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A New Space For Theater Opens, Committed To Stories Of Kansas City's Past — And Future

Heidi Van
Heidi Van is the creator, director and producer of 'Good Men and Citizens,' the first production at SqueezeBox Theatre. Van worked with UMKC theater students on the play, which explores what U.S. history textbooks leave off the page.

Kansas City has a wide range of theater venues, from tiny spaces that seat only a couple dozen people to the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. And now, two newcomers are opening another one.

Married couple Karla Deel and Sterling Witt will open the doors of SqueezeBox Theatre at 1519 Oak in the East Crossroads on Thursday. The debut production is “Good Men and Citizens,” a collaboration between Heidi Van’s Fishtank Theatre and the University of Missouri-Kansas City theater department.

Deel and Witt are not at all newcomers to the Kansas City arts community, but they've never been theater proprietors. Deel founded “SqueezeBox,” an online publication of Kansas City arts, history, and culture, in 2013. Witt is an established artist and musician.

But they've spent quite a while thinking about leasing the unfinished 2,000-square-foot area attached to their home. A few years ago, they refurbished half of their total square footage into an artful, high-ceilinged living area with floors in vibrant turquoise polished concrete.

The other half of their building lay dormant until a year or so ago, when they began looking for a tenant. None of the people they met with proposed a model that was in keeping with their established commitment to the city.

They wanted the SqueezeBox mission of propagating local culture to continue with any business they were associated with, whether they took a tenant or used the space themselves.

Credit Salem Deel
Karla Deel and Sterling Witt at the entrance to their new SqueezeBox Theatre.

“We have the control of offering something to this neighborhood, and we didn’t want it to just be office space,” Deel says. “We thought, East Crossroads is really getting its identity as this entrepreneurial, fun, quirky, little place and so offering this theater was what we wanted to do — a mixed-use performance theater.”  

No longer a grimy industrial office, the theater, which seats 80 or has standing room for a little more than 100, features green velvet curtains and, in each bathroom, elaborate mosaics by Kansas City artist Allan Winkler.

Deel calls these mosaics the theater's “crown jewels.” They're composed not only of tiles, but of fossils, geodes, marbles, buttons, Sky Vodka bottles, and even pieces of a necklace belonging to Deel’s daughter.

“I love how many different people’s things came to make these. When they come in here, people might be like, 'That was my grandma’s plate,' because this is all stuff that’s been donated by Kansas Citians. I love it so much,” Deel says.

Part of the SqueezeBox philosophy is that it's what has always existed in Kansas City — it was refurbished entirely with found or salvaged materials — and that it's a space for future generations, with Deel and Witt serving as caretakers.

Van, who has acted and directed in Kansas City for 20 years, says everyone gets excited when a new venue opens.

“New places will have a different energy,” she says. “They will have a different interior aesthetic."

Also, she notes, SqueezeBox is available to be rented, so it's open to the community.

"There are few of those around," she says "There’s Just Off Broadway and there’s Buffalo Room. This is in between those — an intimate, mid-sized venue.”

Van says SqueezeBox’s mission lends itself well to the subject matter of “Good Men and Citizens.”

Credit Heidi Van
UMKC lighting technology instructor Shane Rowse (left) works with lighting design student Tian Hao to program light cues for "Good Men and Citizens," the first production at SqueezeBox Theatre.

“The title ‘Good Men and Citizens’ came from reading through these old textbooks that were my great, great grandparents’ that said the reason to teach history is to promote good men and citizens,” she explains.

With an ensemble of eight performers, the show consists of about 10 short pieces written by students from a prompt about education and the way history is written both by textbooks and through lasting propaganda.

Van has run an intensive biannual program at the university, over the last several years, scheduling performances either at the Living Room Theatre or the Fishtank (which she no longer operates; that space near 17th and Wyandotte is now The Pearl). She and Deel were in talks about staging the production at SqueezeBox for about a year.

“It’ll be interesting to be the first people in the space,” Van says. “I've produced nomadically since the end of 2016, so I try to make a strong choice of location."

Because, as she notes, “location also feeds into the experience and has an impact on the narrative.”

“Good Men and Citizens,” Feb. 22-25 at SqueezeBox Theatre, 1519 Oak St., Kansas City, Missouri 64108. Ticket information is here; for more information call 816-809-7110.

Follow KCUR contributor AnneKniggendorf on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.

Anne Kniggendorf is a staff writer/editor at the Kansas City Public Library and freelance contributor to KCUR. She is the author of "Secret Kansas City."
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