What Caught the Eye: Finding UMKC

UMKC Theatre’s professional training program attracts amazing young artists from all over the country, but what is it that makes it such a magnet for talent? Stephen Jarvis (MFA Sound Design 2020), one of three incoming sound design students this year, landed at the University of Missouri-Kansas City after searching for a program with the right balance of hands-on training and professional experience. “I wanted to find a place that allowed me to develop my skills and help build a professional character,” he recalls, “Sound design is such a new field that I was worried about finding a professional program in a graduate setting.”

Jarvis discovered UMKC Theatre’s sound program online and within a few days of reaching out to Tom Mardikes (UMKC Theatre chair and professor of sound design), he was on his way to Kansas City for a campus tour. He expected the usual woes of scouting: the tension, the conference room decorum, a brief interview by a member of a boardroom committee. Instead, Jarvis was cheerfully greeted by Greg Mackender (assistant teaching professor of sound design), his warmth and candor a pleasant surprise.

As he toured the department and its facilities, Jarvis noted the breadth of skills students pick up during their graduate careers, that career being working alongside professors and other artists in Kansas City’s growing network of professional theatres. “The equipment and training that I saw made me consider the opportunities I would have. The students were very knowledgeable, and these were first -year students. They made me realize that I too could achieve some long-awaited dreams.”

When professors take on the role of colleague in productions around town, student designers have the advantage of learning on-site, hands-on, and in real time from their mentors. Such apprenticeships are common with Kansas City theatres through UMKC Theatre, and Jarvis comments on the openness instructors show towards working with their students. “It was abundantly clear to me that these professors are just as excited about us as we are about them,” he says.

After some discussion (and not-so-subtle hints from his wife), Jarvis joined the UMKC Theatre sound program in the fall of 2017, and has since been guided by what he calls the “first-class attitudes of the professors,” and by their attentiveness to their students’ professional lives in other areas. Professors like Mackender and Mardikes invest themselves in their students’ extracurricular interests to help designers discover their niche, using their time in production to help students get the most out of their projects. Jarvis says that professional working relationship was what tipped the scale. “I saw a real community between the students and teachers that I had not seen before. Before the trip was over, I knew where my heart lay. I knew that I could be crafted in such a way that I might be a credit to those whom I will work with in the theatre. No other school could give me that kind of confidence and optimism.”

by Calen Welder

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On Screen and On Stage: Nick Gehlfuss and Dina Thomas

The Master of Fine Arts in Acting program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City has been ranked among the top programs of its kind worldwide. Actors who graduate from this program are known for their talent as well as their high-quality training, which benefits them in any medium, be it theatre, film, or television. Nick Gehlfuss (MFA Acting 2010) and Dina Thomas (MFA Acting 2011) both serve as examples of this, as they continue to create solid reputations for themselves as skilled, professional actors.

Since graduating, Nick Gehlfuss, who hails from Cleveland, has been working vigorously in theatre, film, and television. He has acted in the shows Shameless and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia as well as in the film Love & Mercy.  His Dr. Will Halstead has been a staple on the NBC Chicago franchise, which includes the shows Chicago Fire, Chicago P.D., and Chicago Med.  He has a role in the upcoming film Butterfly in the Typewriter, directed by David DuBois, about the writer John Kennedy Toole.

Of his time at UMKC, Gehlfuss says, “Ted Swetz, Stephanie Roberts, Dr. Jennifer Martin, and Carla Noack inspired and motivated me every day. They were always willing and available to dissect the work and help deepen my understanding of it. I’ll never forget the moment in class when I went from being afraid to fail, to expecting to fail. This informs everything I do.”

Gehlfuss’s career is on a sharp upward trajectory.  Known not only for his natural talent, but for his stamina and professionalism, he offers the following advice to aspiring actors, “If at the end of the day you cannot answer ‘yes’ to the question, ‘Did I do everything I could today to achieve my dream?’ then you must adjust.”

