How Extreme Weather Is Changing The Entertainment Industry In Kansas City And Around The U.S. | KCUR

How Extreme Weather Is Changing The Entertainment Industry In Kansas City And Around The U.S.

Nov 11, 2019

In Kansas City and across the country, performance venues and artists have had to make adjustments due to more extreme weather events.

And when it comes to climate change, there's one thing arts organizations need to do: "Prepare." That's according to Karin Rabe, properties master at the Alley Theatre in Houston, where flooding is a growing concern. 

Here's how wildfires, floods and high temperatures are affecting theaters in the west, south and our area.  

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre seats 1,200 people.
Credit Kim Budd / Oregon Shakespeare Festival

Fire

Large wildfires across the western United States have caused loss of life and property. The fires also impact air quality, a pressing concern for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. 

Wildfires have always been a part of life in the Pacific Northwest, general manager Ted DeLong said, but they've gotten "longer and bigger and more severe," especially since 2013. 

The festival opened in 1935, and now draws about 400,000 people a season to its three stages, including the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre. The staff monitors air quality in the Rogue Valley closely, since poor conditions can cancel a show.

In 2013, they cancelled 10 performances. In 2018, it was close to 30 performances that were either cancelled or relocated. And it costs the organization money.

"In 2018 alone, we lost around $2 million related to smoke. And there were bad years before that, too," DeLong said. "So it's been a multimillion-dollar situation for us in the last six years."

This season, the festival moved matinees indoors to a nearby 400-seat high school theater. But, DeLong said, it’s not what audiences expected.  

"It’s not an outdoor theater, which is which is kind of a one-of-a-kind thing," he said, "and, we found that audiences really preferred not to come at all or to come for a much shorter period of time and buy fewer tickets."

So, in 2020, DeLong says the festival will take a risk and stay in the outdoor theater as long as they can. And they'll start performances a week early, as they did in 2019. 

They've also used grant money for installing equipment to upgrade their indoor venues and artist housing to keep smoke out and clean air in.

"It's really been, as much as we can, a top to bottom look at our facilities and our operations and our calendar to figure out how we can manage through these smoky conditions that we face," he said.

Waterlines mark the floods from Hurricane Harvey (in orange) and Tropical Storm Allison (in yellow).
Credit courtesy The Alley Theatre

Water

Flooding is a growing concern for Midwestern states and in the South, especially coastal states like Texas.

Karin Rabe is the properties master at the Alley Theatre, a 70-year-old theater in downtown Houston, which presents new plays and classics on its two stages. When Tropical Storm Allison caused flooding in 2001, she said it was treated like a one-time event.

"And storms came and went over the years," she said, "(Hurricane) Rita was one, (Hurricane) Ike was another. And we were fine.

"And then, Hurricane Harvey came, and you know, we were kind of business as usual."  

But Harvey wasn’t business as usual for Texas or Louisiana in 2017. The Category 3 hurricane caused an estimated $75 billion in damages in Houston alone, including the Alley Theatre’s downstairs theater and lobby. 

"Somebody posted a video on Facebook of water running through the tunnel system, right outside our Neuhaus Theatre," Rabe said, "and I knew then that we were underwater."

Nineteen feet of water flooded the theater, including the space where about 87,000 props were stored. The bulk of the china, lighting, glassware and sword stock was saved, Rabe said. But, "all of our linens were gone," she said. "All of our paper goods and books were destroyed."

Since Harvey, the Alley Theatre has made a lot of changes, such as more floodgates, flood-resistant doors, stronger lobby glass and more secure storage systems.

And Rabe talks to people around the country about how to get started on their own disaster preparedness plans.

"You know, none of us ever wants to think it'll happen to us, but what if it does?" she said. "And it's really about trying to find the time when you're not in an emergency situation to put towards something that seems distant." 

Heat

It's getting warmer, wetter, and more humid in Kansas and Missouri due to a changing climate. There's usually excessive heat at least two or three times during the summer months, and that's only getting worse.

Starlight installed four mega fans at the end of 2017 to keep customers cool in hot weather in the 2018 season.
Credit Starlight Theatre

It's a challenge for outdoor theaters like Kansas City's Starlight Theatre.

"Obviously, with an outdoor theater, we’re very concerned," President and CEO Richard Baker said.

The venue opened in Swope Park in 1950. With nearly 8,000 seats, it hosts concerts and Broadway musicals.

In late 2017, Starlight installed four mega-fans to address the heat. The fans, attached to 35-foot tall poles, generate a 4 mph breeze when operating at full speed and at the same time. It's an innovation Baker borrowed from the Muny in St. Louis, which installed a similar system in 2013. 

"We tend to have a little less rain than we had before — at least, it's been dodging the shows for us," Baker said. "But there's no question the heat is a bigger problem than the rain, but the fans have been a huge help in that." 

And, since 2015, Starlight has extended its season through the winter months, converting the stage into a 1,200-seat indoor theater.

Other area theater companies are starting to tackle climate change in a way they might know best — by putting on a show. In November, Theatre Alliance Kansas City, a collective of professional theaters, hosted a night of readings of 10 short plays as part of an international initiative called Climate Change Theatre Action

Gary Heisserer, an associate dean of academic affairs at Graceland University who serves on the artistic board of the Kansas City Actors Theatre, also worked with faculty to stage 12 plays with full productions.

"We picked ones that spoke to us," Heisserer said. "I gravitated toward ones that were a little lighter, a little less preachy and a little stronger on storytelling."

Actor and director John Rensenhouse said they got a little pushback from audience members who argued climate change is too political.

"I mean if we have to cut all politics out of art or theater, we’d have nothing," Rensenhouse said. "You know, we’re just advocating for awareness and consideration of the situation, and the topic, that’s all we’re trying to do."

As artists, they say, it’s their job to raise awareness about the human condition. And climate change is a growing part of that conversation.

Throughout the month of November, KCUR is taking a hard look at how climate change is affecting (or will affect) the Kansas City metro region.

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can follow her on Twitter at @lauraspencer.