A group of local artists, including students and graduates of UMKC Theatre and the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance, came together for a unique, one-night performance at the National World War I Museum and Memorial on Jan.13.
The 30-minute play, Trench Warfare, is a surreal take on the lives of two infantry soldiers, Rick and Kristy, stationed in the trenches of World War I. It was written by former UMKC English literature student Charlie Weitkamp, directed by UMKC Theatre MFA student Marianne McKenzie, featured an original score by UMKC Conservatory student Tim J. Harte, and included a technical crew, cast and ensemble of UMKC students and alumni. Costume design was by Kansas City-based apparel designer Michaela Knittel of Michaela Co. Lighting design was by Kylor Greene, a first year MFA student at UMKC. Set design was by Thomas Creach, Sean Prudden and Peter Chun. The cast included UMKC Theatre MFA student Khalif Gillett and UMKC Theatre alumnus Connor Woodson.
“I originally wrote Trench Warfare in 2014 and have revised it often since then,” Weitkamp said. “Playwriting is funny. The writing is only for the actors, directors, designers. You don’t really want the audience to read your scripts, you want them to see your shows.”
And with a little help from friends and colleagues, Weitkamp’s play had its premiere.
“Trench Warfare is a timely examination of mental disorders in relation to the trauma inflicted by war in general, as well as how the burden of war is inflicted on soldiers in other ways,” McKenzie said. “We see these soldiers slowly deteriorate over time by looking at war through the lens of World War I, leaving us asking questions about the impact that war has on any soldier. It also explores the universal theme of friendship and has a stellar team of Kansas City designers and actors behind it.”
“I asked folks to work on this show because I knew and respected them,” Weitkamp said. He knows Harte from work. He met Greene in 2015 during the KC Fringe Festival. He met Knittel in high school. The collaboration between McKenzie and Weitkamp is an extension of their friendship.
“Charlie and I have taken turns showing each other plays that we have written,” McKenzie said. “We critique each other, and sometimes do play readings. He is an incredible storyteller and has a strange sense of humor that I love. I read earlier drafts of the play while we were in undergrad, and when I found out he was producing it, I leapt at the chance to direct.”
Everything, from choosing the cast to choosing the venue, happened at a fast pace. The cast and crew had about a week and a half to review the script before the first rehearsal on Jan. 6. From that day on, things progressed to three-hour rehearsals every day.
“This was a special project and I wanted to find the best cast possible,” McKenzie said. “Khalif Gillett and I are two of seven students in the second year of the UMKC MFA Acting and Directing Program at UMKC. Our program is very intense and we spend most of our days together, and so we know each other quite well. It was a no-brainer to ask him to play the character Rick. Connor Woodson recently graduated from the undergraduate theatre program at UMKC, and after seeing his work over the years I knew he would be a good fit for the character Kristy.”
The character of Kristy, played by Woodson, is the pessimist of the pair.
“He’s more strict than Rick when it comes to following the rules, as we can believe he was a lot more ‘gung-ho’ about the war effort when it first began,” Woodson said. “Now, however, he may be regretting his decision of enlisting. Khalif Gillett and I have been having a wonderful time exploring the dichotomy between our two characters, there’s a strong bond between the two men because of what they’ve been through. The script is very rich, and Marianne has been a wonderful director. It was impossible to say no!”
UMKC Theatre and Conservatory students often work together while in school. So, it’s no surprise they remain friends and continue to collaborate on projects after leaving UMKC. Harte’s original score included a seven-piece ensemble comprised of UMKC Conservatory students Seth Davis on guitar, Kameron Sheffield on saxophone, Michael Dannov on clarinet, Zach Garland-Foster on piano and Matthew Niles on cello.
“As the winter approached I felt bored, so I reached out to him (Charlie) to put something together quick,” Harte said. “Charlie said he had a 25 minute play, and when he sent it to me, I fell in love. I’ve been writing music for 20 years, and now that I’ve acquired new skills at the Conservatory, I felt that it was appropriate to write a notated score.”
To write the score, Harte said he approached the project in several ways. One was to reproduce literal representations of nature.
“In this case, I imagined the wind running through a trench and developed a hollow and transparent sound based on the harmonic series,” Harte said. “Basically, most of the music we hear is based on an equal temperament of pitch. The chords we are familiar with are best represented as piano keys. These keys are limited because they rely on an equal division of pitch between each key. Sounds in nature don’t occur this way. So I extracted a scale that could blend as a single note, but be taken apart and reused in unusual and unfamiliar ways.”
The noisy scenes were based on a variety of modern techniques that treat instruments like drums and sound effect generators. The musicians were chosen based on skill level and enthusiasm, with many being current UMKC students.
“It was a privilege to work with people that were willing to dedicate so much time, and then extra time to completing something so quickly,” Harte said. “This play has kick-started a really excellent crew into a handful of future shows.”
When exploring venues for the play, Weitkamp said the World War I Museum and Memorial was a natural fit.
“Kansas City is lucky to have the National World War I Museum,” McKenzie said. “I have seen shows there in the theatre previously, but I want the space to be activated more by theatrical endeavors. To direct a play here for me is the entire reason why I do theatre. It is not only an honor and privilege to work with the Museum, but it also allows our team a larger platform to share our work. It’s a gift!”
And the National WWI Museum and Memorial was more than happy to work with the artists.
“A primary goal at the National WWI Museum and Memorial is to educate the public about the Great War’s enduring impact,” said National WWI Museum and Memorial President and CEO Matthew Naylor. “We’ve enjoyed a longstanding relationship with UMKC and hosting this theatrical production is a unique opportunity to share a relatable story about World War I and pique the interests of the public as to why the First World War stands as the defining event of the 20th century and beyond.”
Although more performances of Trench Warfare are not scheduled, it’s almost a guarantee that Kansas City will see more from this group of talented artists. They’re already busy on their next projects.
“It’s our ambition to produce more content this summer,” Weitkamp said. “We’re regulars at the KC Fringe Festival. It’s likely we’ll be there again this July.”