A graduate of the MFA in Acting program at UMKC who is experiencing a different kind of success from Nick Gehlfuss is Dina Thomas, who is working in professional theatre. Thomas, who had studied under Theodore Swetz at Binghamton University, followed him to UMKC. Of this decision, Thomas remembers thinking, “I’m not done training [with Theodore Swetz]. There’s more I can learn and more I can do.” Dina Thomas has learned a lot from Swetz over the years, adding, “His ability to see a person and recognize their potential is a rarity in a teacher.” Thomas has fond memories of her other teachers at UMKC, including Carla Noack, of whom she says, “There’s nothing that Carla won’t do for a student.”

After graduating, Thomas was cast in her off-Broadway debut, Tribes by Nina Raine, which was an opportunity to work with esteemed director David Cromer. She also created the role of Lisette in the world premiere of The Metromaniacs by David Ives at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C. This past year, she performed in I’m Gonna Pray for You So Hard at Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City with Theodore Swetz, which was an opportunity for her to come full-circle to act with her teacher professionally on-stage.

Dina Thomas continues to be cast in juicy roles in theatre, saying that when she auditions in New York, “People ask, ‘where did you train?’ and I say, ‘UMKC.’ They say, ‘UMKC? We see really good actors from there’.” Thomas is proud of where she trained, adding, “There’s a pride to our work. There’s a pride to who we are as UMKC actors. I’m proud to maintain that standard for myself.”

by Amanda Davison



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National Design Portfolio Review

UMKC is a Member School of the National Design Portfolio Review that is held in New York every May. Talented young theatre designers present their portfolios after they graduate from our programs and enter the profession. NDPR attracts professional producers, directors and designers from across the country to informally talk with recent graduates and review their work. NDPR is an introduction of talented, emerging designers to the industry and a celebration of the theatre profession.

Learn more here

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The Commendable UMKC Co – Productions

When a theater graduate student enters the work world, it is important for him or her to have a good résumé and knowledge from both the classroom and participating in the surrounding theaters. The more established theaters that the students work with, the better their résumés will be, and the easier it will be for them to get hired. UMKC Theater is fortunate enough to have two great theaters that students co-produce with; the Unicorn and the Coterie. Students who participate in these co-productions go through the process of working in professional theatre with high standards and work alongside equity actors and stage managers.  Two wonderful co-productions that happened this year are Hana’s Suitcase at the Coterie and Men on Boats at the Unicorn Theatre.

Hana’s Suitcase, written by Emil Sher and based on the book by Karen Levine, tells the story of a Japanese Holocaust educator, played by Andi Meyer, and her students who receive a suitcase from Auschwitz on which is written the name Hana Brady. Curious about the suitcase and its owner, the teacher and students uncover the tragic story of a young girl taken before her time.

This co-production was part of a collaborative relationship that has been instrumental for The Coterie since 1992. The relationship between the Coterie and UMKC Theatre began as a program offering MFA actors the chance to work alongside established theater professionals. Today, the co-productions feature both student actors as well as MFA designers and coaches from nearly every area of UMKC Theater.

UMKC students filled the play’s crew and production staff. Mark Exline was the scenic designer, Stella Tag was the costume designer, Jesús Manuel Rivera was the sound designer, Jamie Leonard was the projections designer, Nils Emerson was the MFA technical director, Lisa Tinker was the MFA production assistant, and Micah Thompson was the assistant lighting designer. All contributed to a wonderful production. In the press release Hana’s Suitcase, the Coterie praise the students and the school:

“The Coterie is proud to continue its this long-standing relationship with UMKC Theater, which benefits up-and-coming young professionals by providing practical, professional work experience, both on stage and behind the scenes.”

The first co-production of 2017 was Men on Boats by Jaclyn Backhaus, performed at the Unicorn. Men on Boats tells the story of an 1869 expedition of a group of men to chart the course of the Colorado River, but there is a catch. All of the roles are played by women. With Vanessa Severo playing the fearless but one-armed captain John Wesley Powell, the play gave an opportunity for both the third and second year MFA actresses to be united onstage. The women also were able to act with their teacher Carla Noack, who gave a solemn yet humorous performance as Powell’s brother Old Shady.

