The Jewel of UMKC Theatre

Photo by Brandon Parigo, Strategic Marketing and Communications

Prof. Felicia Hardison Londré is beloved in her community

She’s the smiling lady in the lead at College of Arts and Sciences Commencement processions at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

She’s the scholar among artists.

She’s Felicia Hardison Londré. And everyone loves her.

Londré calls herself a scholar among artists because she’s a longtime faculty member in UMKC’s Department of Theatre, but she’s not an actor. She was a French major in college.

“That’s what I love the most.”

Londré earned a B.A. in French and a minor in drama from the University of Montana and received the Distinguished Alumna Award as well. She earned her M.A. in romance languages and minor in drama from the University of Washington and her Ph.D. speech (theatre) with minors in French and Spanish, film and television from the University of Wisconsin.

As Curators’ Distinguished Professor at UMKC Theatre, Londré is a theatre historian specializing in American, French and Russian theatre and Shakespeare. Her job is to help theatre students understand the history and development of plays so they can do their jobs.

Although Londré doesn’t have an acting education or training, she was drawn to the theatre because of her love of the writing by playwrights. She began studying Tennessee Williams by accident. While in her mid-teens, Londré had the opportunity to attend a touring production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Williams and Arthur Miller were big names in theatre at that time, but their work was not fully appreciated. Londré’s mother didn’t want her to attend the “Streetcar” production because “the material was not fit for a girl.” But, Londré was determined. She saw the production and her love for Williams flourished. Looking back, Londre doesn’t think she understood the play at such a young age.

“I thought Stella was the heroine,” Londré giggled. She often wonders how she got it wrong.

Londré came to UMKC in 1975 to work under the legendary Patricia McIlrath, founder of UMKC’s Theatre program and the Missouri Repertory Theatre, known today as the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. McIlrath’s influence on Londré has been everlasting. She has a bronze bust of McIlrath in her office, situated among the numerous shelves of books.

“We all learned so much from her,” Londré said of McIlrath. “She was a very beautiful person. We are forever touched by her greatness.”

For 22 years, Londré also worked as dramaturg and literary manager for the Missouri Repertory Theatre. It was during this time her love for and involvement in Kansas City theatre grew. In 1977, Londré boldly wrote to a publisher expressing interest in writing about Tennessee Williams. To her delight, she was asked to write the book.

“It was my very first book,” Londré exclaimed. From there, her passion for studying Williams’ plays grew even more.

“Tennessee Williams is one of the greatest American playwrights,” Londré said. “I think he’s utterly supreme in dialogue. It’s poetry in action.”

After graduating from the University of Montana, Londré received a Fulbright grant and studied for one year at the University of Caen in Normandy. Years later, Londré returned to France as an expert on Tennessee Williams.

Londré channels her energy into her research, writing and teaching. In the fall of 2017, she was the special guest scholar at the sixth annual Tennessee Williams Institute, an immersive university-level symposium offered during the Provincetown Tennessee Williams Festival.

In addition to providing lectures, she attended performances alongside students and led discussions of Tennessee Williams and Shakespeare in workshop settings.

“It was so exciting,” Londré said. The workshops gave Londré as much time as she needed to talk in-depth about both writers as artistic pioneers. “It was a luxury to not have a time limit on a lecture.”

While Shakespeare is considered by many to be the greatest playwright and writer of the English language, Williams dominated 20th Century American drama.

“Shakespeare was the first writer to dramatize the psychology of characters,” Londré said, citing Harold Bloom’s Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

As Shakespeare’s characters came to life in plays, Londré said Williams’ plays allowed the human to come to life on the stage to challenge audiences.

“Tennessee Williams brought out marginalized aspects of the human for the theatre,” Londré said.

At the Festival and Institute, Londré addressed the similarities between the writers. She said both were poets, explored sexuality, loved Italy, showed violence on the stage, linked death with insanity, showed a fear of aging, and created theatre within the theatre.

“We talked about the way they used language and revered truth, which was a common theme for both writers and for the conference.”

Today Londré has published more than 60 scholarly articles, 25 journalistic publications, 100 book and theatre reviews and 14 books, and still writes and lectures about Williams. She is currently celebrating two new books in print:

Historical Dictionary of American Theater: Modernism, 2nd Edition, was co-authored with James Fisher and published in November 2017.

