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Kansas City Theater Artists Hope They Can Hold On Long Enough To Turn The Lights Back On

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Quality Hill Playhouse temporarily closed its doors on March 13. They're expected to be closed through mid-May.

For live theater, the audience is essential. 

"You come to a show, you sit next to a stranger, you guys are laughing at the same thing, or you're intrigued by the same thing, or you're saddened or angry by the same thing," says actress Chioma Anyanwu. "It brings people together and we cannot come together right now. So that's really, really strange to be in that position."

Anyanwu, a 2018 graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City's MFA Acting program, postponed a move to New York City to take on the role as Brenda Blair in "Noises Off!" at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. The show was slated to open on March 27 for previews, with opening night this Friday. But as rehearsals entered their final weeks, the production was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"It's particularly frustrating because, you know, productions are here and then they're gone," Anyanwu says. "So when they end up not happening, when they've already started a process, it's devastating."

So far, Anyanwu has kept her day job working at a restaurant, an industry that's also been hit hard by closures or hours limited to curbside or delivery service.

Since March 16, when Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas tightened a state of emergency banning gatherings or events with more than 10 people, theaters across the metro began canceling productions already underway, calling off or postponing shows that were just about to open as well.

With a metro-wide "stay at home" order in place at least until April 24, to stop the spread of COVID-19, shows scheduled for the months ahead also face uncertain futures as it's not clear when venues will re-open.

Credit Don Ipock / Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Kansas City Repertory Theatre
Chioma Anyanwu (left) in 'For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,' which ran in October and November 2019 at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

"The strangest thing about this, and oddly beautiful in the strangest and, you know, loneliest kind of way is, you know, we're truly all in this together," says Anyanwu. "It's affecting everybody. You know, it's affecting every single one of us, no matter what industry you're in."

It's put arts organizations in financial jeopardy along with their employees — technicians, designers, dressers and actors, who often budget months in advance based on scheduled work. 

Sarah LaBarr was singing in "Broadway Through the Decades," which opened March 6 at Quality Hill Playhouse but was canceled after six performances. 

"We work from show to show, gig to gig," says LaBarr, who is a member of Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union representing actors and stage managers. "So I was supposed to have guaranteed work until April 5, but then my contract ended abruptly. I received one week severance pay and that's already negotiated in our contract."

Actors' Equity and other entertainment unions are working to raise money for the actorsfund.org. There are also small business loans for artists and non-profits, and the $2 trillion plus stimulus relief package is expected to provide direct funds as well as expand unemployment benefits. 

LaBarr works as an adjunct professor at Kansas City Kansas Community College and teaches voice and piano lessons from home, all classes that will now be taught on-line. She also sang with and directed the children's choir at All Souls Unitarian Church until that job also ended abruptly (the church board meets this week to decide whether she'll continue to be paid). 

"Luckily, I have one steady job," she says, "but everything else is kind of up in the air. Figuring it all out, as we all are." 

Musical Theater Heritage at Crown Center, meanwhile, had started rehearsals for the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic "Carousel," set to open March 19 and run through April 11.

With more than 40 local artists, including a cast of 14 and an 11-piece orchestra, "it was the largest, most expansive, most expensive production in the 20-year-history of our theater," says Tim Scott, executive artistic director.

Twice, the organization had applied for the rights to produce the show, and had only received permission to do so after an impassioned appeal. 

"And so to have to cancel was crushing on a lot of levels," Scott says. "You know, obviously financially and economically, but also from an artistic point of view in how the company has evolved."

Credit Tim Scott / Musical Theater Heritage
Musical Theater Heritage
The cast of 'Carousel' at Musical Theater Heritage.

MTH furloughed its hourly employees, including box office staff, bartenders and house managers. So far, the nine salaried staffers are still being paid. But Scott says it will all come down to math, and the organization is being strategic about how to stay viable. 

"April 1 is our first checkpoint about what we think is best for the business, what we need to do, what we might need to do," he says. "And those scenarios obviously include furloughing some staff, furloughing some staff at a 50% reduction. It's a minute-to-minute and day-to-day scenario for us."

The production has been rescheduled for August/September. And until they're able to produce their next show, MTH has been posting short videos related to "Carousel" online.

Actor Tim Ahlenius also runs his own handyman business, a service still considered essential under the city's stay-at-home order. So while theaters are dark, he's been working with Fishtank Theatre and The Living Room Theatre to finish renovations at The Blackbox, the companies' new venue in the West Bottoms.

But Ahlenius says he worries about the future of arts organizations if the stay-at-home order is extended into the summer. 

"I appreciate the quarantine and the social distancing and everybody doing what they have to do," he says. "But what are we going to come back to once it's all said and done?" 

Ahlenius said the challenge will be learning how people adapt to this new reality. 

"I mean there's been a lot of push going around, saying, 'If you bought tickets, please don't ask for a refund.' I would encourage that as much as possible," he says, "but I would also encourage to be ready to restart supporting these organizations. As soon as you know, the lights turn back on." 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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