The outstanding set which displayed the Colorado territory in a way that was both real and fantastical, was done by scenic designer Kelli Harrod. Harrod also built four boats that the actresses needed to lift, drop, and shake so they could stimulate ridings through both rough and gentle currents.

The Unicorn has been doing co-productions with UMKC for the past ten years. It started small, but over the years it has grown, and the Unicorn welcomes the students from UMKC, even hiring them after graduation. The students bring young blood and new perspectives to the theater and the students get opportunities to learn from professionals and get real world experience.

According to Levin, “These students can come to graduate school and work, to get out of the classroom, and work with different types of people. We get to know these students and they get experience that will impact them for the rest of their lives.”

These co-productions add real-world experience to UMKC students’ educational journeys, and the theaters benefit from the students as well. Hopefully, these relationships will last long into the future.

by Ellen Hayek

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UMKC Helps Pave the Way for Future Ph.D.s

Amanda Dawson. Photo by Manon Halliburtin

Students from the Master of Arts in Theatre program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City are flourishing in Ph.D. programs across the country. With the opportunity to learn from internationally respected professors like Dr. Felicia Londré as well as opportunities to gain dramaturgy experience at professional theatres like the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, universities across the country receive prospective doctoral students from UMKC’s graduate theatre program as the highly qualified scholars they are. 

From the 2016 class Collin Vorbeck and David Ruis were both accepted into Ph.D. programs. David Ruis is attending the University of Kansas, where he is Co-Chair of KU’s Theatre Graduate Students Organization and is serving as dramaturg for several productions, including Sarah Ruhl’s Late, a Cowboy Song under the mentorship of Dr. Jane Barnette at KU, as well as for Angelina Weld Grimké’s Rachel at the KC MeltingPot Theatre under the direction of Dr. Nicole Hodges Persley. 

Collin Vorbeck started his first year at Texas Tech University to work towards his Ph.D., and is currently acting in a production of the musical Heathers: The Musical. He was drawn to Texas Tech because its program emphasizes the necessity of interdisciplinary work. “I’ve always had an end-goal of professorship on some level or another,” Collin says, “but Dr. Londré’s guidance, both in the classroom and during side coaching sessions, truly inspired me to take this next step.”

Three other graduates of the UMKC Masters in Theatre program have recently obtained their Ph.D.s: two at the University of Missouri-Columbia and one at the University of Kansas. This past May, Dr. Andy Pierce (2007) obtained his Ph.D. from MU. He is currently the Education Coordinator at Starlight Theatre, where he has been for the past ten years in different capacities. His position allows him to be part of twelve different education programs, working with five-year-old campers all the way up to college-aged interns. Dr. Pierce says, “attending UMKC was the best choice of my professional and academic career.” 

Dr. Amanda Dawson (Boyle) from the class of 2012 obtained her Ph.D. this past spring from the University of Kansas. Currently, she is an assistant professor of speech and theatre at Brescia University in Owensboro, Kentucky. Dr. Dawson says, “My time at UMKC was, without a doubt, a positive, life-changing experience. There are so many elements of the UMKC experience that have made me who I am. For starters, Dr. Londré quickly became my mentor and remains in that role to this day. She taught me a passion for theatre and dramaturgy that I could not have imagined. I met a group of theatre artists that today remain some of my closest friends.” Before attending KU, Dr. Dawson was the literary manager and resident dramaturg at the Unicorn Theatre. She says, “When I started at UMKC I had no intention of going on to the Ph.D., but because of Felicia Londré’s confidence and encouragement, I applied for Ph.D. programs. Dr. Londré helped me to apply and I was accepted into numerous programs.” 

