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Arts & Life

Kansas City Funeral Home Becomes Unconventional Theatre Venue

Brian Paulette
Kansas City Actors Theatre

Most theater productions comfortably nest in traditional, familiar venues, with a proscenium arch, a set taking up three walls, and the audience making up the fourth. Occasionally, though, the material calls for a stretch of the boundaries.

Such is the case with Kansas City Actors Theatre's Three Viewings, a play set in a funeral home whose three-week run will perform at Muehlebach's Funeral Home.

Dearly departed

Director Melinda McCrary describes the show and why it felt right to stage it so unconventionally.

"It’s a very dear play about three people, each of whom are in a funeral home talking about a recent loss," says McCrary, "(They're) sharing secrets that go from heart-breaking to very funny, and sometimes inappropriate, which I find really true to life.

"I like proscenium-free work with simple pieces, so that there’s not much distance between the actor and the audience, therefore you’re in the room these people are in, listening to them tell you a couple of really wild stories. I thought it would be great to do it in a funeral home."

The mourning after

Several funeral homes were approached but the company landed at its first choice, Muehlebach Funeral Home at 6800 Troost in Kansas City, Mo. Steve Pierce is the owner of Muehlebach's. He says that, once logistics and alternatives were worked out for any services sure to occur during the run of the play, he was on board.

"I’m glad to have them," Pierce says prior to a recent rehearsal. "It’s great to have people come here for a reason other than a funeral, and so what a great venue to get people into the funeral home and realize it’s not just a place of mourning. It can be a place for great joy too.

"First of all, we’re very strong community supporters; we like to give back to the community. So that’s one way for us to do that. Secondly, nobody wants to go to a funeral home. I tell my employees that every day, that nobody wants to be here. So when somebody walks in the door, somebody better be there to greet them, because they’re very nervous about coming. This is a situation where they don’t have to be nervous."

The obit not printed

The three monologues that make up the play are revealed to be linked by the conclusion. Actor David Fritts plays Emil, a funeral home director who, in one snippet of dialogue, ponders a new customer.

"Nettie James died yesterday," says Fritts (as Emil) during a recent rehearsal. "She was 103, had been on the verge of death for 28 years. Oil money. Very rich. Terrible woman. The Herald Star made up a headline for her obituary that read, 'Nettie James finally dies. Civic and social leader succumbs after a lifetime of condescension and bullying.' (pause) They didn’t print it."

 Memory serves

Fritts says he welcomes the opportunity to perform in an unorthodox space, where audience members' own experiences with funerals and funeral homes can't help but inform the production.

"I think the atmosphere is unmatched," Fritts says. "The whole idea of the audience parking in the parking lot, walking into the funeral home – they’re already going to have sense memory of their aunt’s funeral or whatever. People have a certain feeling or certain sense when they come into a funeral home, so it kind of sets the mood. And the play in a lot of ways twists off that."

Family values

Melinda McCrary says directing Three Viewings evokes her own vivid memories of growing up with a grandfather who happened to be a funeral director in Sedalia, Mo.

"I have such affection for the profession," she says. "I knew about funerals long before I associated it with pain. I was never allowed in the embalming room, but my brother and I played in the casket room, which is right off the kitchen. We'd turn off the lights and scream, because they were caskets.

"But for me, it was going to grandma’s house. And I watched granddaddy’s discipline, his composure. I was fascinated by him. What the play does is take that truth and that stereotype and turn it a little bit."

Muehlebach's owner Steve Pierce says he hopes the production may help to alleviate a big misconception about his profession - that is, that every funeral is somber when, if fact, he often sees celebrations of lives well-lived.

Kansas City Actors Theatre presents Three Viewings, October 22-November 10, 2013, Muehlebach's Funeral Home, 6800 Troost, Kansas City, Mo. 816-235-6222.

The Artists in Their Own Words series is funded by the Missouri Arts Council, a stage agency.

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