A Brief History of the UMKC Department of Theatre
by Felicia Hardison Londré
The UMKC Department of Theatre continues to build upon a rich tradition of mutually supportive academic, professional, and community collaboration that was developed under the leadership of Dr. Patricia A. McIlrath (1917-1999).
"Dr. Mac" was not only the first chair of our department as a separate entity (beginning in 1954) apart from the English Department, but she also led a trailblazing crusade to bring professional theatre training to the university. Years of tireless dedication to that cause culminated in her founding of Missouri Repertory Theatre (originally UMKC Summer Repertory Theatre) in 1964. Always her vision was to maintain an "organic relationship" between academic and professional theatre on campus, an ideal that involved the sharing of production facilities as exemplified by UMKC's Performing Arts Center, which opened in 1979. Among her many national and international honors, Patricia McIlrath became the first recipient of the Career Achievement Award of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education.
Those of the present UMKC Theatre faculty who were lucky enough to have worked with our beloved Dr. Mac will never forget her beautiful example of dedication to theatre and humanity. She saw the potential and brought out the best in every person she encountered. She encouraged each student, professor, and staff member to be open to the widest spectrum of ideas and skills while developing one's individual strengths. Beneath her gentle, ladylike demeanor there was a steel backbone, Irish toughness, and hard-wired set of principles. Patricia McIlrath's legacy, a Department of Theatre nationally recognized for its professional training program and its association with Kansas City's flagship professional theatre company, is the product of long years of obstacles encountered and overcome. Indeed, triumph over setbacks constitutes a major element in "the Kansas City spirit." This is the spirit that saw the city's burned-down Convention Hall rebuilt in 90 days to host the 1900 Democratic National Convention. This is the spirit that rebuilt great swaths of urban landscape after the devastating floods of 1951 and 1976. This is the spirit that saw the opening of three major educational and cultural entities during the very depths of the Depression: the University of Kansas City and the Nelson Gallery of Art-Atkins Museum, both in 1933, and the Municipal Auditorium in 1935.
The University of Kansas City had been in existence less than a year when the English Department began sponsoring the production of plays in association with community groups in various off-campus venues. The University Players of UKC gradually expanded their offerings. In 1948 Dr. John Newfield, a professional director of theatre and opera in New York and Europe, was hired to direct the new University Playhouse, a building acquired from a deactivated US Air Force base and placed on campus over a newly constructed basement shop. A patio, outdoor fireplace, and two large ceramic masques that functioned as chimneys were soon added to the landscape. For the Playhouse's inaugural production, Blevins Davis was hired to direct Maxwell Anderson's Elizabeth the Queen, starring the noted actress Jane Cowl. Another renowned actor, Clarence Derwent, was brought in for The Merchant of Venice, a production that received national coverage in 1950. The Playhouse remained in use for both campus-community and (after 1964) professional productions until it was condemned as unsafe in 1976.
Dr. Newfield left UKC in 1952, but 1953 saw the arrival of Susan Dinges who would achieve national prominence in the field of children's theatre and creative dramatics. She founded the Ivory Tower Players in 1960 and directed it on campus until her retirement in 1990; she held the record for the longest continuous faculty appointment in the department until Felicia Londré passed it in 2009. With the 1954 hiring of Patricia McIlrath as Director of University Playhouse, a Department of Speech was created. The new department chaired by Dr. McIlrath included programs in radio-television and a studio theatre program for experimental productions. After her 1960-61 sabbatical in Europe, Dr Mac expanded the practice of bringing in guest professional artists, including international directors, to work with students on academic productions. Vincent Scassellati joined the department as full-time costumer in 1962. The superb designs of this excellent teacher and master draper graced the stage in hundreds of academic and professional productions until his retirement in 2000.
