Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"Spotlight on Felicia Londré" by Thomas Canfield

This article is from the September 2012 issue of KC Stage

Kansas City is the home of a highly respected, world-renowned theatre historian, author, and educator whose encyclopedic knowledge of theatre - local, national, and international - is matched only by her palpable warmth, ardor, and enthusiasm for the subject. Felicia Londré, curators' professor of theatre at UMKC, is one of the great treasures of the theatrical community, not only because of her eagerness to share her vast expertise and genuine love of all things dramatic, but also for her fascinating career that spans several decades.

Unpretentiousness is a remarkably rare virtue in someone with Felicia's abundant honors and accolades. Because she does not boast of her impressive accomplishments, even those who know her intimately might not realize what an interesting and varied life she has led. Born in Fort Lewis, Wash., she was a military brat who, along with her two sisters, lived all over the United States and later spent three years in England. At the time of her birth, Felicia's father, Col. Felix M. Hardison, had just begun a career in the Army Air Corps. Already an acknowledged war hero, he would go on to become Air Attaché to Sweden and play an integral role in founding the Swedish Air Force.

An unconventional childhood led Felicia to take the road less travelled in her journey through higher education. Were she to write her memoirs, Felicia jokes that they would be titled A Long, Slow Learning Curve, but her divergent path undoubtedly unlocked life's great possibilities and formed her cosmopolitan perspective of theatre as a universal art form that transcends cultural and disciplinary boundaries. Surprisingly, Felicia technically does not have a theatre degree. She holds a bachelor's in French, with a minor in drama, from the University of Montana. A thirst for knowledge led her to complete her degree a year early, whereupon she spent a year abroad studying French drama on a Fulbright scholarship. Felicia subsequently earned a master's in romance languages, again minoring in drama, at the University of Washington in Seattle. By this time, she knew in her heart that she was destined for theatre and pursued this goal with characteristic energy and initiative.

An integral part of Felicia's transition into theatre was directing two plays, in French, at the Penthouse Theatre, the first theatre-in-the-round in the US, located on the University of Washington campus. She was then awarded a fellowship in international theatre at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she completed a doctorate in speech. "I was getting my doctorate in theatre, but in those days, 'theatre' was still a dirty word," she explains. "It was called the 'department of speech' because you didn't say the word 'theatre' in higher education. Officially my Ph.D. is in speech, but all my courses were in theatre."

When there were no opportunities to direct in the University of Wisconsin theatre program, Felicia arranged to direct a play in the French department; this led to two more productions and greater opportunities. "One of my plays was Eugène Labiche's The Italian Straw Hat in French, and it was such a success that the theatre department decided to do it on the main stage in English. Nobody wanted to direct it after me, so I was the first graduate student in Wisconsin history to direct on the main stage," she recalls.

Prior to coming to Kansas City, Felicia spent six years as an instructor at a University of Wisconsin branch campus. "That's where I learned how to teach," she explains. Meanwhile, she directed, acted in, and designed costumes for several plays, although her efforts went largely unappreciated: "I was doing daring, avant-garde productions, the likes of which you would have seen in Paris in the 1920s, but nobody understood." Three additional years heading a high-pressure, experimental theatre program at the University of Texas ended in disappointment when she wasn't awarded tenure. "I liked Dallas because there was a lot of theatre," she says, "but I didn't publish much. I was concentrating on all kinds of other stuff. I had a contract for my first book, but I didn't get tenure. And of course, when you don't get tenure, it's devastating. You feel as if the world is coming to an end."

This tragedy was really a blessing in disguise for both Felicia and Kansas City. "Doesn't fate work in mysterious ways? I think the saddest thing that ever happened to me was also the luckiest," she remarks. Determined to move on, she frantically applied for teaching positions during the summer of 1978. "I saw this job at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, and saw it had the Missouri Repertory Theatre associated with it." As fortune would have it - and unknown to her at the time - she already had an advocate in John Ezell, who had been her greatest mentor at the University of Wisconsin. Having worked as a designer for the Missouri Rep, John (who later would become professor of scenic design at UMKC) recommended Felicia as a new hire.

