This article appeared in the August 2010 issue of KC Stage
Mark Swezey has almost lost count of the number of shows he has directed since beginning his professional theatrical career in the late 1960s. But he does remember the show when the magical spark of theater ignited in his soul. It was the film version of the musical Finian’s Rainbow.
“There was something about the magic of that film and how it translated to the stage,” Swezey said. “It was magical.”
Photo by Ann McCroskey
Today, Swezey is making magic of his own as the director of theater at the Jewish Community Center, a position he’s held since 2005. Swezey has been a moving force in the resurgence of the JCC’s theatre program, which once housed the resident theatre located on W 83rd St and Holmes in Kansas City. Now the program is located in suburban Johnson County (adjacent to the Sprint campus) in the state-of-the-art 500-seat White Theatre.
Swezey oversees the JCC’s CenterSeason, which includes five locally-produced shows that he directs. He also handles the overall operation of the theatre with a number of additional performances be schools and arts organizations. The upcoming 2010-2011 season features an eclectic mix of theatre including the musicals Chicago, The Fantasticks, and Once on this Island as well as two Celebration in Song productions featuring the music of the legendary Billy Joel and Barbara Streisand as well as the play Driving Miss Daisy.
Not a bad gig for a nice Catholic boy from Queens in New York City. Swezey grew up attending an all boys’ Catholic school where he was first exposed to theater.
“Once a year we would do a play or musical, and I entered into it,” Swezey said. His first stage appearance was in a non-royalty play entitled The Nut Family.
“It was just fun creating something,” he said. “It was a different type of thing.”
Swezey split his time in high school between his theatrical interests and playing as a forward on the school basketball team.
“My big claim to fame is that we played Lewis Alcindor Jr., who went on to become Kareem Abdul-Jabaar. I’m glad I didn’t have to guard him,” said Swezey with a laugh.
Growing up in New York City, Swezey was exposed to the best in theater. Swezey’s mother would often take her son to see various productions, including Carol Burnett in Once Upon a Mattress. The frequent activity fed Swezey’s thirst for theater. Swezey went off to college at St. John’s University, a stone’s throw from home.
“It was like going to high school because I rode the bus and lived at home,” he said. When the university shut down due to a teacher’s strike, Swezey relocated to Kansas, where his family had friends. He landed at Ottawa University studying speech and theater. Moving to Kansas was a culture shock for the born and bred New Yorker.
“Everyone was so friendly. I wasn’t used to that being from New York,” Swezey said. “It took some getting used to.”
Swezey arrived at the same time a new director came to Ottawa and reinvigorated the theater department. It’s just one example of Swezey being in the right place at the right time.
“I also met some of my best friends who are still friends of mine,” he said.
A summer project at Ottawa turned Swezey onto directing. With funding from the Kansas Arts Commission, Swezey was founder and director of the first season of the Chautauqua Players, a theater program for both adults and kids.
“I thought this directing thing was kind of fun,” Swezey said. “It was one of the things that turned me on to working with kids.”
Swezey liked the collaborative process directing afforded him.
“I liked being able to work with people who are gifted in areas I am not,” Swezey said.
After graduating and not certain which direction to go in, Swezey headed back to New York City. He took an apprenticeship at Café LaMama, which proved to be a real turning point for Swezey.
“I took classes and did auditions. They brought in directors from all over the world and I learned so much,” Swezey said. “I event took a tap workshop there - it’s the only time I did.”
A Japanese production of The Golden Bat at the theater was eye-opening.
“One of the things that happened there is they took the audience by the hand out of the theater and danced in the street - it introduced me to audience participation in the theatre.”
Swezey returned to the Midwest - this time to Kansas City, “to figure out what I wanted to do with what I learned,” he said. A want ad for Creative World childcare jumped out at him.
“Before I knew it, I was traveling around to 20 preschools working with kids and teachers creating a dramatics program,” Swezey said. After two years, Swezey decided he wanted to work with older kids, went back to school at the University of Kansas to obtain his education degree as well as doing some graduate work. It was at KU that Swezey worked with two of his theatrical mentors, William Keehler and Jack Wright.
“They were huge influences on my directing,” Swezey said. “They really honed in on musical theater being such a collaborative process and you have to have all of the pieces together.”
Soon enough, Swezey found himself in a rural school setting at Tonganoxie High heading up the theater and forensics program for five years. The program grew under Swezey’s tutelage and won numerous awards and competitions.
“One of my favorite quotes is from the movie Field of Dreams - ‘build it and they will come’, and that’s what happened at Tonganoxie,” he said.
When the theater job opened up at Shawnee Mission South, Swezey applied and snagged the plum position at the suburban school. Swezey taught and directed at the school for 25 years, taking one of the productions to the prestigious International Thespian Society Conference. When Swezey came to SMS, he entered the realm of community theater - and has never left it since.
Swezey has directed numerous productions at various theaters around the community including The Theatre in the Park, The Barn Players, and Olathe Community Theatre Association. Swezey liked the collaborative nature of community theater and exposing new people to the art form.
“What I always loved about working at TTIP is for a lot of people, it’s their first theater experience. I thought it was pretty cool to teach and lure families into the world of the arts,” he said. “I would often sit in the back when look at a show and if it engaged me, then I knew we had done something here drawing the audience in.”
Swezey started his work with the JCC in 1999 directing Cabaret in the Social Hall of the building. Hardly an ideal space, Swezey tackled productions with a passion that hasn’t stopped since. He’s directed such works as Parade and Ragtime, as well as the controversial Angels in America and The Falsettos. One of his favorite experiences came with the first JCC production of Stephen Schwartz’ Children of Eden. Schwartz himself saw the production during a concert visit to Kansas City and was very moved. After its run at the center, the production toured performing at 25 diverse venues. One particular performance stands out for Swezey.
“Here we were on Martin Luther King’s birthday with this all white cast performing for a mostly black audience and it was a little tense,” Swezey said. “But by the end, everyone was clapping. There was a place where everyone connected.”
Swezey helped plan the White theater itself; when the official position came open at the JCC, he decided to apply for it.
“Being able to set this up how I wanted is great,” he said.
In the last several seasons, CenterSeason has touted itself as a “theatre of conscience”. For its productions, the theater partners with a non-profit in the Kansas City area that cast, crew and patrons can help by donating a particular item they need. In turn, patrons receive a discount on their tickets and the benefit of knowing they have helped others.
Swezey said the concept is based on two ideas that were merged together.
“Shakespeare, in his charge to the actors playing Hamlet, viewed theater as holding a mirror up to the world to see the good and bad and urging us to help fix it,” Swezey explained. The other idea is the Jewish concept of “tikkun olam”, which charges people to help in the repair of the world.
CenterSeason has worked with a variety of non-profits, everyone from Harvesters Food Network and Heart to Heart to Children’s Therapeutic Learning Center and CASA.
Swezey said the “theatre of conscience” ties into what he still likes about the theater after all these years.
“I still enjoy looking into a script or production and looking at what’s going on in the world,” Swezey said. “The purpose of theatre is to make the world a better place.”