START SPREADIN’ THE NEWS: KC Rep becomes first major arts group to announce a full 2021-2022 season
Before there was theater there was storytelling. And if we ever end up living in a dystopian world with a broken “grid,” we might find ourselves returning to that oral tradition, trading stories among the ruins. Fortunately, we still have theater, and in late April our city welcomed the announcement of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 2021-2022 season. It was the first such announcement among the major arts groups, and it provided a glimmer of hope amidst the near-apocalypse that COVID-19 brought upon the arts during the last year.
Aptly enough, storytelling is central to the season, from the straightforward World War I-era love story in Mary’s Wedding to the scary stories of Ghost Light and the folkloric tales of The Old Man and the Old Moon, the latter a signature work for Rep Artistic Director Stuart Carden.
“We felt confident to program a season that begins outdoors,” Stuart said, of two open-air productions scheduled for the fall: one on the terraced amphitheater south of the National World War I Museum and Memorial, the other on the lawn of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. “We would not be announcing or planning these productions unless we felt very confident that we were going to be able gather audiences and artists safely.”
Recently the theater unions began loosening restrictions on live performance, which is partly what gave the Rep confidence to move forward. “As an antidote to the isolation and hardship that you’ve all experienced,” said Executive Director Angela Gieras, “we are bringing you theater that sparks imagination, awakens resilience and hope, and inspires order and joy.”
If all goes according to plan and COVID-19 cases continue to decline, the season continues with a return to the Spencer Theatre for A Christmas Carol in November, and three major indoor productions in store for the first half of 2022.
“Of course, there’s a bit of a gamble here,” Stuart said, adding that the key is to remain flexible and be open to change as needed. “We feel confident that the road is going to rise to meet us.”
If there needs to be spaced seating at Spencer Theatre later this year, for example, this can be arranged as needed. “In this pandemic, November is a long way off,” he said. “Every day there is new information coming out, every day there are new recommendations, so we’re going to be patient and continue to learn from that trajectory.”
The World War I Museum lawn seems an ideal setting for Mary’s Wedding, Stephen Massicotte’s loving fictional tribute to Canadian war hero Gordon Flowerdew. “With an impressive economy of means, only one set, two actors, and no intermission,” wrote Sylviane Gold in The New York Times, “he has combined a fictional romance with the true story of a heroic World War I exploit that won a British Columbia lieutenant the Victoria Cross,”
“This piece is what a lot of hearts and minds need right now,” Stuart said of the 2007 play. “It’s just a beautiful love story … which gets at the resilience that we are hoping to share in this season. … Mary’s Wedding really speaks to that cathartic release, the hope that can come from loss.”
Crisp autumn air will provide a perfect setting for Ghost Light, the second show of the Rep’s season, inspired by an annual event Stuart attended as a child in Louisville, Kentucky, the Corn Island Storytelling Festival. “It was in a graveyard and you sat with your family and brought a picnic,” Stuart said. “This is one of my favorite childhood memories.”
In this year’s Rep version, members of the Latinx rock band Making Movies will perform while storytellers provide scary tales from a variety of cultural backgrounds, “adapting traditional and classic ghost stories and scary stories through their own cultural lens,” Stuart said.
On November 19th, the Rep will open its first indoor version of A Christmas Carol since December 2019. That production of Geoff Elliott’s adaptation is remembered as one of the most racially diverse casts in the Rep’s history, and a commitment to diverse casting and production crews will continue to be front-and-center.
“I use the term ‘color-conscious’ or ‘identity conscious’ when talking about casting,” Stuart said. The Rep is also moving toward diversifying all aspects of its productions. “We’re very, very consciously moving in the direction of … creative teams that reflect the racial diversity and identity diversity of this region,” Stuart said. “It’s a very intentional part of our programming and also of our creative-team development.”
This diversity is reflected in the first two indoor productions of 2022: Kate Hamill’s fanciful retelling of Sherlock Holmes stories (in which both Holmes and Watson are women), and Marco Ramirez’ award-winning play The Royale, a tribute to Black boxing legend Jack Johnson.
The former, by a playwright known for her gender-confounding adaptations of classics, sends two women actors on “an adventure that is an opportunity for a ‘buddy comedy,’ ” Stuart said. The title provides a window into the work’s playful world: (The Extremely Thrilling & Occasionally Shocking Mis-Adventures of Mesdames) Holmes & Watson.
The Royale, a landmark work whose appearances in Chicago (2015) and New York (2016) created a minor sensation, will help inaugurate a new community-based program in which the Rep transports full productions to various parts of the city.
After its run at the Copaken Stage, The Royale will travel to 10 small-scale venues around Kansas City: a community tour with which the Rep hopes to “connect with audiences in neighborhoods that we have historically not been in dialogue with,” Stuart said.
The Rep chose the play to inaugurate the initiative because “artistically and aesthetically the piece translates really effectively to intimate, non-theatrical venues,” he said. The New York Times wrote: “That this production never deploys real physical blows in recreating life in the ring is by no means to say that it doesn’t pack a punch.”
The Rep closes its season with a production that Stuart himself helped germinate, back when members of the PigPen Theatre Co. were students in a class on collaboration he taught at Carnegie-Mellon University. “That piece has been a labor of love,” Stuart said, “because of its roots in the connection I had with this ensemble.”
The Old Man and The Old Moon is a sort of American fable that is recounted through songs and stories, and the production here will include two members of the original Pittsburgh-based PigPen Theatre Co.
The work’s evolution through the years, as it has moved from city to city, has continued to inspire Stuart. “Ghost Light would not exist without my partnership with the members of PigPen Theatre Co.,” he said. “They were very much a part of me focusing on music-driven work for the theater.”
—By Paul Horsley
For tickets to the Rep’s 2021-2022 season, call 816-235-2700 or go to kcrep.org.
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