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Why Kansas City's Season Of Live Music, Beer And Kettle Corn Won't Happen Even After Stay-At-Home Orders End

Brian Rice
Boulevardia was canceled for 2020, but organizers hope it will return in 2021.

Producers of events like Boulevardia and the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival spend a year or more getting ready for annual experiences.

Boulevardia, Symphony in the Flint Hills, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival — all are now all canceled or postponed.

Even if all of the metro's stay-at-home orders are lifted by mid-May as planned, many festivals won't happen this summer. That's because the events Kansas City might take for granted every June actually require a year or more to put on.

Planning for an event like Boulevardia starts “before the other one ends. So we’re constantly planning year-round,” says Keli O’Neill Wenzel, president, and CEO of O’Neill Events & Marketing.

Wenzel's firm manages big events, like the Kansas City Chiefs' Super Bowl victory parade in early February. The next month, they began calling off events such as the Greater Kansas City Home Show at the Kansas City Convention Center. Planet Comicon was postponed until August.

“Events right now, we don’t know where the light is at this moment,” Wenzel says. “I may be looking at a year that everything that I built to do is maybe just on a pause button.”

Boulevardia, the annual beer, food, and music festival scheduled for June 19–20, was gearing up for a new location in Washington Square Park and Crown Center.

The event was designed as one that could pop up in any part of the city and did: in the West Bottoms for three years, then the nearby Stockyards District for three years.

Still, Wenzel says, “When you have a festival in one location and put it in another location, it’s like starting from scratch. How does it flow? Where do we put this?”

Scouting a location for this year’s event began last summer; a selection was made in the fall and finalized by December. A board of directors meets year-round, with committees planning about six to nine months in advance. And Wenzel says they look at bands all year.

When they canceled on April 15, she says, “it was sad to have such an incredible line-up for this year, and we didn’t even get to announce it.”

Also sad: "the sheer amount of people that rely on the festival as a source of income," Wenzel notes. "(A) million dollars goes into pockets of local businesses, from the stage company to the production company, to the stagehands, to the food vendors, the craft vendors, the makers.”

Doug Hamer
Average attendance for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is often between 22,000 to 25,000 for the season's run.

Heart of America Shakespeare Festival organizers made their painful announcement on April 16.

Launched in 1993 with a summer production in Southmoreland Park near The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the festival has expanded through the decades to year-round programming, including summer camps.

“Faced with immediate challenges like uncertainty about the availability of space to create the production, guidelines regarding safe public gatherings ... and other logistical issues,” organizers postponed this June and July's production of "The Tempest" to 2021.

“There’s a great impact to the spirit,” says Sidonie Garrett, the organization's executive artistic director. “I feel, you know, as a producer, my job is to create a space and an environment. And I hire people to work with me to bring something to life. So not being able to fulfill that portion of my job and my imperative is hard.”

By the time audiences are picnicking on blankets enjoying a play in the park, Garrett is already plotting out the next, which she presents to the board for approval. She selects one, in part, based on what feels right for the moment.

“This year, I chose ‘The Tempest’ because I thought a play about redemption and love was a good thing to do,” she says.

Meetings with the design team start in the fall. The script is trimmed. Production meetings are scheduled every two months, along with individual meetings in between to keep design deadlines. And year-round, there are marketing, fundraising and administrative tasks.

Auditions are held in December, with casting early in the year. Rehearsals start in late May, and the organization’s staff of four expands to more than 60, including actors, designers, technicians and security.

“My whole modus operandi is to be a storyteller. So where’s the audience to tell that story to? We can’t come together this year,” Garrett says. “So it feels like a great weight of loss, I think, for everyone — all the things we cannot do right now.”

For now, the set for “The Tempest” and costumes have been designed, but not built. And composer Greg Mackender has been writing the music.

“So we will proceed and make sure all that work doesn’t go to waste and be able to apply it next year,” she says.

But in a new era of social distancing, big questions remain.

“What will happen to live performance going forward? How’s it going to change?”

Kevin Brown
Symphony in the Flint Hills hosted its first Flint Hills tallgrass prairie concert in 2006.

Organizers of June's Symphony in the Flint Hills also canceled it in mid-April.

About 7,000 people, many of them from Kansas City, typically travel to a different location in the Kansas Flint Hills each year for a day of prairie walks, cowboy poetry and a sunset concert by the Kansas City Symphony.

This year’s event was scheduled for June 13 in Wabaunsee County.

“As anyone can imagine, if you work for two years on a project and then it just sort of dissipates before you can pull it off, it’s not only hard on the finances, it’s hard on the spirit, too," says Executive Director Leslie VonHolten.

Planning begins two to three years in advance, says VonHolten, who joined the organization in July.

“Part of that is finding the properties, since we move every year, finding the right piece of land, getting permissions, and signing contracts with the landowners,” she says. “A lot of times they have cattle issues that they need to plan around moving their herds, and planning for burning the field beforehand.”

Then the site manager plots the area with architects to determine where tents and seating will go and where the Symphony performs.

“And they measure everything from the incline of a natural amphitheater,” VonHolten explains.

The organization has four full-time staffers and three part-time contractors, and 10 volunteers help out during the year. Between 500 and 700 volunteers help out before, during and after the event.

VonHolten says the organization is fortunate in that it's already begun planning for next year's event, which is also the 200th anniversary of the Santa Fe Trail, which runs through the Flint Hills.

“So that gives us something optimistic to focus on," she says. "We’re just trying to keep our spirits up and work hard toward an event that should be, you know, just very fun next year.”

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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