History

UMKC Theatre through the decades

By Felicia Hardison Londré
, professor of theatre

Before 1960

The University of Kansas City, a private university and predecessor of UMKC, had been in existence less than a year in the early 1930s when the English department sponsored plays in association with community groups in off-campus venues.

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1953 - University Playhouse Entrance
1953 – University Playhouse Entrance

As time went on, the University Players of UKC expanded their offerings. In 1948, Dr. John Newfield, a professional director of theatre and opera in New York and Europe, was hired to direct the new University Playhouse. For the Playhouse’s inaugural production, Blevins Davis directed Maxwell Anderson’s Elizabeth the Queen, starring the noted actress Jane Cowl. Another renowned actor, Clarence Derwent, was brought in for The Merchant of Venice, which received national coverage in 1950. The Playhouse remained in use for campus-community and professional productions until 1976. Newfield left UKC in 1952. Susan Dinges was hired in 1953 and achieved national prominence in children’s theatre and creative dramatics. She founded the Ivory Tower Players in 1960 and directed it on campus until her retirement in 1990.

mcllrath
Dr. Patricia Mcllrath

When Patricia McIlrath was hired in 1954 as the director of the University Playhouse, the Department of Speech was formed. The new department, chaired by McIlrath, included programs in radio and television and a studio theatre program for experimental productions. It was Dr. Mac’s experience of transferring a 1959 UKC theatre production to New York City that spurred her to create opportunities for professional theatre training within an academic setting. The production was Sophocles’s Electra, starring guest professional actress Judith Evelyn, and it was so acclaimed in Kansas City that Evelyn arranged for it to be produced off-Broadway, where it failed embarrassingly. For Patricia McIlrath, that debacle and what she learned from it were crucial motivations that led to her founding of Missouri Repertory Theatre.

1960-1969

In the early 1960s, Dr. Mac brought in an impressive succession of guest professional artists, including international directors, to work with students on academic productions. Vincent Scassellati came as a full-time costume designer in 1962. His superb creations appeared in hundreds of academic and professional productions until his retirement in 2000.

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1968 billboard for the Missouri Repertory Theatre
1968 billboard for the Missouri Repertory Theatre

In 1964, the University of Kansas City became a state institution: the University of Missouri-Kansas City. At that time, the Speech department was renamed the Department of Speech and Theatre. The following summer saw the tentative beginnings of the professional repertory theatre with two productions. Rod Alexander guest directed for the second season of the Summer Repertory Theatre and also directed James Costin’s Lee as an academic production. Costin was a student who would eventually cap his career as UMKC’s Vice Chancellor for Cultural Events and worked with Hallmark to bring us two Hall Family Foundation professorships.

After a season as artist in residence, Robin Humphrey (1922-1998) joined the theatre faculty in 1967. This spirited actress, who had worked on Broadway with Gertrude Lawrence and Julie Harris and who quickly won the hearts of Kansas City audiences, directed and acted for the department and The Rep until her retirement in 1986. Humphrey acted in and directed touring productions for the Missouri Repertory Theatre Vanguard Tour, which began in 1968 and took professional theatre to towns across Missouri. Over the years until the mid-1980s, the Vanguard Tour expanded to engagements in twenty-three states.

1970-1979

Theatre became a separate department in 1972, while speech and radio-television were moved to the new Department of Communication Studies. Two rotating professorships brought distinguished professional theatre artists to campus for one-semester appointments which combined teaching classes with directing, designing or acting in the academic and professional production programs.

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Missouri Rep Theatre company in 1974
Missouri Rep Theatre company in 1974

The first distinguished visiting professor of professional theatre was Vincent Dowling, of Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, who directed an academic production of Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman and maintained a long relationship with the department. The following season brought Alan Schneider. Director Francis Cullinan became a full-time faculty member in 1974, and also directed for The Rep, The Coterie, and Lyric Opera, until his retirement in 1989.

During the hiatus between the 1976 closing of the Playhouse and the 1979 inauguration of the long-planned Performing Arts Center, the Department of Theatre moved its offices and production activities to J. C. Nichols School at 69th and Oak streets, while The Rep presented its six-play season at the old Jewish Community Center on Holmes Street. Additional faculty hires brought Douglas Taylor for technical direction, Felicia Hardison Londré for theatre history (and dramaturg for MRT), and Ron Schaeffer for stage management (and production manager for MRT).

1980-1999

In 1981, the UMKC Department of Theatre was granted authority to offer the only Master of Fine Arts degrees in theatre in the state of Missouri. The two new Master of Fine Arts degrees were in acting/directing and design/technology; these evolved into M.F.A. degrees in acting, stage management, scenic design, costume design, lighting design, sound design, and technical direction.

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The Master of Arts degree was adjusted for a more academically focused program of study under Felicia Londré’s direction. The M.F.A. scenic design program came to national prominence with the hiring of John Ezell as Hall Family Foundation Professor of Design; his award-winning sets have graced the stages of Broadway, regional theatres, and international companies. Ezell also instituted the nationally-recognized annual charrette, which brings in renowned artists to work intensively with design students.