Dr. Vanessa Campagna (2012) went directly from the M.A. program at UMKC into the Ph.D. program at UM-C. She graduated as the Doctoral Marshal in May 2015 and is in her second year as an assistant professor of theatre at Monmouth College (Monmouth IL). She teaches Classical Theatre History, Modern Theatre History, World Dramatic Literature, and Script Analysis. She also directs one mainstage production per year, such as the upcoming Meet Me in St. Louis, as well as supervising student directing projects. She says, “My time at UMKC is the time I became a historian. It was at UMKC that I learned to love the history of theatre, and that I began to understand and appreciate that history’s breadth and depth. Additionally, Dr. Londré’s sharp editorial eye helped me to become a strong writer. In short, I am absolutely indebted to the education I received in those two years!”

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Projections in Place

Cast of Immeasurable Heaven UMKC Theatre, 2016. Photo by Brian Paulette

There comes a time in every painter’s life when they break open a fresh set of brushes, every sculptor a chisel, every architect a rule. Improving their tools gives artists breathing room to focus on their expression. So it is with UMKC Theatre, whose lighting department upgraded their lighting and projection systems, broadening student artists toolkits while adding a new dimension to UMKC productions. 

Investing in 20 state of the art LED fixtures, UMKC Theatre ushers in a new age in color mixing and design theory for its students that translates into design opportunities in the industry. 

As film shifts from traditional fixtures to LEDs, filmmakers seek out skilled designers like Steve Dubay (1999) who has made a business of renting his lighting control console to filmmakers. With a better understanding of LEDs’ complex controls than current gaffers, Dubay is tasked with the design and control of lighting effects in his projects while working directly with directors. 

Along with new LED fixtures and access to Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 20K projector, UMKC Theatre has a growing projection inventory with six long and three short throw projectors capable of a variety of effects. And no projection designer would be left without their companion software. On a computer dedicated to projections, the Adobe suite supplements an array of media server programs like Arkaos and Isadora for creating advanced effects, creating a near limitless manipulation of media content.

But the pride of programming is in UMKC Theatre’s use of The Green Hippo, a powerful control module used in the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. The hippotizer allows for real-time changes to projection effects on virtually any system and can be run from a light board, making it an ideal module for developing skills in cross-discipline design.

The hippotizer is used in theatres nationwide, but its high learning curve leaves technicians in the know in short supply. UMKC Theatre trains students on the module, and has trained the country’s foremost experts: Adam Dunaway (1998) and Jeffery Cady (1996). Cady returned this year to teach a class in projection technology while designing lights and projections for KC Rep, and Dunaway has become a prized projection designer in corporate circles for his use of the system.

Designers also find themselves in high demand while at the university. The Conservatory of Music and Dance always has lighting students design their events, dance concerts, and operas   a chance for students to put their study in dance and opera lighting into practice.

The study sticks, and some make their careers in dance or opera, while others put their skills to work for concert lighting. Now with D.K. Production Design in Chicago, Brandon Clark (BA 2013) made his professional debut designing lights for Missy Eliot on the Isle of Wright before touring Japan with Carly Rae Jepsen. Julian Pike (MFA 2003) worked for three years as the assistant light supervisor for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and went on to become the resident designer for the Chicago Opera Theatre.

A working professional and head of the lighting department, Victor En Yu Tan frequently designs for major regional theatres across the country and off-Broadway theatres in NYC, with his students assisting. This winter, Tan and all of his first years traveled to the Pan-Asian Repertory Theatre in New York City, where he designed Dream of the Red Pavillions. Lighting students also assist professional lighting and projection designers for the KC Rep season. Most lighting students graduate with half a dozen or more professional credits from these opportunities, as well as with Kansas City theatres like the Unicorn Theatre, Coterie, and the Living Room.

With these shows under their belts, students take their work to the Hemsley Annual Lighting Portfolio Review, as they have every year since its founding in 2004. The same students excel at the Hemsley Lighting Intern Fellowship competition, with back-to-back winners in 2000 and 2001, and seven other finalists to date.

