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UMKC Theatre Says Budget Cuts Threaten Program's Future

Laura Spencer
KCUR 89.3
Kansas City Repertory Theatre is the professional theater in residence at UMKC. At the town hall, the Rep's artistic director Eric Rosen said, 'Our power is in our collective will,' and urged audience members to work together.

The University of Missouri system is facing a $101 million budget crunch due to cuts in state funding, as well as declining enrollment at the campus in Columbia. 

UM System President Mun Choi on Friday presented plans for the budget in fiscal year 2018.

For UMKC, proposed cuts could mean $15.4 million less in spending and the loss of 51 positions — including four faculty members from the Theatre Department and a $400,000 decrease in the department's budget. 

"The theater program is a very successful program at UMKC," Choi said. "But this is the level of analysis and deep thought that went into choosing programs that will either be eliminated or minimized in some way." 

On Sunday, several hundred people gathered for nearly three hours for a "Save UMKC Theatre" town hall. More than a dozen speakers took the stage at Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus, such as faculty (including three whose positions were cut), artistic directors from Kansas City metropolitan area theaters, and past and present students. 

The UMKC Theatre department was established in 1964. And the Unicorn Theatre has ties dating to 1974, when it was founded by three UMKC Theatre graduates. Producing artistic director Cynthia Levin argued that "there just wouldn't be this level of artistry in this city if not for UMKC."

According to Levin, the Unicorn has worked on at least a dozen collaborations with UMKC students and faculty. 

"Everybody can do something on their own. But when we get together and do a collaboration ... it is elevated," she said. "It is better than what it would be when we are on our own."

Professor Tom Mardikes has chaired the department since 2001, and he also teaches sound design. Mardikes said these proposed cuts are on the heels of what he described as a "huge hit" in funding in 2014 which also eliminated four staff positions. 

"We're in a difficult time, and we're willing to work on things," said Mardikes. "But the problem is: We've been hit to a cut point. It's a tipping point where if we go to the level that we're told to go to, without the people that we're told can't be here anymore, we don't have an MFA program." 

UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton and College of Arts and Sciences Dean Wayne Vaught attended the forum. They did not take questions from the audience in a Q & A session. 

On May 31, a two-page letter sent to faculty, written by Morton, Vaught and provost Barbara Bichelmeyer, stated, "We have never suggested eliminating the Theatre program, nor do we have any intention of doing so. We share, in fact, a common commitment to 'saving' our Theatre program." The letter also stressed the importance of the department as a "key component to our mission to lead in the performing arts."  

But the final paragraph in the letter stated that "we simply cannot address our challenges by focusing on the past ... we must work together to re-envision the operations of the Theatre program in ways that ensure it is viable well into the future." 

According to Tom Mardikes, "the budget isn't set yet," and a meeting has been scheduled on June 12 with University officials to discuss the future of the Theatre Department.

"We need to keep all of our positions," he wrote in an email. "We will keep pressure on and keep making our case." 

KCUR is licensed to the University of Missouri Board of Curators and is an editorially independent community service of the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

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