This article is from the June 2012 issue of KC Stage
On a rainy June evening in 1993, the inaugural production of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, The Tempest, opened in Southmoreland Park. For Marilyn Strauss, the festival’s founder, this was “such stuff / As dreams are made on.” Yet realizing an outdoor, professional, free summer Shakespeare production was a hard-won battle, and no one could predict its future over the next two decades.
Strauss, who grew up in Kansas City, began her professional theatre career in the 1970s when she organized the Leonard Bernstein Festival with the Kansas City Philharmonic. This propelled her to a career on the Great White Way, where Strauss co-produced five plays and discovered Da, Hugh Leonard’s Irish comedy/drama, in 1978. When the production was transferred to Broadway, it earned six Tony awards — including Best Play — and garnered Strauss a Tony. She also received an Obie for the off-Broadway play Getting Out and a Tony nomination for the musical Pump Boys and Dinettes.
Homesick for the Midwest, Strauss returned to Kansas City eleven years later to begin another chapter in her career. “I had a secret thought that I wanted to do theatre,” she says. Determined for success, Strauss recalls thinking, “’Nobody turns away from Shakespeare. That’s a safe way to go.’ I wanted to be sure.” Aside from reading a few plays, however, she admits: “I really didn’t know much about Shakespeare” at the time.
As luck would have it, a local Shakespeare scholar with an identical dream was eager to collaborate. In 1990, Strauss met Felicia Hardison Londré, curators’ professor of theatre at UMKC, who became the festival’s honorary co-founder. While researching her book on Shakespeare Companies and Festivals: An International Guide, Londré had been travelling to Shakespeare festivals throughout the United States and Europe.
Founding a Shakespeare festival meant courting the city, potential funders, and the community. At the time, it would be the only free outdoor Shakespeare festival in a tri-state area. Convincing Kansas City to join the ranks of approximately 100-120 Shakespeare companies in the United States was “an uphill climb,” Strauss says. Advised to start small, Strauss replied, “I’m not going to start small. I’m going to go full force, and if it works, it’ll work.” She spent countless hours planning, gathering information, making phone calls, attending donor meetings, and founding a Strictly Shakespeare organization of supporters. Londré’s many contributions included supplying model budgets, writing preliminary proposals for a free Shakespeare festival, and creating a persuasive slide lecture on “The Shakespeare Festival Phenomenon.”
In October of 1992, Strauss produced a gala fundraiser at the Folly Theater starring Kevin Kline, who performed scenes from Shakespeare’s works. The sold-out benefit, for which Kline generously donated his talent, netted $100,000. “Now, we could choose a play, hire a director, actors, designers, and technical experts,” Strauss says. “We could build a set, make costumes, tailor the park, garner hundreds of volunteers, and beg all kinds of services.” From its conception, the festival took nearly three years to premiere.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony and Cleopatra, performed in rotating repertory this summer, will mark 26 total productions of 18 different plays in the festival’s history, and it will be the first time the festival performs Anthony and Cleopatra. To achieve a shared vision, executive artistic director Sidonie Garrett and assistant director Todd Lanker will juggle simultaneous rehearsals. Eventually, Garrett hopes that the entire canon will be produced since a two-show season — which the festival hopes to continue — allows for greater flexibility in choices than a single offering.
“Traditionally, Shakespearean plays were viewed outdoors by boisterous crowds who routinely ate and drank during the performance,” an early festival brochure notes. For many audience members, the performances in the park are their only exposure to live theatre, and the casual atmosphere is frequently punctuated by animated conversation, the crumpling of potato chip bags, and the crack of opening soda cans. Last season, almost 23,000 people attended Macbeth. Space is typically at a premium during the last weekend of the run; Garrett recalls that the final performances of Twelfth Night in 2001 saw close to 2,500 people crowded into the park at once.
Rehearsals begin indoors, but once in the park the company is at the mercy of insects, unpredictable weather, sirens, and even fireworks and helicopters overhead. Rain can force a hasty retreat to the hall, which means reduced time rehearsing on the actual set. Movement coach Jennifer Martin remembers one year when a furious thunderstorm during rehearsals forced everyone to take refuge under a tent. The director, Bruce Levitt, told jokes while “actors emptied the fast-accumulating rain from the canvas overhead and others blocked holes where rain was coming through,” she says. “That also may have been the summer when we sank in mud to the top of our tennis shoes in spite of the bales of hay the Parks and Recreation Department strewed around the paths.”
Garrett’s first year with the festival as a young assistant director was on The Taming of the Shrew in 1995. Charged with maintaining the show after the director departed, she says, “It was the hottest summer on record that any of us can recall. We would leave the park and it would still be 100 degrees.” During one performance, an astonished Garrett noticed that the actors performing on an overhead scaffold above the stage were consuming Gatorade and popsicles — apparently stashed in a concealed cooler. She then saw them silently offer — and toss — popsicles down to the performers acting below. Initially shocked, she soon discovered that because of the triple-digit temperatures, the stage manager had given them permission to eat and drink on stage. Backstage, some actors sneak a round of Frisbee in their off-time, though Garrett dreads they will twist an ankle on the uneven park terrain or get whacked in the head.
Wild animals are another challenge. Southmoreland Park was originally named Squirrel Park, and squirrels have a propensity for raining down walnuts in the wooded green patch behind the stage. During one particularly rowdy performance last summer, a squirrel leaped from a tree into the audience. Then, halfway through the second act, stage manager Jinni Pike and sound designer Rusty Wandall discovered a possum nestled among the cables in the back of the sound board case. The show went on without a hitch, but they had to prevent it from escaping until the performance concluded and the park cleared.
With only three year-round employees, the festival operates on a very tight budget and most of the money it raises goes back into the next season. Garrett spends most of her time coordinating administrative and financial activities: writing grants, raising funds, soliciting sponsors, marketing, creating a budget, and doing an annual audit. The festival holds one gala fundraiser every February, sometimes supplemented by smaller events. This fall, selected festival artists will collaborate with the Bach Aria Soloists to combine Shakespeare’s text with orchestral music. The education department, headed by Kara Armstrong, offers summer camps, workshops, and year-round school programs, and Strauss is particularly proud of their success. A new festival ambassador, an outsized, costumed interpretation of Shakespeare known as “Good Will,” travels to community events and connects with children and families.
After 20 seasons, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is still outdoors, professional, and free, but it has grown and evolved from its infancy when the stage, erected at the north end of the park, faced due south and mounted policemen patrolled on horseback. Given the opportunity to begin again, Strauss says, “I wouldn’t do anything differently.” Shakespeare is “the greatest storyteller that ever lived,” and “the festival has brought me more fulfillment, more joy, and more pleasure than Broadway.”
Thomas Canfield is the dramaturge for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival and an instructor of theatre, English, and humanities.