Producing a body of talent in so many areas, the UMKC campus not surprisingly attracts such distinguished guest designers as Donald Holder. With more than 45 of its 50 lighting alumni still working in the industry  whether in stage or concert lighting, in projections, or in education, UMKC Theatre continues to graduate professional artists well practiced beyond their years.

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UMKC Offers Opportunity to Build Professional Working Relationships

Cast of Mr. Burns Unicorn Theatre, 2015. Photo courtesy of Unicorn Theatre

While many graduate programs offer their students an opportunity to work within the school, those who attend UMKC are given something more. The department has a long established series of professional co-productions from the on-going work with the Rep to the plays presented at the Unicorn and The Coterie. These relationships provide the graduate students with opportunities to earn professional experience.

One of the most exciting relationships for UMKC Theatre is with the Unicorn Theatre. The department has a tradition of performing new plays with the Unicorn and has provided many UMKC students with an opportunity to present their work. This year, several students worked on An Octoroonby Brendon Jacobs Jenkins. This adaption of a 19th-century melodrama provides an interesting look at racial issues, as well as the occasional ridiculousness of melodrama.
Paige Beltowski (MFA Costume 2016) worked on the previous year’s co-production with the Unicorn. She designed costumes for Mr. Burnsa post-electric play, a show which explores how a reenactment of an episode of The Simpsons can transform into something sacred. 

“Working on a co-production with the Unicorn has allowed me to form connections with working professionals in area.” says Beltowski “It has also given me insight into the world of Equity theatre and how to work with Equity actors. UMKC has made these opportunities possible, and working with professional theatres while I am still in school has boosted my confidence in talking to other professional designers.”

The Coterie Theatre also provides students with an opportunity to work professionally, although their crowd is significantly different. The Coterie offers children’s theatre for Kansas City and has earned national attention for their work. Last year UMKC Theatre teamed up with the Coterie to perform And Justice For Some: The Freedom Trial of Anthony Burns, which tells the story of a court case involving an escaped slaveThe co-production this year is Hana’s Suitcase: A Holocaust Mystery by Emil Sher. This play shows a Japanese Holocaust instructor and her class decipher the mystery behind a suitcase from Auschwitz. Spanning the course of 70 years, this play provides a touching global perspective on the issue, as well as a human story of tragedy and love.

A truly thrilling co-production this year is undoubtedly UMKC’s upcoming work with the KC Rep in presenting Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare in a new translation by Christopher Chen, as commissioned by Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! Program.  Playwright Chen will be in residence doing rewrites during much of the rehearsal process, with exciting challenge for young actors in MFA training.  The play will be mounted in Spencer Theatre in May 2017 and will be part of KC Rep’s Origins KC new play program.

The co-productions with the Unicorn Theatre, The Coterie, and the KC Rep all provide students with the skills necessary to compete in professional world. Their work will lead to connections, which will eventually lead to other jobs. These young, emerging professionals who graduate from UMKC Theatre are prepared for the professional world.

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Independent Artists

Heather Lawler and cast in "Story of the Century"  KC Fringe Festival

Every summer, Kansas City becomes home to an 11-day event promoting the independent theatre scene. The KC Fringe Festival, which has continued for the past 12 years, gives local artists an opportunity to showcase work that they might not otherwise get an opportunity to present. Several theatres in the city offer their venues for this event and a host of different shows can be seen, from revisions of classics, to existentialist science fiction dramas. The MFA and MA Programs at UMKC Theatre had several participants this past summer, displaying the wealth of talent that is to be expected from the department. These students were Ken Sandberg, Heather Lawler and Amanda Davison.

Ken Sandberg (MFA Acting 2018) performed in an adaption of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Sandberg secured his work through UMKC faculty member Jeff Church, who connected him with Heidi Van who runs The Fishtank, a local KC theatre which promotes independent theatre. “This one was a unique process.” states Sandberg “With only a couple weeks to rehearse, most of our time was spent working on the physical stuff, and the text work was largely left up to us.” Sandberg notes that he had an excellent team, one of the key factors to putting together a successful Fringe show.

