Mark Robbins, a respected actor who has performed on Kansas City stages for more than two decades, had a bemused response when he learned he received “star billing” in an ad for the Living Room production of “Titus Andronicus.”
“Oh, really?” Robbins said.
If that helps the Living Room sell a few tickets, great. But he never has and never will attach the word “star” to his name.
“I have no indication that I have an actual following,” Robbins said. “I don’t even see any quantifiable reason for people to be more inclined to come see a show because I’m in it.
“I do get recognized in the local Hy-Vee and in portions of the city where the demographic is more conducive to people who are more inclined to go to the theater but it’s not something I want to deal with on any level in my personal or professional life.
“That said, it’s great to have people come up to you on the street and say, ‘I really like your work.’ That’s a sweet moment and extremely gratifying.”
Robbins reacts the way most regional actors do when you propose to them that they may, in some sense, be stars: Who, me?
“Truthfully, I don’t spend a single moment thinking about that or worrying about it,” Robbins said. “The whole idea of being a star is something in another part of the country and in another medium.”
Yet you don’t have to look far to see that directors and producers in town see certain Kansas City-based actors as having some commercial value.
Jim Korinke and Cathy Barnett were pictured (although not named) in the New Theatre’s early promotional materials for its current production of “Hairspray.” And Korinke received star billing this spring for his turn as Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest” at the American Heartland Theatre.
Ron Megee, thanks to his audacious alternative-theater persona, can attract an audience to certain shows at the Unicorn Theatre. And Debra Bluford, who will be seen in the Heartland’s upcoming production of “Bingo! The Winning Musical,” has, by virtue of a long succession of comic performances at the Heartland and the New Theatre, come to be seen as an actor who can drive ticket sales.
“An actor like Deb Bluford is very strong with group sales and season tickets,” said Paul Hough, the Heartland’s director of production.
If you examine the city’s theater history over the last few decades, you’ll find other notable examples of actors whose names could draw an audience. Dick Brown, who appeared frequently at Missouri Repertory Theatre and the dinner theaters, could do it. In the 1980s, T. Max Graham was a bona fide box-office star, particularly when teamed with Vicki Oleson.
When Eric Rosen, Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s artistic director, announced the cast for “August: Osage County,” which kicked off the 2011-12 season, he referred to the majority of its cast as “local stars.” Indeed, it read like a who’s who of respected actors based in the Kansas City area: Merle Moores, Cheryl Weaver, Craig Benton, David Fritts, Gary Neal Johnson, Kip Niven and Vanessa Severo among them.
Johnson is one of the most recognizable actors in Kansas City because each year he plays Ebenezer Scrooge in the Rep’s “A Christmas Carol,” and his face is used extensively to promote the show in brochures and posters.
“In the fine print, if you get out your magnifying glass, you can see my name there somewhere,” Johnson said. “Now, in their press releases they’ve been very nice. They’ve been very complimentary, saying old man Johnson is doing it once again, although in better language than that.”
Johnson, like his colleagues, rejects the “star” label.
“ ‘Star’ is not even a word in my lexicon,” he said.
At the New Theatre it’s customary for the imported guest star — usually an actor associated with a once-popular TV series — to receive a welcoming hand of applause when he or she first appears onstage. But it’s also normal for certain local actors to get the same treatment.
These days that select group includes Korinke, Bluford and Dodie Brown. Sometimes the Kansas City actors receive a warmer welcome than the show’s official star.
“I’ve learned that if the audience sees me as a star, if they think of me as that, then I’m willing to accept it because it comes from their heart,” Korinke said. “If they feel what they feel, I can accept that.
“If anyone else called me a star I’d take issue with it. It’s not about being a star. It’s about being an actor audiences want to see, and directors and producers want to use and, most importantly, other actors want to work with.”
Stardom here doesn’t really bring much in the way of wealth and privilege. A “star” here feels lucky to earn a middle-class living.
“There are periods when us local stars don’t work, and we sweat it just like everybody else,” Barnett said. “I’m always amazed that we have followers and people who love us. But I don’t go after it. I’ve never understood the celebrity culture. I don’t really know what that is. I just want to do the work. We just want to tell the story.”
Some actors become stars of a sort by working steadily with a one theater company. Jessalyn Kincaid, who just played the lead in the Heartland’s world premiere production of “As Long As We Both Shall Live,” has performed at the Coterie, New Theatre, Unicorn and Rep. But her regular appearances in a string of musicals and comedies at the Heartland have won her a following.
“I by no means consider myself a star,” Kincaid said. “I consider myself very fortunate that someone thinks so. I think what I’ve noticed at the Heartland over the last few years just talking to patrons is I think people really like feeling like they have some familiarity with you. They feel more invested if they think they know the actors.”
Kincaid said she thinks there’s also a sense of ownership in the way audiences view local performers.
“These are Kansas City actors,” Kincaid said, “and audiences take pride in the fact that their town has created these actors. So they have a little bit of ownership in that as well.”
Craig Benton works often at the New Theatre and the Heartland and occasionally finds opportunities to perform heavier material at the Rep, the Unicorn and Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. Benton said there is a potential downside to being popular with the audience: Actors tend to get typed, and theatergoers may not respond well when a performer steps out of the mold.
“They want you to be Cathy Barnett,” he said. “They want you to be Deb Bluford. They want to see the most vulnerable, cute side of yourself. It’s like seeing an old friend.”
In Benton’s case, he often plays a type of role that might be described as the affable next-door neighbor: friendly, open, non-threatening.
“The characters are usually accessible onstage — the guy next door or the person you’d like to know,” he said. “There’s something you recognize that makes you smile. We all have that kind of quality and we do bring parts of ourselves to the characters.”
Richard Carrothers, the New Theatre’s artistic director, said the economy may have sapped some of the commercial value of stardom. The Max-and-Vicki days were of another era.
“There’s so much theater now and it’s so rich, and because of the economic times we’re living in, I don’t think one or two regional actors on a marquee are enough to sell tickets,” Carrothers said. “I think it takes much more now for people to say, ‘Oh, let’s out to the theater.’ ”
As for the applause some Kansas City actors receive when they make an entrance at the New Theatre, Carrothers said that simply means theatergoers who have watched actors work for 20 or 30 years appreciate their talents.
“It’s a sense of the regular theatergoers showing their appreciation for that person, for the work, for the craft, for the art,” Carrothers said.
Bluford, known for her larger-than-life comic persona, is not comfortable with the “star” label. Stars are people she works with, in her view.
“ ‘Star’ is kind of a dangerous word for producers to throw around because I think your pay grade elevates with every letter in that word,” she said. “And sometimes it’s a double-edged sword because, yeah, it’s nice that audiences appreciate you, but you don’t want to get an ego.”
In fact, Bluford said, if she gets applause when she makes an entrance, it raises the stakes.
“It’s nice,” she said. “It’s a lovely recognition from the audience, but it causes me to put pressure on myself. It’s almost as bad as when I know (a critic) is out there.”Where to see them
•“Hairspray” runs through Aug. 26 at the New Theatre, 9229 Foster St., Overland Park. More information at newtheatre.com
•“Titus Andronicus” presents its final performance at 8 p.m. Monday at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St. More information at brownpapertickets.com/ event/251492
•“Bingo! The Winning Musical” begins July 6 and runs through Aug. 19 at the American Heartland Theatre at Crown Center. More information at ahtkc.com or 816-842-9999.