Compared to the thriving metropolis of oil-rich Dallas, Kansas City in the late seventies appeared to be a rather old-fashioned backwater. Felicia's first impression of UMKC was of "a sleepy little university in this sleepy, little-big city." But the grace and charm of Dr. Patricia McIlrath, chair of UMKC theatre and founder of the Rep, immediately won Felicia over. "She was an amazing person who had built a professional theatre from the ground up, starting at zero in a city that hadn't had much theatre for a very long time. She had done it virtually singlehandedly, but she was never boastful. There was no ego about her. She was so outgoing, thoughtful, and other-people oriented. She was an instant mentor and friend. She was so nice, helpful, wonderful, and loveable to everyone - every actor at the Rep, every student, every faculty member. She was instant inspiration to anyone whose life she came in contact with."

Dr. Mac's unique talent for finding opportunities and nurturing individual talent led her to create a dramaturgy position at the Rep, and Felicia became one of the first full-time faculty members in the nation to have an officially-designated affiliation with a professional theatre. This position, which she held for 22 years, enabled Felicia to move beyond her academic theatre formation. Not only did she learn the ropes of professional theatre, but the support and freedom Felicia was given allowed her to discover her true calling as a theatre historian.

Today, Felicia's distinguished credits include over 60 scholarly articles, 25 journalistic publications, 100 book and theatre reviews, and 14 books. She has written approximately 18 original plays, and translated 11 more from Russian, Spanish, and French. An ambassador of theatre throughout the world, Felicia has travelled, lectured, conducted research, and attended conferences throughout Europe, as well as in Russia, Japan, and China. On one visit to Russia, she saw 26 plays in only 18 days! Every trip abroad has been an opportunity to bring the world of theatre back to Kansas City and to enrich the lives of her students.

In 34 years at UMKC, Felicia has taught a vast array of theatre and interdisciplinary courses. Today, she instructs a rotation of courses in world theatre history, specializing in American, French, Russian, 19th-20th century theatre history, and dramaturgy. Her lectures are accompanied by slides - many taken during her world travels - that bring theatre history to life. Whereas graduate students in most theatre programs are assigned a somber regimen of theory, Felicia's students have the rare opportunity to read and discuss great plays.

The extra effort Felicia puts into making a lasting impression on her students is just one of many qualities that makes her so special. Students are often surprised to receive gracefully-penned "thank you" cards for something they have done. Last spring, as a capstone to a French theatre history course, Felicia and her husband Venne, a French instructor at UMKC, held a French tea in their home. At the suggestion of a student, the attendees costumed themselves as their favorite figure from French theatre history. Felicia's daughter, Georgianna, a professional costume designer, created a costume for Felicia modeled on the legendary photograph of Sarah Bernhardt, in the role of Hamlet, holding a skull. The Londrés also have a son, Tristan, who is an administrator at Metropolitan Community College, and six grandchildren.

Beginning in 1990, Felicia transformed scholarly research on two books, Shakespeare Around the Globe: A Guide to Notable Postwar Revivals (1986) and Shakespeare Companies and Festivals: An International Guide (1995) into opportunities to lobby for the creation of a Shakespeare festival in Kansas City. Twenty-two years later, as honorary co-founder of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, she still presents a show talk before the performances in Southmoreland Park. An unabashed Oxfordian, Felicia admits that arriving at what many see as a radical conclusion on the authorship of the plays was the result of a reluctant process. "I was happy with the Shakespeare we had. I didn't want to hear about it. I liked the Stratford legend," she says.

At the prodding of her husband, Felicia agreed to read Charlton Ogburn's The Mysterious William Shakespeare, albeit with a highly skeptical mind. "I read the whole 800 pages and said, 'This is worth knowing about. There's something here worth taking into consideration.' It really shook up my ideas, but I wasn't ready to commit." She then read a biography of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. "It's funny how you resist, you resist, you resist, and suddenly some trivial thing turns on a light bulb, and you say, 'Okay, I give up. I accept.' From then on, I was reading with a different point of view - more open-minded, looking at all the possibilities, but trying not to be too locked in too early," she says.