In 1964 the private University of Kansas City became a state institution, the University of Missouri-Kansas City. At that time the Speech department was renamed Department of Speech and Theatre. The following summer saw the tentative beginnings of a professional repertory theatre with two productions. Rod Alexander guest directed for the second season of Summer Repertory Theatre and also directed James Costin's Lee as an academic production. James Costin was a student who would eventually cap his career in the powerful position of UMKC's Vice Chancellor for Cultural Events. To him we are indebted for getting the Hall Family Foundation support that funded two of our professorships, both still held by their original appointees, who also work professionally with The Rep and other theatres nationwide: John Ezell in scene design and Jennifer Martin in movement and choreography.
After a season as artist-in-residence, Robin Humphrey (1922-1998) joined the theatre faculty in 1967. This spirited actress, who had worked on Broadway with Gertrude Lawrence and Julie Harris and who quickly won the hearts of Kansas City audiences, directed and acted for the department and Missouri Repertory Theatre until her retirement in 1986. The MRT Vanguard Tour, taking professional theatre to towns all over Missouri, began operations in 1968. Robin Humphrey acted in and directed touring productions alongside such eminent actors as Harriett Levitt, Art Ellison, Robert Elliott, and James Assad.
Theatre became a separate department in 1972, while speech and radio-television were moved to a new Department of Communication Studies. The Department of Theatre faculty was enhanced by the hiring of Joseph Appelt to teach lighting design and by the creation of two rotating professorships that allowed us to bring distinguished professional theatre artists to campus for one-semester appointments that combined teaching classes with directing, designing, or acting in both the academic and professional production programs. The first Distinguished Visiting Professor of Professional Theatre was Vincent Dowling of Dublin's Abbey Theatre, who directed an academic production of Sean O'Casey's The Shadow of a Gunman. The following season brought Alan Schneider. Director Francis Cullinan became a full-time faculty member in 1974, frequently directing for the department, MRT, the Coterie, and Lyric Opera until his retirement in 1989.
During the hiatus between the 1976 closing of the Playhouse and the 1979 inauguration of the long-planned Performing Arts Center, the Department of Theatre moved its offices and production activities to J. C. Nichols School at 69th and Oak Street, while MRT presented its six-play season at the old Jewish Community Center on Holmes. Two new faculty hirings in 1978 continued the tradition of combining academic and professional work: Douglas Taylor as technical director and Felicia Hardison Londré as dramaturg for Missouri Repertory Theatre. Ron Schaeffer joined us in 1979 to teach stage management and serve as production manager for MRT. Harry Feiner taught scene design here from 1980 to 1985.
In 1981 the UMKC Department of Theatre was granted authority to offer the only MFA degrees in theatre in the state of Missouri. It had long been said that the MA in theatre from UMKC was the equivalent of the MFA at professional theatre training schools elsewhere; now, thanks to years of effort by Patricia McIlrath, Robin Humphrey, and James Costin, the degree matched the reality. The two new MFA degrees were in Acting/Directing and Design/Technology. The MA degree was then reconceived for a more academically-focused program of study. Two new faculty positions were created and filled by Albert Pertalion as head of the MFA acting program and Bonnie Raphael for voice and movement. Also in 1981 guest director Louis Fantasia gave us a memorable production of Goldoni's Trouble in Chioggia.
The academic production with the greatest international resonance in the history of the department came in 1982 when the renowned Chinese actor-director and vice-minister of culture Ying Ruocheng served as visiting professor and directed The Family by Cao Yu. Professor Ying gave the students a crash course in Chinese culture and worked with them on ritual gestures like kowtowing and calligraphy brush-handling. The result was a superbly nuanced production that was seen by millions when shown on Chinese television. Overnight the names of UMKC student actors were known to taxi drivers and food vendors from Beijing to small villages; many Chinese spoke of their appreciation for the care taken by the "big-nose actors" in their recreation of Chinese manners. Ying returned to UMKC in 1984 to direct Fifteen Strings of Cash for MRT. His son, Ying Da (Dan Ying), earned his MFA in acting/directing at UMKC in 1987 and became a prominent film actor (Farewell My Concubine) and television director.
