© 2024 Kansas City Public Radio
NPR in Kansas City
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Kansas City Theater Scene Celebrates 50 Years

The 1960s marked “the second golden age” in Kansas City’s theater history, according to historian Felicia Hardison Londré. It was a time of transition from touring companies providing entertainment to the city creating its own.

For Kansas City, this meant the creation of the first resident professional theater company since the 1930s: the Missouri Repertory Theatre, now known as the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. The “solid foundation” of the Rep, said Londré, led to the thriving theater scene across the Kansas City metro today.

Companies of artists and actors outside of New York

In 1964, there were eight members of Theatre Communications Group, the association of non-profit theaters. Today, there are more than 600 members, and at least 1,000 non-profit theaters across the country.

According to the Rep’s artistic director Eric Rosen, between 1962 and 1966, the Ford Foundation seeded grants across the country. This sparked the establishment of regional stages such as the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Minn., and the Rep.

“The movement’s question was: What if we took theater out of New York, and out of touring, and created theater economies in mid-sized and large American cities to create companies of artists and actors who could make a living and live and create work outside of New York,” Rosen told Up to Date host Steve Kraske.

Hands-on experience extends to creating companies

Dr. Patricia McIlrath, chair of the Department of Theatre at UMKC, founded the Rep in 1964. A Kansas City native, McIlrath earned her Ph.D. at Stanford, and taught at the University of Illinois, before returning to her hometown to revitalize a theater department and start a regional company.

“If you talked to Pat, you know, she was really, like, this proper, almost Victorian lady. She was very soft spoken, very polite, but if you look at some of the things she did – she had this audacious streak when it came to doing theater,” said critic Robert Trussell in an interview with Up to Date.

Trussell started covering theater for The Kansas City Star in 1990, and explained that McIlrath set a course for the company working in tandem with the university.

“She sort of envisioned it as the equivalent of a teaching hospital where these students could get hands-on experience,” he said.

A need for live theater

UMKC students with ties to the theater department went on to found about a dozen companies in the metro area; many of these are still around today, such as the Coterie Theatre and the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., and the New Theatre in Overland Park, Kan.

“We are always worried that live theater is going to die out because of all the challenges of television and movies, and now the Internet. But, it certainly has weathered a lot of challenges,” said Londré in 2007 in response to a question after a lecture at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection – Kansas City.

“But as Patricia McIlrath said, 'People need live theater.'"

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.
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
Your donation helps keep nonprofit journalism free and available for everyone.