The first thing you need to understand about Kyle Hatley is that he isn’t well.
No, the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s associate artistic director is an obsessive young theater artist, given to expending untold hours of mental energy on unusual questions, like how best to show a man-eating plant devouring an actor in full view of the audience.
In that way, he’s not so unusual. Stage directors tend to be obsessive. They have to be. It’s not a job for the faint of heart, with the brutal hours and the slow torture of tech rehearsals.
The obsession heavy on his mind these days is the musical “Little Shop of Horrors,” which Hatley is staging for the Rep. For the benefit of the uninitiated, the Alan Menken-Howard Ashman musical is based on the Roger Corman cult classic about a nebbishy florist’s assistant who feeds people to a carnivorous plant named Audrey II.
As with many men and women of the theater, Hatley can trace the roots of his lifelong obsession to childhood, long before he had an inkling of what fate had in store for him.
And like so many artists, he blames it all on his mother.
“Around the time I was 7 or 8 years old, I became a film fanatic,” Hatley said. “I just started watching moves constantly — sort of watching them as an audience member, but almost taking them apart and diagnosing them. I had a strange, obsessive attachment to film, and specifically terrible B-movies. I associate that with my mother, actually.”
See, his mother was a night person. Hatley says he’s one, too. And she would stay up late watching old movies on television.
“She would let me stay up way past my bedtime, when my dad was asleep — because if he ever found out he would be so angry — and my other two brothers would always be asleep,” he said. “But I could hear the TV from my bed. And I’d walk out and see my mom, who’s an insomniac just like me, watching terrible movies — like ‘The Blob’ or ‘Them!’ or anything by Ed Wood or Roger Corman. And she would let me stay up and watch them with her. Almost my entire childhood life I’d stay up with her at least three or four times a week, and we’d stay up until 3 or 4 in the morning.”
The first time she let young Kyle join her in her it’s-so-bad-it’s-good movie ritual, he wandered in about midway through Corman’s “The Little Shop of Horrors.”
“She had told me, ‘This is the original,’ ” he recalled. “And I said, ‘What does that mean?’ And she said, ‘Well, there’s a musical.’ I didn’t even know what that was or what that meant. I thought musicals were Disney cartoons and she said, ‘Well, it’s a Motown musical. We’ll have to rent it and show it to you.’ ”
But before that, he had to absorb the gravity of the black-and-white original.
“So I sat there and watched it, and I was like, ‘So this plant iseating
people?’ ” he said. “You know, it’s a dark comedy. And I think I fell in love with that genre. And also just bad movies.”
One of the virtues of bad movies, Hatley said, is that the emotions are big. Real big.
“It was such a wonderful departure from what I knew as real life as an 8-year-old,” Hatley said. “They were such a wonderful escape. And they were a place where characters dreamed big. Or felt big. You know what I mean? They felt emotions hard. And all I remember walking away from that original black-and-white movie was Seymour, this underdog character. And I always felt like an underdog because my brothers were bigger than me.”
He remembered sitting on the couch with his mom and eating popcorn and laughing at the movie — but also being a little scared.
“I came in just as the guy got run over by the train,” he said. “And Seymour decides to pack up all the pieces that were cut in half into his little bag and he’s trying to deposit it anywhere, because he accidentally killed this man. And I’m thinking, ‘Why doesn’t he just feed it to this plant because the plant obviously loves blood?’ And then he did. I just loved that character’s dilemma: He’s so sweet and innocent, but he’s doing all these horrible things.”
The next step in his obsession was watching the 1986 movie version — also provided by his mother — of the stage musical directed by Frank Oz.
“Now when I grew up I thought Motown was the only music there was because that’s what my parents listened to,” Hatley said. “That was the only music I liked. So when I saw this the first time I felt connected with my mother and I felt connected to that music. I love Motown. I love rhythm and blues. It’s music for everyone. It makes your foot tap.
“And when I saw this musical I was like, ‘Oh my God, this music is awesome!’ I just fell madly in love with this musical, long before I knew theater would ever be part of my life. So it’s always been there.”
And it’s a show he has wanted to direct for years. The closest he came was being the person who operates the man-eating plant in a college production.
“Since I started directing, I’ve been pushing to direct ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ anywhere I could,” Hatley said. “So Eric (Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director) and I talked about it a long time.”
But talks got serious after he put his head together with sound designer Josh Horvath and lighting designer Jason Lyons, both of whom have worked at the Rep in the last few years.
“I think we’re all just fans of it for different reasons,” he said. “But uniformly we all adore the music. It’s always been part of our conversation every year when we’re doing season planning. I think putting on the season is one part, we’re fans; the other part, we just wanna rock out. We wanna rock out and tell that story.”
Technically, the show poses a few challenges, not the least of which is people being eaten onstage. Audrey II comes in four sizes for the show: small (essentially a hand puppet) and enormous (also a puppet, but one operated by an actor). All the Audreys were designed by Grace Hudson, the Rep’s props artisan. And Hatley said actor Nick Uthoff came to him early and pleaded to be the operator for big Audrey.
The cast is a mix of Kansas City-based actors and out-of-towners, but Hatley’s casting coup was snagging Michael James Leslie as the voice of Audrey II. Leslie appeared in the 2003 Broadway production and the national tour.
The band, led by music director Anthony Edwards, will be placed above the playing area in full view of the audience.
“The band and the music are a very telling presence,” Hatley said. “The music is just as important and cool and fun as the story is. I’ve always wanted to see those musicians just rock out. I want it to feel like a street band, a Brooklyn street band.”
And after “Little Shop,” what’s next on Hatley’s list of obsessions? He returns to the Living Room in June to stage his adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus,” a blood-drenched revenge tragedy set in a version of ancient Rome that bears little resemblance to anything you might find in history. Heading the cast will be Mark Robbins and Melinda McCrary.
“It will be very stripped down,” he said. “There will be a space, not a set, with live music doubling as the sound design. I haven’t figured out the blood yet.”