By 1990, independent theatre producer Marilyn Strauss had already enjoyed an immensely successful career. She had worked with many of the best actors and directors in New York. She had produced several hit shows, and won Tony awards. Wondering what her next project should be, she talked with Joseph Papp, the legendary founder and director of New York’s Shakespeare in the Park. He told Strauss that her hometown, Kansas City, did not have a Shakespeare festival, and suggested that she start one.
A year later, Strauss visited Papp as he lay on his death bed. He asked whether she had worked on a Shakespeare festival for Kansas City yet. She confessed that she had not. He squeezed her hand and implored her to get started.
“Make it your mission!” Papp said. And that is what Strauss did. It took a couple of years to organize such a large-scale endeavor. Strauss assembled a board of directors, acquired non-profit status, and launched an aggressive fundraising strategy. In 1992, thanks to many dedicated patrons in the Kansas City area, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival (HASF) produced Soliloquy Eve, starring Kevin Kline, to raise funds for the festival’s opening production.
Strauss cast many of the most prominent professional actors in Kansas City, and HASF’s first play, The Tempest, debuted in June, 1993. The play was performed on an outdoor stage in Southmoreland Park, an intimate and bucolic park just east of the Plaza that would become the festival’s permanent home stage. The Tempest was a critical and popular success, and HASF was on its way.
This summer, after two decades of excitement, challenges and memorable performances, HASF celebrates its 20th anniversary. HASF is producing two Shakespeare plays this summer, Antony and Cleopatra and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Both plays, which will be performed in rotating repertory, star a talented company of professional actors dual-cast in both productions, including John Rensenhouse, Kim Martin-Cotton, Bruce Roach and Cinnamon Schultz.
Sidonie Garrett, the executive artistic director of HASF, is directing A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Antony and Cleopatra this summer, with Todd Lanker as assistant director. Garrett started with HASF as an assistant director in 1996. She became Producing Artistic Director for the 10th anniversary season, which was the last time HASF presented a two-show repertory. She is thrilled that, thanks to a very successful run last summer with Macbeth, in addition to a generous challenge grant, HASF is able to celebrate its 20th anniversary by returning to the two-play format that has worked so well in years past.
“A two-show season is very challenging,” says Garrett, “mainly because the cost of producing an additional play increases our budget by close to $100,000. It also requires more energy, more discipline, more focus and more creativity. However, the increased demands make everyone even sharper and more invigorated. It is thrilling!”
The audience is part of the excitement as well. In outdoor theatre, the environment plays a vital role in contributing to the atmosphere of the play. Southmoreland Park is an ideal setting for HASF, with its specially built stage, huge trees, and sloping landscape that allows everyone to see the action. There is a wide variety of food and drinks that can be purchased in the park, and Brio Tuscan Grille also offers The Bard’s VIP Buffet, a delicious multi-course meal, in a special tent prior to performances. Patrons are welcome to bring their own picnic baskets with them, as well.
Every year brings its own set of challenges, its own stories behind the scenes. No matter how well prepared the cast, director and crew are, there are elements outside of their control that can affect the plays. Namely, THE elements: rain, wind, heat, hail, lightening and thunder. For the most part, HASF has been very lucky with the weather. Last summer, for instance, the audiences enjoyed many nights of resort-like weather, and it was the first summer in the festival’s history that did not have a single rained-out performance.
The biggest challenge the festival faces each year, however, has nothing to do with weather. Because HASF is a professional theatre company, with high production standards, and all of the artists who are hired/cast in the plays are paid, it relies on the community for financial support. HASF will spend almost $500,000 to produce Antony and Cleopatra and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Kansas City audiences this summer, with free admission to everyone.
“The greatest rewarding element to the Shakespeare festival is that it’s free,” says Garrett. “We present Shakespeare’s beautiful and powerful works, which are core curriculum for our kids, and there are no barriers to anyone. Free makes it completely accessible to everyone in our community. But the greatest challenge for our festival is also that it’s free. Supporting this festival relies on donations, big and small. Every $10 donated at the gate helps.”
HASF supports the Kansas City community in other artistic ways as well, with year-round in-school and weekend theatre classes, as well as 11 summer camps for kids throughout the area.
Bring a blanket and your favorite people, and enjoy a unique cultural experience this summer, one most likely filled with laughter or tears, depending on which night you visit. The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival performs from June 19 to July 15, beginning with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then alternating every other night with Antony and Cleopatra. Check HASF’s website for more information: KCShakes.org. It’s the perfect way to exercise your own free Will.