco Polo: An Untold Love Story,” which played in Manila and London.

On the technical side, Jonathan Knipscher in costume design and David Hawkinson in scenic design have practiced their mastery on the small screen’s “Boardwalk Empire,” “Vinyl” and “Louie.” Sound designers William Dean and Matthew Janszen have been credited on movies including “The Hunger Games,” “Selma,” “The Revenant,” “Red” and “Inside Out.” Alexander LaFrance, a 2016 scenic design graduate, won the very competitive Disney design internship and secured employment there.

Last year, as it does every year, in addition to its own productions, the theatre department also collaborated with several professional KC theatres. “An Octoroon” at The Unicorn included graduate and undergraduate actors and 13 technical designers from UMKC.

For Coterie’s “Hana’s Suitcase” a team of seven students, under the leadership of professor Victor En Yu Tang, created ghostly projections on shoji-like screens. Undergraduate students exhibited their Commedia dell’arte talents in “Animal Farm” at The Fishtank.

An outstanding benefit to the design students is the “design charrette,” a week-long intensive project with a visiting artist. They have included Ricardo Khan, founder of Crossroads Theatre Company, and Micah Thomas, of Quixotic Cirque Nouveau, who together produced the recent opening celebration of The Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

For students, the charrette can be intense. As Caroline Allander (MFA Costume Design 2018) described the session with 2016 charrette master Michael Gambio, he “locked us in a room and wrung out every creative impulse we had. He pushed me past my fears and my artistic hang-ups and my wishy-washy approval-seeking habits. Designs poured out of me.”

Capping the 2016 – 17 season, UMKC will make Shakespearean history this spring with a new production of Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! “Antony and Cleopatra” by Christopher Chen, who will be in residence during much of the rehearsal process. The dates for the production, performed by a student ensemble cast from UMKC’s graduate theatre program as part of KC Rep’s OriginKC New Works Festival, are April 28 through May 14.

“We are excited about this collaboration, said Marissa Wolf, director of New Works. “It needs powerhouse skills, which we have.”

Rebecca Smith

Rebecca Smith is an impassioned supporter of local performances of all types, who welcomes the  opportunity to promote them to KC Studio readers.

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