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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Growing Artists

First year MFA Scenic Students

UMKC’s Professional Scenic Design Training Program is renowned for its course of study, which includes a multi-disciplinary approach including design and rendering training, firm foundations in historic precedents and professional ethics. Designers who have graduated from UMKC work in New York City, at major regional theaters and opera companies, and even at Disney where graduate Alexander LaFrance (MFA Scenic Design 2016) won the highly competitive and coveted design internship and has designed there directly after he graduated. 

But our track record is not the only thing that attracts students to UMKC. The newest class of graduate scene design students, who come from a variety of backgrounds, came to UMKC to become not only better designers, but better artists. I interviewed the new class and asked them about their artistic backgrounds and why they chose UMKC over other programs. 

Kelli Harrod (MFA Scenic Design 2019) came to UMKC from a fine arts background. Originally, Harrod studied to be an architect. Then one day she discovered the world of scenic design: “Ifigured out there was this world of technical theatre where I could do both painting and drawing while designing and building architectural forms!”  

Harrod kept up with her fine arts training, getting a B.F.A. in studio art, and then decided to go to the University Resident Theatre Association’s annual recruiting conference to apply for M.F.A. theatre programs. While there she received several inquiries, from those interviewing her, as to why she didn’t pursue an undergraduate theatre degree. While several were perplexed about why she had not chosen a theatre major, another school was excited for the unique perspective she could bring to the table. That school was UMKC.

“Gene Emerson Friedman [UMKC Associate Professor of Scene Design] told me that UMKC is a school for people who have a much broader perspective on art, rather than just focusing on the theatre itself”, Harrod said during our interview. 

Rafael Toribio (MFA. Scenic Design 2019) comes to UMKC from California, where he was trained as a folklórico dancer. While working for a dance company, he started working as a scenic carpenter as well, working his way up to master carpenter and then technical director. But he didn’t want to just build other people’s sets. During our interview he said, “I wanted something more to play with; I wanted to design!”  

So Rafael started to build his portfolio, and then went to URTAs and talked to UMKC. I asked him what drew him to the program, and he responded: “I’m going to school to learn scenic design specifically, not general theatre. They’re willing to teach me art skills like drawing, rendering and life drawing. Being from a dance background, that is something important to me.” 

Austin Aschbrenner (MFA Scenic Design 2019) agreed: “The UMKC scenic design program is as close as one can find that is like going to a fine art school without leaving the theatre world!” 

Aschbrenner, who hails from Arkansas, came to UMKC to study scenic design and technical direction. He has worked for the Santa Fe Opera and designed for New Ventures Theatre in Baton Rouge before coming here. “Most schools want you to stick to one discipline. UMKC was one of the few that offered the possibility to learn more.”  

I asked Gene Friedman what UMKC offered potential students that drew such a variety of students, even though they have a singular goal. He answered: “It is our mission and mandate; at UMKC we offer real plays, with real directors, and real budgets, in real theaters.”

This focus on artistry helps each student realize a design that is his or her own, while building the flexibility to navigate all design challenges in any project for stage, film or themed entertainments. This new class, though from differing backgrounds, came to UMKC for exactly that.

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UMKC Theatre presents The Acting Company


Julius Caesar/ X:Or, the Nation vs Betty Shabazz: Politics, power, and the high cost of real change

The Acting Company and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, University of Kansas, University of Central Missouri and University of Missouri-Columbia are embarking on an exciting artistic and educational collaboration featuring Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and a newly commissioned play about the life and assassination of Malcolm X by Marcus Gardley; X:Or, the Nation vs Betty Shabazz in rotating repertory. College and high school students in theatre, education and humanities are collaborating to explore ideas and artistic practice across the curriculum. On-site workshops, class visits, theater performances and public forums will engage students and faculty with opportunities to learn from our past while inviting critical dialogue about current events and social issues.

Founded in 1972 by legendary producer/director/actor John Houseman and previous Producing Director Margot Harley with members of the first graduating class of Juilliard’s Drama Division, the Tony Award-winning company has performed 141 productions for over 3 million people in 48 states and ten foreign countries. The Acting Company has given a generation of actors the opportunity to master their craft. Alumni members include Kevin Kline, Rainn Wilson, Patti LuPone, David Schramm, Jesse L. Martin, David Ogden Stiers, Frances Conroy, Jeffrey Wright, Harriet Harris, Hamish Linklater and Keith David. Twelve UMKC Theatre MFA Acting alumni have been members of The Acting Company.

