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