On a rainy June evening in 1993, the inaugural production of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, The Tempest, opened in Kansas City, Missouri’s Southmoreland Park. Now celebrating its 20th season, this outdoor, professional, and totally free event is still going strong with the support of the community. This summer, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony and Cleopatra will mark 26 total productions of 18 different plays in its history.An early festival brochure notes that, “Traditionally, Shakespearean plays were viewed outdoors by boisterous crowds who routinely ate and drank during the performance.” For many audience members, the free performances in the park are their only exposure to live theatre, and the casual atmosphere is often punctuated by animated discussion, the crumpling of potato chip bags, and the uncorking of wine bottles. Last season, almost 23,000 people attended Macbeth. Space is typically at a premium during the last weekend of the run; the final performances of Twelfth Night in 2001 saw close to 2,500 people crowded into the park at once.
Rehearsals begin indoors, but once relocating to the park in the center of the city, the company is at the mercy of insects, unpredictable weather, sirens, and even fireworks and helicopters overhead. Rain can force a hasty retreat to the rehearsal hall, lessening the time working on the actual set. One wet summer, a furious thunderstorm during rehearsals forced everyone to take refuge under a tent. While the director told jokes, the rest of the company blocked leaks and emptied the canvas of the fast-accumulating rain overhead. During that particularly rainy season, the cast and crew sank in mud to the tops of their tennis shoes in spite of the hay scattered on the paths by the Parks and Recreation Department.
The Taming of the Shrew, staged in 1995, marked the first year that Sidonie Garrett, Producing Artistic Director, worked with the festival. As a young assistant director, she was charged with maintaining the show after the director departed. “It was the hottest summer on record that any of us can recall, she says, “We would leave the park and it would still be 100 degrees.” During one performance, she noticed the actors performing on an overhead scaffold above the stage were consuming Gatorade and popsicles–apparently stashed in a concealed cooler. She then saw them silently offer–and toss–popsicles down to the performers acting below. Initially shocked, she then discovered that, because of the triple-digit temperatures, the stage manager had given them permission to eat and drink on stage. Backstage, some actors sneak a game of Frisbee in their off-time, though some in the past have twisted their ankles on the uneven terrain or been whacked in the head.
Wild animals are another challenge. Southmoreland Park was originally named Squirrel Park, and squirrels have a propensity for raining walnuts down in the wooded green patch behind the stage. During one particularly rowdy performance last summer, a squirrel leaped from a tree into the audience. Then, halfway through the second act, the stage manager and sound designer discovered a possum nestled among the cables in the back of the sound board case. While finishing the show, they had to prevent it from escaping until the performance concluded and the park cleared.
With only three year-round employees, the festival operates on a very tight budget, with most of the money it raises going back into the next season. One gala fundraiser is held every year, sometimes supplemented by smaller events. This fall, selected festival artists will collaborate with a local music ensemble to combine Shakespeare’s text to orchestral music by Bach. The festival’s education department offers summer camps, workshops, and year-round school programs. A new festival ambassador, an outsized, costumed interpretation of Shakespeare known as “Good Will,” travels to community events and connects with children and families.
After 20 seasons, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival has grown and evolved, but it is still true to its founding principles of being outdoors, professional, and free. Given the opportunity to begin again, its founder, Marilyn Strauss, a Tony Award-winning Broadway producer and Kansas City native, says, “I wouldn’t do anything differently.” Shakespeare is “the greatest storyteller that ever lived,” and “the festival has brought me more fulfillment, more joy, and more pleasure than Broadway.”
For more information: http://www.kcshakes.org/