Promoting theater and literacy by bringing a touring repertory of classical productions and exceptional new works, talented young actors and teaching artists into communities across America – particularly those where live performance and theater arts education is limited or non-existent -The Acting Company performs each year in over 20 cities to audiences of 25,000 and reaches more than 15,000 students with its arts education programs. For more information, visit

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare, directed by Devin Brain. Tackling essential questions about the balance of ambition, personal loyalty, and love of country, Shakespeare’s timeless political masterpiece has never been more relevant. Through the story of Julius Caesar, a rising political star torn down by his most trusted allies, audiences witness the art of persuasion, the ugliness of backroom politics, and the historical patterns we can’t stop repeating.

X:Or, the Nation vs Betty Shabazz by Marcus Gardley, directed by Ian Belknap. The assassination of Malcolm X-both the story we think we know and illuminating details that have seldom been shared-is brought to vivid, lyrical life in award-winning writer Marcus Gardley’s new play. Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar provides a framework for Gardley to deepen our understanding of one of America’s most complex, compelling historical figures and explore the tumultuous landscape of ideology and activism in the 1960s.

These productions will begin Feb. 21 and run through Feb. 23 at Spencer Theatre, Olson PAC.


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KC theatres give professional experience for students

The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, The Coterie Theatre 2015. Photo by J. Robert Schraeder, courtesy of the Coterie Theatre
The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane (photo courtesy of the Coterie Theatre)

The UMKC Theatre program has an established tradition of working with professional theatres so that its actors, designers, and stage managers may benefit from the experience of working on a professional show. Few theatre departments grant students this opportunity, but UMKC partners with the Unicorn Theatre, The Coterie, and the KC Rep. These partnerships allow the future professionals to gain experiences as well as providing them an opportunity to establish their names in Kansas City.   Continue reading

Vocal professor to develop ‘athletic’ voices in students

Shipwrecked! - An Entertainment #2, directed by Scott Stackhouse, courtesy of Seaside REP, photo by Nikki Hedrick
Shipwrecked! – An Entertainment #1, directed by Scott Stackhouse (courtesy of Seaside REP)

Who says you can’t go home again?  Scott Stackhouse has returned to one of the first stops on his theatrical journey.  But where he once roamed the halls as an undergraduate student, Stackhouse now bears the title of Assistant Professor of Theatre in Voice and Acting for the Professional Actor Training Program at UMKC Theatre.  And after years of paying his dues by adjunct teaching at colleges and universities across the city, he finds himself in a place that will allow him to focus on strengthening the graduate program and to prepare MFA actors for professional vocal careers.  Continue reading

Creating a stronger connection with KC Rep

Jason Chanos
Jason Chanos

As UMKC Theatre endeavors to enrich the graduate program with professional experiences across the city and beyond, two newly-hired members of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre are already offering outlets to current students to expand the relationship between the institutions.  Both Jason Chanos, associate artistic director, and Marissa Wolf, director of new works, see the benefits of collaboration between the university and the professional company. Since KC Rep makes its home on the campus of UMKC, a cross-over between the two is not only practical, it is vital to the survival of both Kansas City landmarks.

Chanos sees UMKC as an untapped resource, one that he hopes to make full use of throughout his tenure with KC Rep.  “I come from a background in academia,” he says, “so I know how important it is to incorporate the community of a university into what is being produced on the professional level.”  Chanos served as an assistant professor of theatre at Pepperdine University, teaching Advanced Period Styles in Shakespeare and Voice and Movement.  He also served as the assistant director for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival production of The Winter’s Tale in 2014; this is just one example of his national experiences balanced with a local focus.   Continue reading

Instructor explains the art and craft of playwriting

The Master of Arts in Theatre program at the University of MissouriKansas City offers many outlets, both academic and artistic. Some students choose a focus centered on playwriting, or supplement their theatre history studies with playwriting classes. Instructor of playwriting Frank Higgins, whose play Black Pearl Sings! was one of the top ten plays produced in the 2009-10 season, aims to provide those who take his class with the tools to make their work both personal and producible. Higgins states that the most basic goal of his teaching is to “help people discover how to make themselves better writers,” and to realize that, whatever the subjective approaches to how one writes, “there are objective tools to work on.”

Frank Higgins photo credit Dr. Felicia Londre
Frank Higgins

He compares the work of the playwright to that of an architect: creativity is important, but the structure must stand. The etymology of the word playwright is essential, “Yes, it’s an art, but it’s also a craft,” Higgins says. “Picasso invented Cubism, but prior to that he could paint a portrait that was recognizably you.” This is the crux of Higgins’ teaching, and what Master of Arts students interested in playwriting can expect. Students learn to “break past their insecurities and find the approaches that tend to work,” as Higgins puts it, benefitting from his expertise in the professional field.

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