Independent Artists

    Heather Lawler and cast in "Story of the Century"  KC Fringe Festival

    Every summer, Kansas City becomes home to an 11-day event promoting the independent theatre scene. The KC Fringe Festival, which has continued for the past 12 years, gives local artists an opportunity to showcase work that they might not otherwise get an opportunity to present. Several theatres in the city offer their venues for this event and a host of different shows can be seen, from revisions of classics, to existentialist science fiction dramas. The MFA and MA Programs at UMKC Theatre had several participants this past summer, displaying the wealth of talent that is to be expected from the department. These students were Ken Sandberg, Heather Lawler and Amanda Davison.

    Ken Sandberg (MFA Acting 2018) performed in an adaption of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Sandberg secured his work through UMKC faculty member Jeff Church, who connected him with Heidi Van who runs The Fishtank, a local KC theatre which promotes independent theatre. “This one was a unique process.” states Sandberg “With only a couple weeks to rehearse, most of our time was spent working on the physical stuff, and the text work was largely left up to us.” Sandberg notes that he had an excellent team, one of the key factors to putting together a successful Fringe show.

    One of the most successful shows at this year’s Fringe was Story of the Century, a one-act musical which won the “Best in Venue” award at the Unicorn Theatre. This show featured, among others, Heather Lawler, a 3rd year MFA Acting student. Like many Fringe shows, this production was a workshop and the creators intend to turn it into a full two-act musical later on. Shows like this exist because of the wonderful opportunities given by the Fringe Festival. Lawler stated that “there was a lot of improv scene work in the rehearsal room, and my training from our acting classes was vital to this openness and freedom to explore”
    Amanda Davison (MA Playwriting 2017) put together a one-woman show titled Seneca, which depicts a futuristic society that keeps one young woman from discovering who she really is. Davison states that her professors are a large part of her success. Her connections with these professionals is what led to her success as an artist. Davison notes on the KC theatre scene, “Part of what makes Kansas City so great is the incredible amount of enthusiasm for local plays.  Producing, writing, and acting in a one-person show is challenging, but the atmosphere of creative engagement you get from KC Fringe really helped.”

    These students are only a few of the many artists gracing Kansas City right now. The Fringe Festival promotes new works and gives performers like Sandberg, Lawler, and Davison an opportunity to create something unique. They all have different reasons for participating in the festival, but they are united in their love of creating fresh theatre.



    The Personality of a Stage Manager

    Katherine Gehrlein working backstage at Heart of America Shakespeare Festival

    Katherine Gehrlein is in her second year with the MFA Stage Management program at UMKC. When she is not out in the field, exploring and enhancing the world of stage management, you can find her doing office hours at the Olson Performing Arts Center on campus, always ready to help out when needed. While Katherine has found success within the UMKC Theatre program, stage management was not her initial career choice. 

    “While in undergrad, [stage management] was something I fell into because in that theatre program you did everything. I loved it, but I felt like it was too late for me to drop my Education Major by the time I realized it was something I really enjoyed.” 

    Katherine spent the four years following her graduation teaching theatre at a local middle school. While her job title did not specify “stage manager,” the tasks she was performing and the requirements of her teaching position brought out many of the same personality traits she remembers were flourishing while she was doing stage management jobs at her undergraduate school. “A stage manager needs to be confident and approachable. Everyone in the show is looking to you for organization.” 

    Once Katherine realized stage management was where she would flourish the most, she left her teaching job to pursue her MFA at UMKC. “It’s important to emphasize I am always an educator. Don’t be afraid to take the risk and be open to change and changing the way you do things.”

    Katherine’s success through UMKC was made possible by the hands-on opportunities offered by the stage management program. Sadie DeSantis, Assistant Teaching Professor of Stage Management and head of the program, believes that becoming a stage manager is possible for anyone with the right personality. Sadie graduated from the program herself and works to enhance the experience for her students.

