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Famous Critic And Missouri Native Terry Teachout Finds World-Class Theater Everywhere

Terry Teachout
Drama critic Terry Teachout writes for the Wall Street Journal but has also written books and plays. This is a photo from the premier of his play 'Billy and Me.'

Terry Teachout, who writes for the "Wall Street Journal," sees at least 100 plays a year—about half of them are in New York City, and the other half are all over the United States.

He's the only drama critic working for a national publication who regularly travels for work. Over the past couple of decades, this has afforded him a unique bird's eye view of the American arts scene: He sees that exceptional art is created even where only locals normally find it.

"American regional theater has become deprovincialized. I travel all over the country. I learned very quickly that there was theater of the highest quality everywhere in the United States," he says.

A graduate of Kansas City's William Jewell College and native of Sikeston, Missouri, Teachout was back in town to speak at his alma mater's annual Achievement Day.

His parents supported his early interest in the arts, and in spite of living far from a cultural hub, he found a way to cultivate his love of theater and music.

Sikeston, in the state's bootheel, is three hours from any big city. But that doesn’t mean it was devoid of art — especially for someone who was watching for it.

As a young person, he soaked up any kind of performance, live or televised. Television only included three networks, but programming was good. "The Ed Sullivan Show" and other programs featured world-class performers.

Credit Terry Teachout
Sikeston, Missouri, native Terry Teachout has written about music and theater for decades.

"Network television was really my window on the larger world of culture. We had a community concert series — they were the ones who brought Don Shirley (subject of the Oscar-winning "The Green Book") to town — my high school not only had a band and choirs, but it had an orchestra. I played violin in it," Teachout says.

While still an undergraduate, Teachout began an independent studies program with music critic John Haskins at the Kansas City Star. In a matter of months, Haskins died and Teachout became the second-string music critic.

He lived, worked, and studied in Kansas City before moving to New York and continuing a career in art criticism.

Throughout his travels, Teachout says he's observed that "theater is an activity that people do on the highest level of seriousness and attainment throughout the country. It's not like it was 50 years ago when most of the serious theater in a town the size of Kansas City would be touring companies. No, it happens here, it’s made here."

To this day, he says, one of the best theatrical productions he has ever seen was David Cromer's staging of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre in 2009. And he's not just saying that because he considers Kansas City one of his homes.

"This is the city where I learned what I was," he says, "and what I had to do and be."

Terry Teachout spoke with KCUR on a recent episode of Central Standard. Hear the entire conversation.

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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