This book covers the history of theatre as well as the literature of America from 1880-1930. The years covered by this volume feature the rise of the popular stage in America from the years following the end of the Civil War to the Golden Age of Broadway.

Londré’s most recent book, Modern American Drama: Playwriting in the 1940s: Voices, Documents, New Interpretations, is due out this month and has been in press for one and a half years.

With the American entrance into the Second World War, the theatre of the era encompassed Stage Door Canteens, USO shows, the golden years of musical comedy and the rise of teenage consumerism. Tapping into the national consciousness of the time, theatre reflected attitudes of what it meant to be an American in the face of war as well as at home. The book is part of Methuen’s Decades of Modern American Drama series and provides a comprehensive survey and study of the theatre produced in each decade from the 1930s to 2009 in eight volumes.

With all the accolades and positions Londré has held, perhaps the most influential one has been that of professor. Her love for language and the written word is contagious, especially with her students.

“She really is one of UMKC’s absolute jewels, and truly, one of the most qualified individuals in her field internationally,” said Max McBride, a second-year graduate student in the UMKC English Department’s Creative Writing & Media Arts MFA program. McBride first met Londré at the beginning of his spring 2017 semester when he took her Russian and Soviet drama course.

“Russian literature has always been a love of mine, though I hadn’t read much in the way of Russian plays, so the course was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up,” McBride said. “I had never met her, but a fellow student in one of my classes in fall 2016 was a theatre M.A. student, and he just raved about how phenomenal she was as a professor and a person. Also, from a pragmatic standpoint it also counted towards the literature requirements for my degree, so it was a win-win.”

Most of Londré’s students are seeking an MFA and will be performers. But some will have other roles in theatre such as stage directors. Her graduate courses have a six-semester rotation and are very important to the future actor. Her students read a lot – 30 plays a semester.

“We cover everything from the beginning of literature,” Londré said. “They get a full sense of the history. They get the whole sweep in time.”

All this information is important to the future actors and directors.

“As a theatre artist, I must know where my craft was born, who continued it, how it challenged politicians and religion over the years, and how it helped shape the world,” said Marianne McKenzie, MFA and UMKC Theatre undergraduate alumna. “Being informed about theatre is just as important as being well versed in history, in my eyes. They are more closely interlinked than most would think.”

Londré inspires greatness in her students. For example, McBride’s interest in Russian literature has grown to the degree he is learning the language.

“With all international literature, I was confined to translations, which are not inherently a deficit, as there are some truly gifted contemporary translators of Russian literature, but it always was a dream of mine to be able to read these works I loved in their original text,” McBride said.  “As I got to know her better she fed my passion for all things Russian, and encouraged me to just run with it.”

One of McBride’s poems, “Firebird,” was published in New Letters, a quarterly magazine of writing and art published by UMKC. He dedicated the poem to Londré. The piece is about fascination with Russian language and the ways it can transform someone physically and emotionally.

“The poem is a bit of a hodge-podge of figures and allusions to Russian culture and language, and when it was near complete it became apparent to me just how indebted I was to Dr. Londré’s teaching and encouragement for me to pursue this passion, so I dedicated it to her, and gave her a copy as a sort of thank you note,” McBride said.

Londré’s engagement and compassion for every student in her classes is felt by everyone. She wants students to find their passions and follow those passions.

“Felicia is one of the most enthusiastic and energetic people that I know,” McKenzie said. “She has an ability to make what stokes a fire in her stoke a fire in you, and that to me is the sign of a truly great teacher.”

McBride is considering applying to M.A./Ph.D. programs in Russian language and literature after he finishes his MFA. Ultimately he wants to work with literature in translation, as well as publish his own poetry and fiction.

“As long as people have a desire to read literature outside of their native language, there will always be a need for translators to both revisit older translations and make ‘new’ works available,” McBride said. “Not only has Dr. Londré been one of the biggest champions of my translation goals, but she has made me a more careful reader in general, and given me the necessary cultural and historical foundation I need to better understand and work with the literature.”

McKenzie’s career goal is to be a director. Londré is helping her achieve that.

“Felicia has educated me over the years about important actors and directors, and the effect that their work has made,” McKenzie said. “I learned about the type of theatre person that I am and that I want to be through her classes. She is an inspiration.”

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