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For these outdoor performers, the Kansas City heat becomes part of the show

A crowd of people arranges chairs and blankets on the ground in front of an outdoor stage. The stage is set with colorful props.
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
The heat doesn't stop audience members from filling up Theatre in the Park night after night.

The cast and crew at Theatre in the Park in Shawnee Mission Park are used to changing things due to the summer heat. By drinking lots of water and taking other precautions, the show goes on seamlessly.

For performers at Theatre in the Park in Shawnee, Kansas, the show must go on. That’s true even as the Kansas City metro area deals with a weeks-long heat wave that could last all summer.

The outdoor performers are no stranger to the heat. To survive, they live by the golden rule: drink lots of water.

Gracie King, an ensemble member in the company’s most recent production of “Zombie Prom,” said that the cast is careful to take precautions.

“We have air-conditioned dressing rooms, which is always super helpful,” King said. “We drink a lot of water; we make sure that we're hydrated; we stay in the dressing rooms if we can. Once you get ready for the show and you really get that adrenaline pumping pre-show, you don't really notice anything.”

King said the audience might not know just how much the cast members are doing behind the scenes during the show. She drinks a gallon of water each day before entering the theater to prepare for her showtime workout.

“I make sure I'm eating enough, because sometimes I forget how much of a workout it is,” she said. “We look like we're keeping our cool on stage and look super put together, but it is quite a workout running around. Everyone is doing a million things backstage as well, but it's fun.”

“Zombie Prom” is a typical high school romance – one that includes nuclear waste, a lovable monster and some slapstick comedy.

Ryan Russell plays Jonny Warner – the zombie in the show. His background in sports helped him adjust to rehearsals and shows outside in the heat.

“It definitely helped that I grew up with a sports background before I got into theater,” Russell said. “I would argue that [theater] is more intense because you're having to move and also sing. And I think that makes it almost harder than playing sports out in the summer sun.”

For first-time-director Emily Vargo, putting on an outdoor show meant trusting her creative team and figuring out how to adjust the special effects for the weather.

“Ryan, when he enters as a zombie, has a very special entrance and there's a lot of smoke and fog and lights and wonderful effects that happen,” Vargo said. “In an outdoor show those effects can't necessarily happen, especially fog, because of the air. So he's in kind of an enclosed space that we weren't aware about right away. We kind of learned that as we went.”

A group of people stand in a circle doing vocal warmups on a patch of grass behind a wooden fence
Savannah Hawley
KCUR 89.3
The cast of Zombie Prom arrives nearly two hours before the show for warmups.

Though the sun goes down during the show, that doesn’t mean the cast gets to cool down. To play the zombie, Russell has to wear layers of make-up that take nearly two hours — and the use of Neutrogena wipes, coconut oil and Dawn dish soap — to remove.

“I thought that would be an issue because I sweat a ton, but the makeup is waterproof and it really sticks – it's hard to sweat off,” Russell said. “I'm not really sure what's in it, but it's magic. I've got my arms covered in green and my face, neck, ears, all of that.”
Making sure no equipment falls off during the show is the job of the stage crew. Jessica Dobbs is an audio crew member for Theatre in the Park.

Making sure no equipment falls off during the show is the job of the stage crew. Jessica Dobbs is an audio crew member for Theatre in the Park.

In addition to starting two hours earlier than the cast in order to set up all the instruments and microphones, she uses as much microphone tape as possible to ensure the equipment doesn’t fall off during the show.

Dobbs says the audio crew has had to make interesting adjustments to the technology to make sure it doesn’t get sweat-related water damage.

“We put condoms over the mics, and a cotton ball to collect the sweat, so they stay waterproof and sweat goes in there,” Dobbs said. “We already broke three mic packs because of sweat.”

Caleb Curtis works the lighting for Theatre in the Park. Doing an outdoor show forces the crew to work odd hours to adjust the lights.

“This is only my second time working in an outdoor theater – all the work I've done everywhere else has always been indoors,” Curtis said. “Let me tell you, I'm never going to complain about a theater being too cold ever again.”

After “Zombie Prom” closed Saturday, Curtis, Dobbs and the rest of the stage crew were up late converting the set for Nickelodeon’s “The Spongebob Musical,” which opens this Friday.

“The SpongeBob Musical” follows SpongeBob, Patrick, Sandy, Squidward and the citizens of Bikini Bottom as they face a total wipeout and a hero rises to the occasion.

“SpongeBob” director Guy Gardner says the heat added an extra element the cast and crew had to be prepared for when rehearsing the show. Though the performances happen at dusk, rehearsals were typically scheduled during the hottest part of the day. That’s changed to avoid the mid-day heat.

“Let me tell you, I'm never going to complain about a theater being too cold ever again.”
Caleb Curtis

“We start a rehearsal inside during the morning time, then everyone has a little break and they move outside at about 3 or 4 p.m. and that's when we start our long process outside,” Gardner says. “Luckily, we've been able to build our rehearsal schedule that they can come out a little later than normally the cast would get out here.”

For each show, the advice is the same: drink water constantly so you’re prepared to move.

“We've been talking to the cast and telling them essentially to hydrate starting yesterday. We have a very high energy, large dance show,” Gardner said. “With every musical you want to make sure that everyone is hydrated and safe. With this one there are a lot of costume changes and there's a lot of running.”

The heat might not let up anytime soon, but audience members shouldn’t be dissuaded. “The SpongeBob Musical” runs from July 29-Aug. 6, and Gardner says to expect a fun show that will make you forget about the scorching weather.

King tells prospective showgoers that the low temperature of the day is closer to what they’ll feel during showtimes.

“Our shows start at 8:30 p.m., so the sun is behind the stage, behind the treeline at that point,” King says. “So it's actually pleasant. As soon as the sun goes down, it feels really nice out.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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