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Kansas City Playwright: 'Bird In The Hand' Is Worth Three Stages In The Swope Park Bushes

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
Bonita Hanson (left) plays a CIA director and Frank Lillig plays an agent in David Hanson's immersive-theater performance of 'Bird in the Hand.'

“You can choose to share your secrets or not share your secrets,” David Hanson tells his audiences.

For several years, Hanson has led those audiences through “immersive theater” experiences in Kansas City, and he will do so again at Open Spaces with a free performance of his play “Bird in the Hand.”

Immersive theater differs from traditional theater in that audience members are active, not passive, observers. Hanson gives the example many people are familiar with: murder mystery dinner theater, where it’s up to audience members to solve a mystery.

Not all immersive theater involves piecing together clues, though. Much of the art in Open Spaces takes the form of installations, and Hanson’s play is only a little different.

“Bird in the Hand,” which was part of the 2015 Fringe Festival, will be presented in three locations around the Battle of Westport Museum in Swope Park.

“One of the things (Open Spaces organizers) talk a lot about is the interactivity of how stories are told through different ways that people interact with them. That fits really nicely with immersive theater,” Hanson says.

“Bird in the Hand” is the story of a woman who invented a universal code-breaking machine. In an attempt to gain control of the device, Russians kidnap her niece.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
At a rehearsal of 'Bird in the Hand,' Lydia Miller contemplates her character's predicament as a captive of Russian agents.

The total theater experience will last between 70 and 90 minutes; roughly 40 of those minutes will be the three audiences interacting with each other.

“When we did it the first time, we actually had to bring them to a completion,” Hanson recalls of the Fringe show three years ago staged on the balconies at Union Station. “They kept wanting to talk, and that was the really cool thing about this particular project.”

And the audience has everything to discuss. The fate of the free world is at stake, after all. Events on each of the three stages are only witnessed fully by the group assigned to each stage; the control group is able to see, but not hear, two of the other stages, and one of the groups is able to see, but not hear, one other stage.

And though outdoor theater has a unique set of challenges, Hanson says it will be fun to see what the park’s joggers and walkers do.

“If you’re in the park and you’re walking along and you see this crazy thing and stop, you’ll get some of the story just wandering in and watching it. You never know what people will do when they don’t have the audio. Will they sit and watch?” he asks.

Stray audience members are welcome to stick around and listen as the groups come together at the end, but when Hanson announces that people can choose to share their secrets or not, it’s unlikely a passerby will have any secrets to share. For this reason, he says, he hopes people will see the shows from the start.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Joseph De Maria plays a CIA agent in 'Bird in the Hand.'

By the end, each group will have seen a complete theatrical performance by two to four actors, but several nagging details will remain at large unless individuals engage with members of other groups, identified by stickers of three different colors.

Sometimes people are slow to start, so Hanson will circulate through the crowd prompting people with suggested questions for the other groups.

“It doesn’t take them long to be in deep, deep conversation,” Hanson says.

Ultimately, Hanson says, the show’s perfect for a park production.

“I kept coming back to the idea that espionage, where we have clandestine agents that are getting ready to make a big trade of government secrets — that’s something you would do in a park, particularly if you were trying to protect yourself.”

Bird in the Hand” at Open Spaces, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, Sept. 7-22, near Swope Park’s Battle of Westport Museum, 6601 Swope Parkway, Kansas City, Missouri 64132.

Correction: A photo caption above originally misspelled the name of an actor. It is Frank Lillig.

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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