Starlight Theatre has been an integral part of Kansas City summers since 1950. But a new initiative is under way to stage shows when the theater is usually empty — during the winter. This year's January slate offers four Off-Broadway type productions.
The impetus for the winter shows comes from Richard Baker, who took the job of president and CEO of Starlight in March 2014 after nearly three decades running the Fox Theatre in St. Louis.
"The very first thing I had to do was get a summer series booked," he recalls of his start. "But as soon as I got that done, I started thinking about why do we lie fallow all winter? Especially when I saw this gorgeous stage we have — (it's) one of the biggest stages I've ever seen outside of Radio City Music Hall. So I said, 'What if we could build a theater inside and do some productions there?'"
To kick off the first indoor production last winter, Starlight capitalized on the big-budget movie version of Fifty Shades of Grey by bringing in the satiric spoof Fifty Shades: The Musical Parody. Chairs and risers were placed on the actual Starlight stage, shut off from the elements by a winter-proof wall.
Baker admits he was surprised by who showed up.
"We found out that over 40 percent of the people who came to this show had never been to Starlight before, which was incredible because we're actually drawing in a whole new audience," he says. "And our hopes are if we can get them here in the winter, we can convert them and get them out here in the summer."
Starlight opens its 2016 indoor series in January with four productions. There's a one-man Star Wars trilogy. Another show is a two-man retelling of the Harry Potter books. And a stern nun makes up the cast of the nostalgic Late Night Catechism, set in a Catholic school classroom.
Caroline Gibel, director of indoor programming, lobbied for the show that opens the series, Dixie's Tupperware Party.
"It's probably the naughtiest of the shows we have coming," she says. "It's a real life Tupperware party and she (Dixie) is a loud-mouthed broad that will say anything and you never know exactly what's going to come out of her mouth."
Baker and Gibel walk into areas backstage the summer patrons never see. The winter audiences will be invited in for shows and, as a bonus, a peek behind the scenes. Their first stop is the part of the Starlight stage where all the sets go for the big summer shows.
"This is where the mylar dance floor is," Gibel explains. "Last year, I kept trying to tell people, 'Yeah, if this wall went up, you would see the seats.' But it's so hard for people to imagine it.
"But all of a sudden, they looked up and could see the fly space and the rails and said, 'Oh, I get it now.'"
Although it's pretty cold outside, the performance area backstage is surprisingly toasty — something last year's audiences weren't prepared for.
"We had a lot of questions: 'Well, do I need to bring a parka or a blanket?' No, no, no, we're indoors," Baker says. "But it was interesting to me that we had some people were willing to wear long johns and come see theater.
"And when they first walked in, I heard several comments, 'I had no idea you had a theater back here,' as if it was a separate building. So we had to explain to them, 'No, we built one on our stage.' Because when they come through a different way, they're not sure exactly where they are. It takes them a minute to realize they're actually on the stage."
Late Night Catechism will be performed in another space: the Berger Studio, usually reserved for rehearsals. Gibel points out the location of where the first row will be, one that will consist of school desks so close to the teacher that Baker calls them "the teacher's pets' seats."
Back in Baker's office, which overlooks a stellar view of the green seating for the summer season, he recalls how he initially told Starlight's year-round staff that the winter could get a bit busier.
"They all said without question, without fail, 'No, we want to do this. We get kind of bored in the winter. Let's do something different.'
"There's nothing people hate worse than change. But I've been one of those people all my life who said, 'Just because we always did it some way is not a reason I will accept.' I want people to try things. I learn more from my mistakes. And if we're not making mistakes, we're not trying hard enough."
Baker adds that, by the end of January, he and Gibel will get a measure of the winter shows' success. Decisions will then be made about how to repeat or expand the concept of Starlight Indoors. Baker says he even foresees a time when shows might be offered year-round.
Starlight Theatre's indoor series: 'Dixie's Tupperware Party,' Jan. 12 - 17; 'Late Nite Catechism,' Jan. 13 - 31; 'Potted Potter,' Jan. 19 - 24; 'One-Man Star Wars Trilogy,' Jan. 26 - 31. The theater is in Swope Park, 4600 Starlight Road, Kansas City, Missouri. 816-363-7827.
Steve Walker is a freelance arts reporter and film critic at KCUR 89.3. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.