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Central Standard

After A Transformative Decade In Kansas City, The Rep's Artistic Director Says Goodbye

Coy Dugger
KCUR 89.3
Eric Rosen, artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is leaving after 10 years with the organization.

Eric Rosen is saying goodbye to Kansas City. But not without a few sniffles first.

Rosen, who is moving to New York, began his role as artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre in May 2008. Rosen was 37 and, at the time, the youngest director to lead the organization.

“I found a community here. People I love, people I’ll miss dearly,” Rosen told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard. “I’m not going to cry.”

Prior to joining The Rep, Rosen headed About Face Theatre in Chicago, a small theater company that primarily performed newer, progressive plays rather than classics.

After an eight-month national search for a new artistic director, the Rep approached Rosen. He said he was shocked by the job offer.

“When I was interviewing for the position, 11 years ago, I remember saying to the board again and again, ‘Are you sure?’” Rosen said. “When they hired me, they really said yes, that’s what they wanted to do. I was as surprised as anyone.”

During Rosen’s tenure, the Rep completed a renovation of the Spencer Theatre and its annual budget rose from $6 to $9 million.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Spencer Theatre was renovated in 2015.

Rosen’s first production at the Rep was “Clay,” a hip-hop musical loosely based on “Henry IV,” which was later produced by the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City. Rosen would continue to make choices that challenged the status quo.

“I think if I didn’t ruffle feathers in 10 years, I did it wrong,” said Rosen. “I came in with an ambitious agenda, a very different aesthetic.”

Early in his career, he touted himself as “the least-conservative” artistic director in the history of the Rep.

“I was young when I said it. I’m not sure if it remains true,” Rosen told Kaufmann. “But there is, in these institutions, a pull towards classics — towards conserving, literally, the tradition.”

But Rosen said he maintained a proper balance between conservative and progressive theater.

“I love all my children,” Rosen said of the plays he’d produced, but his choices didn’t always turn out as he expected, particularly when he thought, “This is a very conservative choice. A safe choice.”

For example, Rosen said, when the Rep produced Nathan Louis Jackson’s play “Broke-ology,” about an African-American family dealing with the decline of the patriarch set in Kansas City, Kansas, he thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to balance that with a crowd pleaser like William Inge’s ‘Bus Stop’?”

“Broke-ology” sold out, but “Bus Stop” flopped.

“You couldn’t get into ‘Broke-ology.’ We couldn’t give tickets away to ‘Bus Stop,’” Rosen said. “It felt too on-the-nose for what we should be doing.”

The difference was a revelation, Rosen said, about what plays Kansas City audiences were looking for.

Still, Rosen said, the biggest obstacle when putting a theater scene on the world map is finding the right balance in a roster of contemporary productions and classics.

“I think we’re getting there,” he said. “I honestly feel very optimistic for the future of all of the arts in Kansas City. It’s an extraordinary time to be here.”

Theater in Kansas City changed drastically in the past 10 years, Rosen said, and so did his personal life.

“I met my husband here. I became myself in Kansas City,” Rosen said. “I’m leaving with a family and a career and a whole different idea of what theater can be and what it can do.”

Listen to the full conversation here.

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