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Central Standard

A Kansas Actor's World Travels Bring South American Influences To Kansas City Stages

Khalif Ghillet
Actress Marianne McKenzie's character 'Trickster' is based on an archetype from Andean mythology.

An emerging Kansas City director's travels in South America are influencing theater productions in Kansas City.

At the moment, that's most evident in the current production by the University of Missouri-Kansas City's graduate theater department. "The Storytelling Project," which runs through Sunday, mixes Andean mythology with the actors' personal stories.

It's directed by Karen Lisondra, whose last directoral project was a performance called "We are the Landscape" in 2016. Like that production, "The Storytelling Project" is inspired by Lisondra's time in South America.

“I spent six years in the Andes after spending about six-and-a-half to seven years in Argentina," Lisondra told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard. "It was very much a journey from formal, physical theater to a spiritual journey.”

Lisondra knows her journey from a childhood in Hutchinson, Kansas, to performing as a professional actress in Bolivia might be surprising.

After graduating from Northwestern University, Lisondra spent a year in the Philippines before moving to Argentina to learn Spanish and experience that country’s mixed identity of indigenous culture and European-immigrant influence.

Credit Karen Lisondra
Karen Lisondra was born in Hutchinson, Kansas, and has experience acting around the globe in a Bolivian theater troupe.

“I was young, in my early twenties, going to a place where you couldn’t have any expectations,” Lisondra said.

She found herself in a region with an abundance of art.

“In Buenos Aires, there’s over 200 working theaters. The music scene is phenomenal. You wander, you find so many things in your periphery.”

Lisondra moved from Argentina to Bolivia after receiving a job offer from an acting troupe.

"I got hired by a company in Bolivia," said Lisondra. "The director was Argentine, but he was exiled because of the dictatorship in Argentina."

While acting in Bolivia, Lisondra took note of the longer auditioning process and the importance placed on chemistry between actors.

“If you’re going to be together as an ensemble for four years, it’s not product-driven,” said Lisondra. “Really, it’s about the experience you can have and dynamic you have in a group, as individuals.”

The collaborative effort between actors and a production team is known as devised theatre, and is more common in the South American scene. Lisondra used this method for "The Storytelling Project," working with the actors to create their own roles, script and costumes.

Credit Khalif Ghillet
Actor Khalif Ghillet sketched mask designs used in the production.

“Learning all about the mythological archetypes, how mythology is such a part of Andean reality, it was a learning experience that went beyond typical Eurocentric theater that I was used to here,” she said.

The collaborative process began with student actors finding their own personal stories and relating them with mythological figures in Andean culture.

“We take the actors and their real stories, basically through the Andean concept of Pachacuti, which is like an earthquake or chaos,” said Lisondra. “In order to open some self-reflection, each of them brought to 'The Storytelling Project' their own personal conflicts and obstacles.”

Lisondra believes the lessons and acting styles she learned abroad will help diversify the theater scene in Kansas City.

Listen to the full conversation here.

"The Storytelling Project," through March 4 at the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, 4949 Cherry, Studio 116, Kansas City, Missouri 64110. For more information, visit UMKCTheatre.org.

Coy Dugger is an assistant producer for KCUR’s Central Standard. Reach out to him at coy@kcur.org.