Felicia's earnest desire to share the revelations and new meanings she was discovering in the plays met with a severe warning from her academic colleagues. "'Don't do this. You'll ruin your career. None of your work will be taken seriously if you keep pursuing this'," she recalls. In the end, however, she had to be true to herself as a scholar and acknowledge the preponderance of evidence. "It was rather daring that I came out of the closet as an Oxfordian!" she remarks. As a standard bearer for the cause, Felicia has been debating the authorship question since 1991. Each November in Kansas City, she presents a persuasive, meticulously-researched authorship lecture, which she also has taken on the road across the US and to Beijing, Budapest, Tokyo, and London. "How can any intelligent person not see?" she asks passionately. "Once you do the homework, if you take the trouble, it's so obvious."

Felicia's other books include studies of individual playwrights, such as Tennessee Williams, Tom Stoppard, and Federico García Lorca; comprehensive histories of world and North American theatre; and a guide to dramaturgy. Her fifteenth book will be a history of French and American theatre artists in World War I. However, she considers The Enchanted Years of the Stage: Kansas City at the Crossroads of American Theater, 1870-1930 (2007) as her most important work. This award-winning book chronicles the lively, entertaining, rich history of theatre in Kansas City's golden age and is a must-read for anyone interested in the glorious history of our city's early theatre.

Research for this book led Felicia to found the Patricia McIlrath Center for Mid-American Theatre, the only archive in the surrounding region devoted specifically to live local theatre. "My dream was to start an archive to preserve play programs, posters, and reviews," she says. "What I really wanted to do was preserve everything about Kansas City theatre history." The McIlrath Center is also a repository for photographs, clippings, albums, and recordings that might otherwise be lost, since theatre is such an ephemeral medium. Both students and researchers in the community use the collections, and Felicia regularly fields inquiries from people seeking information on an array of subjects.

Regarding the current state of local theatre, Felicia is adamant about our need to produce more classic and contemporary foreign plays. She points out, for example, that Kansas City missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to mark the 100th birthday of Tennessee Williams last season by not producing any of his plays, and she is even more vehement about the provinciality of our offerings. "There's a world of great contemporary drama out there, and Kansas City doesn't see it! Don't we care what's being written in France, and Spain, and Russia, and Germany, and England, and Australia?" she asks. Disturbed also by the overall decline in excellence manifested in virtually all aspects of our culture, Felicia is outraged at the closing of the University of Missouri Press, the publisher of The Enchanted Years of the Stage, which has recently dealt "a great body blow to the University of Missouri" and typifies this lowering of cultural standards.

In late spring of 1962, the week before Felicia graduated from Montana State University, she took a solitary night stroll to a group of glaciated rocks positioned on the campus. That year, John Glenn had just become the first person to orbit the earth. Sitting down, she peered up at the stars twinkling in the sky and experienced, "a feeling of endless potential and possibility in the life that lay mysteriously ahead of me," she recalls. "And yet I was completely aware of my insignificance as a mere speck in the cosmos of space and time. Complete serenity enveloped me as I contemplated the mysteries of past and future and the great infinity beyond our planet, and as I murmured to the stars about the unknown ways in which my dreams might play out."

Felicia would not return to the Montana campus until 36 years later, when she received the university's Distinguished Alumna Award. Later that night, sitting in the exact same spot, she looked up at the stars and realized that John Glenn had just returned to outer space. "I still delight in the cosmic click telling me that all my world travels and experiences over the years had somehow taken me to just where I needed to be at precisely the right times," she says. For both of them, divine providence had melded with trust in their own determination to be open to adventure, to enjoy the journey, and to offer something worthwhile to the world.

Thomas Canfield, an instructor of theatre, English, and humanities, is writing a history of the Circle Theatre (1962-67), Kansas City's first professional resident theatre company.

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