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Kansas City Residents Inform And Inspire KC Rep's 'Waiting For You'

It's not often that two different theater companies with roots on both coasts converge in Kansas City. Yet that's the case this month at Kansas City Repertory Theatre. The TEAM from Brooklyn and Sojourn Theatre Company with connections to Portland, Oregon are mounting what's called a developmental production of a new play based on interviews over several months with many Kansas City residents.

This month, Kansas City Rep launched a new endeavor called the First Page New Work Festival, a kind of artistic nursery where new plays take root. Among the events is the collaboration between these two theater groups from out of town known for their extensive interviews and research as a means of organically generating their productions, says Sojourn Theatre's Michael Rohd.

"Both of our companies have used interview-based material before that would create almost a journalistic or ethnographic portrait using interview text," Rohd explains. "We’re not doing that. So the interviews are helping us learn place, learn stories, learn priorities and values, and we are fictionally developing and creating rich opportunities for characters and place to collide."

Local Connections

The play is called Waiting for You On the Corner Of (13th and Walnut) and the place in question is indeed Kansas City. Members of both companies have spent time here interviewing locals (including Congressman Emanuel Cleaver) whose stories might serve the play's quilt-like look at the state of civil discourse in America. Rachel Chavkin is the artistic director of The TEAM. She and Rohd both say the show is set in Kansas City for several reasons.

"I came to this city knowing it had this incredibly rich history," says Chavkin, recently featured in The New York Times' portrait of up-and-coming female directors.  "That it was an epicenter in the evolution of jazz in this country. I certainly heard about barbecue and what places to seek it out. In the consciousness I grew up with, Kansas City does occupy a venerable, specialized place – a kind of touchstone city in terms of the country’s past and present."

"And I would say it’s not a play about Kansas City. It’s a play in which Kansas City is both a character and an environment," Rohd says. "Kansas City has a rich and complicated story involving amazing cultural innovations and things that make this city a really special place. And also boundaries, borders and barriers that exist historically around issues of race, class and business. And we continue to find this incredible microcosm for things going on in communities all over the country."

Composite Sketches

Actor Bobby Bermea, currently residing in Portland, Oregon, interviewed a businessman and two barbers who ended up being blended into a barber character who questions the city's support of his efforts to revitalize a long-neglected area of Kansas City, as heard at a recent rehearsal of the show.

"We opened this one about a year ago. It’s doing all right but it ain’t makin’ it easy," the character, played by Bermea, is saying to an unseen customer. "I’m not complainin'. I mean, it’s like, I’m a known commodity, know what I’m saying? They know me. I’m not Ollie Gates or Bob Johnson but still, I mean, I own businesses, know what I’m saying? They’re trying to revitalize this district. What are they doing with it? We don’t just have empty space; we have empty buildings. But what do they do to help people get down here?"

Captive Audiences

Waiting for You was initially scheduled on the Rep's calendar as a full-blown production but for various reasons is now defined as a work-in-progress. Yet it's likely to be changing every day. Rachel Chavkin is emphatic that engaging audiences in after-show discussions is a welcome prospect and can lend a developing play fresh blood.

"We’re all co-writers and co-conceivers of the work but both companies, since our starts, have invited audiences into the creative process," Chavkin says. "Not so much we can’t solve the writing issues that are arising in the room but because we find that dialogue to be an incredibly valuable and joyful part of the creative process. And so this is an extension of that, and makes it a special thing to have." 

"We’re actually inviting the audience to join us in the conversation that we are having," adds Michael Rohd. "Not because we want to be told what’s wrong and what isn’t working. We’re literally just expanding the circle of voices."

Lest audiences think their contributions aren't being heard, Chavkin admits that her company The TEAM is currently creating a show that arose after a post-show production of another show - and it was prompted by only one probing question.

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre's First Page New Work Festival runs through March 2, 2013. A Developmental Production - featuring Waiting for You on the Corner of {13th and Walnut} runs through February 17th, Copaken Stage at 13th Street and Walnut Street, Kansas City, Mo. 816-235-2700.

Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.
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