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Kansas City's Heart Of America Shakespeare Festival Founder Leaves Legacy Of Language And Love

Brian Paulette
Marilyn Strauss at a Heart of America Shakespeare Festival performance in Kansas City's Southmoreland Park.

Those who loved Marilyn Strauss say her career and life were powered by what can only be described as a fiery “chutzpah and moxie.”

Strauss, founder of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, died Saturday evening from pancreatic cancer. Her health began declining shortly after her 90th birthday celebration in 2017.

Sidonie Garrett, the festival’s executive artistic director, met Strauss nearly 25 years ago and says it’s hard to explain the tremendous energy Strauss commanded in all that she did, from her volunteer work at a hospital to winning a Tony Award for a Broadway production.

Credit Brian Paulette
Marilyn Strauss and The Bard.

“The creativity in the brain to conceive the idea, and the fortitude and the force to just go after it — it was amazing,” Garrett says. “She was always inspiring and supportive and funny.”

Strauss’ early life was punctuated by cross-country moves, first from her birthplace in Michigan to a childhood in Texas, then on to Kansas City where she found a home, and off again to study in Florida. Later, she lived and worked in theater in New York City for several years.

But Kansas City was home and where she raised her three children. Kansas City, also, was the community she hoped to impact with all of that creative energy.

In 2017 Mayor Sly James was already thinking of Strauss’ legacy. He renamed a portion of Oak Street between The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art and Southmoreland Park Marilyn Strauss Way. 

“Marilyn Strauss was not only a creative visionary, but a committed public servant,” James says. “In addition to her successful career in New York, she made the world of Shakespeare accessible to all Kansas Citians, regardless of background or bank account. Marilyn believed the arts were for everyone, and we will honor her legacy by making sure the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival continues to thrive for years to come.”

“A really great community is defined by people like Marilyn. She was something of an obsessive-compulsive personality,” says R. Crosby Kemper III, the first president of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and an old family friend. “She had a high component of will in her character — relating I guess to Will Shakespeare — but she was strong and powerful and she liked giving something to people that they would appreciate.”

In the late 1970s, Strauss produced a three-day Leonard Bernstein festival in conjunction with the Kansas City Philharmonic. The festival drew Broadways stars, and Bernstein himself conducted. The performances were filmed for PBS and “60 Minutes.”

Shakespeare summer campers working on King Lear.

Because of that festival’s great success, Strauss made a name for herself as a producer and powered her way onto Broadway where she co-produced five plays, one of which, “Da,” won a Tony Award. In the early 1990s, she returned home to Kansas City to found the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival.

Actor Nathan Darrow, known for his work on “House of Cards” and “Gotham,” has performed in four Heart of America Shakespeare Festival productions. He recalls Strauss’ story of going to New York Shakespeare Festival founder Joe Papp on his death bed, where he issued a sort of last wish that Strauss should return to Kansas City and found a free festival.

“That story has always stayed with me,” Darrow says. “The fact that she did it and the fact that it’s this line of artistic and civic responsibility. I was a beneficiary of that as an actor. I think we all are. People can go there every summer and walk right in, and I think that’s amazing.”

Her intent was to offer not only free professional theater to the community, but also an educational component for children. Garrett says that, about 10 years ago, Strauss was “shocked” to realize that not everyone knew about her mission to involve kids, which had existed since the second year when they introduced “Bard Buddies.”

“She said, (kids) are going to love (Shakespeare) because they learned it the right way; they’ve seen it instead of just reading it,” Garrett recalls. Kemper says this mission became more critical in Strauss’ eyes as funding for the arts and humanities in schools declined.

Credit Doug Hamer
Nathan Darrow performing as Henry V.

“The important thing is the opportunity to see the height of the English language, the incredible ability of Shakespeare to present an entire world, with all of the emotions and character, all of the issues of human nature in the most beautiful language, sometimes the roughest, but appropriate language it really is the height of the humanities,” Kemper says.

Darrow says Strauss didn’t hesitate to present this full Shakespearean range of character and language in her own life and dealings with others.

“She had a very direct way of looking at you and listening to you, which I’m always very refreshed by just in life, and in show business more so,” Darrow recalls. “I feel like she saw that as part of her work, to evaluate honestly, and encourage, and respond honestly.”

This sort of cultivation — of theater, of the growth of those she loved and worked with — has created a natural legacy which was firmly established while she was still living.

Garrett says Strauss told her that, along with her children, the festival was something else she’d given birth to.

“She told me many times: "This is my legacy,’” Garrett says.

Heart of American Shakespeare Festival's performance of Hamlet in 2017.

Kemper says he will remember the “quality of love she had” for her family, friends, community, and Shakespeare; it’s what defined her.

“You sort of fell in love with her if you were involved with her. She was the center attraction,” he says. “You couldn’t not fall in love with the way she performed her life.”

Services for Marilyn Strauss are 10 a.m. Tuesday, September 18 at Louis Memorial Chapel, 6830 Troost Avenue, Kansas City, Missouri 64131. Celebration of Life immediately following at Kansas City Young Audiences building, 3732 Main Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64111.

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. Follow her on Twitter, @annekniggendorf.
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