Kansas City's upstart theater companies may have delusions of grandeur.

Great Expectations 

Kansas City's upstart theater companies may have delusions of grandeur.

It's rumored that the greater Kansas City area is home to a hundred theater companies. If that were true, with any given night offering Kansas City audiences a choice of dozens of dramas, comedies or musicals, and if all of those shows were filled to capacity, it would be a front page Arts & Leisure piece in the Sunday New York Times. The obvious headline: "Everything's Up-to-Date in Kansas City."

More accurately, everything's kind of crowded and untidy. Frequently the houses are nearly empty except for devoted families and friends. Actors are moonlighting around full-time jobs because they're taking home little more than pocket change (if anything at all). There aren't enough bodies to fill the seats of the Equity houses, much less every grassroots group with stars in its eyes. Certainly it's worth remembering that the Unicorn Theatre began modestly -- but so did several other companies that are long gone. These days, small companies aren't getting famous, just fatigued.

Among the latest names to surface: WIT Pending, a comedy improvisational group; Silver Wing, with Theatre for Young America veteran Valerie Mackey's name attached; Princess Squid, headed by Michael Andrew Smith and Kara Armstrong; and Evaporated Milk Society, whose experimental, enigmatic take on Jewish mysticism earlier this summer left several heads shaking. To a degree, all of the activity parallels the art gallery explosion in the Crossroads district. But the city hovers in a pregnant pause; it can hold only so much artistic product before its water breaks and the baby's an orphan.

Several theater insiders say the situation is troubling. "Not that new theater shouldn't be encouraged -- there's always room for things exciting and on the edge," says Christopher King, whose Minds Eye company is in its second year. "But the talent's spread too thin.

"There are a lot of actors out there who have hopes of doing things that appeal to them more than what's being offered," King adds. "Are these new companies vanity projects? Yeah, some of them. And for some people, theater is their social life rather than their craft. It reminds me of the old adage, 'You should love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.'"

One director who asked to remain anonymous says too many groups mount shows that are too safe to be enticing. "When I look at these theaters' choices, I realize that many are very amateurish. They love the idea of putting on plays, but they don't interrogate their motives beyond that. You have to ask, 'What makes a theater company a theater company?'"

A bad production can taint audience enthusiasm as much as a bland one. And big heads exacerbate the tendency for companies to put on shows they probably shouldn't. "The egos are a huge problem," says Jason Cohen, whose On the Brink company staged (quite competently) Stop Kiss last month at the Just Off Broadway space near Penn Valley Park. "You don't do theater for the glory but for the work. And I'm working my ass off. But if I saw something at Westport Coffeehouse, for example, that was crappy -- and I have -- I would assume everything there would be crappy."

Just Off Broadway is a space that has good sightlines and the right dimensions but some observers say its board has too little organizational savvy to be viable; like some of the companies themselves, the venue is rife with potential. "It's a great space compared to Westport Coffeehouse, which is a horrendous place to work," says King, a recent addition to JOB's board. "But there isn't that sense of the business side of show business. I am a director and a storyteller, but am I a storyteller if no one's in the seats to tell the story to? I think all of the companies are starting to delve into these issues, the main one being how do we build an audience and how do we keep it loyal? And you have to remember that the Unicorn Theatre's audience is already taken."

Actor Scott Cordes, who paid his dues in smaller companies, believes that the city's potential theater audience is huge. "If you ask people at the Friday night art openings how many have been to the theater, they'll mention New York or maybe The Rep. There's your market: They're young, they're hip and they have money."

Michael Andrew Smith of Princess Squid, which has a rock and roll Joan of Arc story in the works, is optimistic that there are bodies for the unfilled seats. "I think there's a market totally untapped but, of course, they have to hear about what you're doing." At the moment, however, he doesn't even know where his group will perform.

"There's a tendency among small market theater communities [to think] that the merit of their work is determined by the sweat on their brow," says Randall Cohn, founder of Evaporated Milk Society. "Because we're doing it, it merits attention. What threatens the number of theaters is that they're not holding themselves up to a standard that would fuel a spirit of healthy competition. You have to ask, 'Can't we learn from each other rather than see each other as a threat?' That would be exciting."

Gorilla Theatre, which has been around since 1989, seems to have learned lessons worth imparting. Early in its existence, the company staged shows in such odd venues as an abandoned bathhouse on McGee where, outside the door, a dozen male prostitutes peddled their wares. Its yearly outdoor Greek play, The Trojan Women, drew large crowds and some national press last month. But as recently as last year, a Gorilla production at Just Off Broadway could have contained its audience in an ATM kiosk, and its Major Barbara had to cancel six performances due in part to lack of an audience.

"We're developing companies when we should be developing audiences," says Gorilla president Tyler Miller. "The real art missing in the Kansas City market is theater management, which looks at the whole picture and not just self-promotion."

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