It was often noted that when Patricia McIlrath retired it took two men to replace her. The chairmanship of the department was taken by Dr. Jacques Burdick in 1984 and the artistic directorship of MRT by George Keathley in 1985. Other faculty hirings of the 1980s and 1990s included Peter Sander to teach acting, Toni Dorfman for undergraduate performance courses, Ewa Wielgat for voice coaching, Dennis Rosa for acting and directing for the camera (and who also directed MRT's very successful production of Dracula), David Jacques followed by Rob Murphy for lighting design, Theodore Swetz in acting, Victoria Marshall in costuming and rendering, Chuck Hayes in technical theatre, Tom Mardikes in sound design, Louis Colaianni for voice and speech, Victor En Yu Tan for lighting design, Gene Friendman for drafting and history of design and technology, and Joseph Price for undergraduate performance. With Dale AJ Rose's appointment to head the MFA Performance Training program in 1988 the department reached new heights of national recognition as tallied in biannual surveys by U.S. News and World Report. After Burdick's retirement in 1989, the chairmanship of the department was held in turn by Joseph Appelt, Jennifer Martin, Neil Bull, Cal Pritner, and again Neil Bull.
UMKC Theatre’s partnership with Dell’Arte International School of Physical Theatre of Blue Lake, California, brought Joe Krienke and Stephanie Thompson to the faculty to teach mask and clown techniques. Though they have moved back there to head that company, our liaison with the School continues to be a strength. The department also benefits from its close cooperation with Jeff Church and the Kansas City’s Coterie, which was named by Time magazine as one of the five best children’s theatres in the United States.
After a year of Visiting Professor status in 2001-2002, Gary Holcombe (Styles Acting), Gene Friedman (Scenic Design) and Lindsay W. Davis (Award-winning costumer) joined the ranks of tenure track faculty. Sarah Oliver is of able assistance in the costume shop. Nationally-produced playwright Frank Higgins now teaches the playwriting courses that are offered every semester.
Barry Kyle, Honorary Associate Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and Founding Artistic Director of Swine Palace Productions in Louisiana as well as the first Artistic Director of Stratford's Swan Theatre, led two charrettes and joined the faculty in 2003 as Professor of Theatre Arts. He has since directed Henry V, Good, A Maids’ Tragedy, Black Snow, Three Sisters, The Cure at Troy, The Master and Margarita . Theodore Swetz, master acting teacher, returned to UMKC Theatre in Winter 2006 to head the performance faculty. After conducting a charrette for our designers in 2004 and directing the first scholarship benefit production of The Darker Face of the Earth in 2005, Ricardo Khan came to grace our faculty in 2006-2007. Erika Bailey teaches voice and speech and Stephanie Roberts teaches mask and clown physical theatre.
In 2001, after a national search, Tom Mardikes was unanimously chosen by the theatre faculty to head the UMKC Department of Theatre as we move into a new era of opportunity for achieving pre-eminence in university-level professional theatre training. Our graduates have gone on to act, design, and stage manage for leading professional theatres all over the country as well as for film and television. Much of the talent has also enriched the Kansas City theatre scene, continuing Patricia McIlrath's vision of cooperation and mutual support among artists of the greater Kansas City theatre community. Although the name of Missouri Repertory Theatre was changed to Kansas City Repertory Theatre in October 2004, her spirit continues to infuse professional theatre here. It was her inspiration and devotion to theatre as a necessary art form that inspired the founding of other theatre companies, including the Unicorn, the Coterie, the New Theatre (Dinner Playhouses, Inc.), Gorilla Theatre, American Heartland Theatre, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Starlight Theatre, Martin City Melodrama, Kansas City Actors Theatre and others. We welcome all our new and continuing students who are joining us in our tradition of greatness in theatre in the heart of America.
Felicia Hardison Londré
Curators' Professor of Theatre
University of Missouri-Kansas City
5100 Rockhill Road
Kansas City MO 64110