    "Skill sets and professionalism can be learned, experience can be gained, but a stage manager needs a certain adaptable personality no matter their background. The hands-on experience gained from the program is the best part, because you are able to work with several companies and stage managers from different demographics and experience levels in only two years. Because they work with a wide range of professionals, students can observe the kind of personality and confidence that is needed to become a professional stage manager. Confidence comes from feeling secure in one’s own knowledge, which in turn allows students to showcase their true talents, true selves, and not be afraid to get out there and make connections.” At UMKC, students get to work with professional American Guild of Musical Artists and Actors Equity Association stage managers from venues across the city and earn weeks towards obtaining their Equity Card. 

    Within her first two years of the program, Katherine has had the opportunity to work as stage manager or production assistant with such professional theatres as The Unicorn Theatre, Spinning Tree Theatre, and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Her choice to shift her career by attending graduate school will continue to enhance the future she has as a stage manager: “Don’t be afraid to take the risk. It is going to be what you make it, but if you never take the risk you will never know.”


    Growing Artists

    First year MFA Scenic Students

    UMKC’s Professional Scenic Design Training Program is renowned for its course of study, which includes a multi-disciplinary approach including design and rendering training, firm foundations in historic precedents and professional ethics. Designers who have graduated from UMKC work in New York City, at major regional theaters and opera companies, and even at Disney where graduate Alexander LaFrance (MFA Scenic Design 2016) won the highly competitive and coveted design internship and has designed there directly after he graduated. 

    But our track record is not the only thing that attracts students to UMKC. The newest class of graduate scene design students, who come from a variety of backgrounds, came to UMKC to become not only better designers, but better artists. I interviewed the new class and asked them about their artistic backgrounds and why they chose UMKC over other programs. 

    Kelli Harrod (MFA Scenic Design 2019) came to UMKC from a fine arts background. Originally, Harrod studied to be an architect. Then one day she discovered the world of scenic design: “Ifigured out there was this world of technical theatre where I could do both painting and drawing while designing and building architectural forms!”  

    Harrod kept up with her fine arts training, getting a B.F.A. in studio art, and then decided to go to the University Resident Theatre Association’s annual recruiting conference to apply for M.F.A. theatre programs. While there she received several inquiries, from those interviewing her, as to why she didn’t pursue an undergraduate theatre degree. While several were perplexed about why she had not chosen a theatre major, another school was excited for the unique perspective she could bring to the table. That school was UMKC.

    “Gene Emerson Friedman [UMKC Associate Professor of Scene Design] told me that UMKC is a school for people who have a much broader perspective on art, rather than just focusing on the theatre itself”, Harrod said during our interview. 

    Rafael Toribio (MFA. Scenic Design 2019) comes to UMKC from California, where he was trained as a folklórico dancer. While working for a dance company, he started working as a scenic carpenter as well, working his way up to master carpenter and then technical director. But he didn’t want to just build other people’s sets. During our interview he said, “I wanted something more to play with; I wanted to design!”  

    So Rafael started to build his portfolio, and then went to URTAs and talked to UMKC. I asked him what drew him to the program, and he responded: “I’m going to school to learn scenic design specifically, not general theatre. They’re willing to teach me art skills like drawing, rendering and life drawing. Being from a dance background, that is something important to me.” 

    Austin Aschbrenner (MFA Scenic Design 2019) agreed: “The UMKC scenic design program is as close as one can find that is like going to a fine art school without leaving the theatre world!” 

    Aschbrenner, who hails from Arkansas, came to UMKC to study scenic design and technical direction. He has worked for the Santa Fe Opera and designed for New Ventures Theatre in Baton Rouge before coming here. “Most schools want you to stick to one discipline. UMKC was one of the few that offered the possibility to learn more.”  

    I asked Gene Friedman what UMKC offered potential students that drew such a variety of students, even though they have a singular goal. He answered: “It is our mission and mandate; at UMKC we offer real plays, with real directors, and real budgets, in real theaters.”

    This focus on artistry helps each student realize a design that is his or her own, while building the flexibility to navigate all design challenges in any project for stage, film or themed entertainments. This new class, though from differing backgrounds, came to UMKC for exactly that.