One of the most successful shows at this year’s Fringe was Story of the Century, a one-act musical which won the “Best in Venue” award at the Unicorn Theatre. This show featured, among others, Heather Lawler, a 3rd year MFA Acting student. Like many Fringe shows, this production was a workshop and the creators intend to turn it into a full two-act musical later on. Shows like this exist because of the wonderful opportunities given by the Fringe Festival. Lawler stated that “there was a lot of improv scene work in the rehearsal room, and my training from our acting classes was vital to this openness and freedom to explore”
Amanda Davison (MA Playwriting 2017) put together a one-woman show titled Seneca, which depicts a futuristic society that keeps one young woman from discovering who she really is. Davison states that her professors are a large part of her success. Her connections with these professionals is what led to her success as an artist. Davison notes on the KC theatre scene, “Part of what makes Kansas City so great is the incredible amount of enthusiasm for local plays.  Producing, writing, and acting in a one-person show is challenging, but the atmosphere of creative engagement you get from KC Fringe really helped.”

These students are only a few of the many artists gracing Kansas City right now. The Fringe Festival promotes new works and gives performers like Sandberg, Lawler, and Davison an opportunity to create something unique. They all have different reasons for participating in the festival, but they are united in their love of creating fresh theatre.


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The Personality of a Stage Manager

Katherine Gehrlein working backstage at Heart of America Shakespeare Festival

Katherine Gehrlein is in her second year with the MFA Stage Management program at UMKC. When she is not out in the field, exploring and enhancing the world of stage management, you can find her doing office hours at the Olson Performing Arts Center on campus, always ready to help out when needed. While Katherine has found success within the UMKC Theatre program, stage management was not her initial career choice. 

“While in undergrad, [stage management] was something I fell into because in that theatre program you did everything. I loved it, but I felt like it was too late for me to drop my Education Major by the time I realized it was something I really enjoyed.” 

Katherine spent the four years following her graduation teaching theatre at a local middle school. While her job title did not specify “stage manager,” the tasks she was performing and the requirements of her teaching position brought out many of the same personality traits she remembers were flourishing while she was doing stage management jobs at her undergraduate school. “A stage manager needs to be confident and approachable. Everyone in the show is looking to you for organization.” 

Once Katherine realized stage management was where she would flourish the most, she left her teaching job to pursue her MFA at UMKC. “It’s important to emphasize I am always an educator. Don’t be afraid to take the risk and be open to change and changing the way you do things.”

Katherine’s success through UMKC was made possible by the hands-on opportunities offered by the stage management program. Sadie DeSantis, Assistant Teaching Professor of Stage Management and head of the program, believes that becoming a stage manager is possible for anyone with the right personality. Sadie graduated from the program herself and works to enhance the experience for her students.

Skill sets and professionalism can be learned, experience can be gained, but a stage manager needs a certain adaptable personality no matter their background. The hands-on experience gained from the program is the best part, because you are able to work with several companies and stage managers from different demographics and experience levels in only two years. Because they work with a wide range of professionals, students can observe the kind of personality and confidence that is needed to become a professional stage manager. Confidence comes from feeling secure in one’s own knowledge, which in turn allows students to showcase their true talents, true selves, and not be afraid to get out there and make connections.” At UMKC, students get to work with professional American Guild of Musical Artists and Actors Equity Association stage managers from venues across the city and earn weeks towards obtaining their Equity Card. 

Within her first two years of the program, Katherine has had the opportunity to work as stage manager or production assistant with such professional theatres as The Unicorn Theatre, Spinning Tree Theatre, and the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Her choice to shift her career by attending graduate school will continue to enhance the future she has as a stage manager: “Don’t be afraid to take the risk. It is going to be what you make it, but if you never take the risk you will never know.”

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