An academic production with international resonance occurred in 1982, when the renowned Chinese actor-director and vice minister of culture Ying Ruocheng served as visiting professor and directed The Family by Cao Yu. Professor Ying gave the students a crash course in Chinese culture and worked with them on calligraphy brush handling and ritual gestures like kowtowing. The result was a superbly nuanced production seen by millions when it was shown on Chinese television. Overnight, the names of UMKC actors were known to citizens across China. Many Chinese spoke of their appreciation for the care taken by the “big-nose actors” in their re-creation of Chinese manners. Ying returned to UMKC in 1984 to direct Fifteen Strings of Cash for The Rep. His son, Ying Da (Dan Ying), earned his M.F.A. in acting/directing at UMKC in 1987 and became a prominent film actor (Farewell My Concubine) and television director.

It was often noted that when Patricia McIlrath retired, it took two men to replace her. The chairmanship of the department was taken by Dr. Jacques Burdick in 1984, and the artistic directorship of the Missouri Repertory Theatre by George Keathley in 1985. Other faculty hires during the 1980s and 1990s included Peter Sander, Bonnie Raphael, Albert Pertalion, Elizabeth Roman, Toni Dorfman, Ewa Wielgat, Dennis Rosa, David Jacques, Rob Murphy, Theodore Swetz, Victoria Marshall, Chuck Hayes, Louis Colaianni, Victor En Yu Tan, Gene Friedman, and Joseph Price.  With Dale AJ Rose’s appointment to head the M.F.A. performance training program in 1988, the department reached new heights of national recognition, as tallied in biannual surveys by U.S. News and World Report. After Burdick’s retirement in 1989, the chairmanship of the department was held in turn by Joseph Appelt, Jennifer Martin, Neil Bull, Cal Pritner and again Neil Bull.

The department’s partnership with Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre of Blue Lake, California, brought Joe Krienke and Stephanie Thompson to the faculty to teach mask and clown techniques. After their return to Dell’Arte, that relationship yielded other residencies with renowned mime artists. The department also began its close cooperation with Jeff Church, artistic director of Kansas City’s Coterie Theatre, which was named by TIME magazine as one of the five best children’s theatres in the United States; Jeff Church teaches a graduate course in text analysis for the department.

2000-present

In 2001, after a national search, sound designer Tom Mardikes was unanimously chosen by the theatre faculty to head the Department of Theatre. He rebranded the department as UMKC Theatre, established a 7:30 pm curtain time, initiated co-productions with the Coterie and Unicorn theatres as well as a successful working relationship with Heidi Van, curator of the renowned Fish Tank studio theatre. Mardikes and composer Greg Mackender have built one of the nation’s pre-eminent sound design programs and have taken students to legendary recording studios in England and the USA.

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After leading two charrettes for M.F.A. designers, Barry Kyle, honorary associate director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, served as professor of theatre arts from 2003 to 2013. Other prominent guest directors for UMKC Theatre have included Bartlett Sher, David McClendon, Louis Fantasia, Will Graham, Mesrop Kesdekian, Robert Emmet Meagher, Will Roberson, Risa Brainin, and Ed Stern. Ricardo Khan conducted a charrette for our designers in 2004 and directed The Darker Face of the Earth in 2005; he then joined the faculty in 2006-2007. He led a team of faculty and students researching and creating the world premiere of Quindaro, based upon the local history of a Missouri River town that offered refuge for escaped slaves. Ricardo Khan continues developing original plays for UMKC Theatre based upon African American history; these have included Kansas City Swing (2013) and Freedom Riders (2015).

Theodore Swetz, master teacher of acting, returned to UMKC Theatre in 2006 to head the performance faculty as Patricia McIlrath Endowed Professor of Theatre Arts. He attracted leading teacher artists, including Erika Bailey, who did the voice coaching for the Broadway production of Mary Stuart in 2009, and Stephanie Roberts, who teaches mask and clown physical theatre and runs her own company, Boom! An International Lost-and-Found Marching Band. In 2010, Roberts’s creative innovations earned her a Charlotte Street Foundation Generative Performing Arts Fellowship award. Carla Noack joined as assistant professor of acting in 2010 and quickly showed her wares in a stunning performance as Queen Elizabeth in the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s King Richard III.

Frank Higgins began teaching playwriting and has seen his students go on to national recognition. His play Black Pearl Sings was one of the Top Ten most produced plays in Theatre Communications Group theatres for the 2009-10 season. Recent additions to the faculty include Chaz Bell in technical theatre, voice teacher Scott Stackhouse, costume technology teacher Sarah Oliver, and head of stage management Sadie DeSantis.

UMKC Theatre talent enriches the Kansas City theatre scene and furthers Patricia McIlrath’s vision of cooperation and mutual support among artists. UMKC Theatre’s MA program supplies dramaturgs for Kansas City theatres. Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s associate artistic director Jason Chanos is a graduate of the M.F.A. acting program, and he carries on McIlrath’s spirit through his liaison with UMKC Theatre. It was Dr. McIlrath’s inspiration and devotion to theatre as a necessary art form that inspired the founding of a number of Kansas City’s professional theatre companies: the Unicorn Theatre, The Coterie, New Theatre Restaurant, Gorilla Theatre, American Heartland Theatre, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Martin City Melodrama, and Kansas City Actors Theatre. New and continuing students join in a tradition of greatness, as our graduates go on in film, television, academia, and at leading professional theatre and opera companies across the country.