Heidi Van and I go back. The first time I saw her was in 2004. She billed herself as Heidi Van Middlesworth in those days and was part of an ensemble cast in the Coterie’s hilarious production of “The B.F.G.” She wore enormous owlish black-framed glasses and brought a sense of humor to the stage that made me want to see her perform again.
As it turned out, I did. Again and again. In shows at the Coterie, the New Theatre Restaurant, the Unicorn Theatre, KC Rep, Kansas City Actors Theatre — and, of course, the Fishtank Performance Studio, near 17th and Wyandotte streets, where she has served as curator since 2009. There she has often produced her own work and cultivated young writers with mini-play festivals.
Also at the Fishtank she has staged “window plays,” in which performances unfold in the big picture window facing Wyandotte and the audience is seated in folding chairs in the street.
The year she became the Fishtank curator, she allowed me to accompany her to the Lansing Correctional Facility, where I watched her teach mind-expanding theater games to convicts in the mental health unit. Whether they took anything of lasting value from those sessions is unknown, but you had to admire her brass. She was dealing with guys, after all, who didn’t end up in the slammer by being sweethearts.
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The arc of Van’s career in Kansas City is as simple as it is impressive: She has grown from a promising young actress to an accomplished producer, talented director and a “generative artist” who has the ability to make theater with or without a written script.
For the Kansas City Fringe Festival this year, Van and artist Peregrine Honig collaborated on “The Penis Monologues,” which turned out to be the best-attended show at the festival. Honig and Van had solicited monologues from a range of writers that were performed by an ensemble of actresses on a nonrealistic set designed by Honig.
The set, carved of reclaimed foam, is still in pieces in different backstage rooms at the Fishtank, and Van said a reprise of the show, not necessarily using the same material, was possible.
“The process of creating and presenting ‘The Penis Monologues’ was very slow and thoughtful,” Van said one afternoon in the Aquarium, a big rehearsal studio upstairs from the Fishtank. That’s where she goes to practice handstands, which she described as a form of meditation.
“There’s more material that didn’t make the first deadline,” she said. “It’s a slow process because we’re not writing it. We’re collecting it. I call it harvesting.”
In May, Van directed “MotherFreakingHood,” an original vignette musical by Julie Dunlap and Sara Stotts, at Avila University. The show was well received, and Van said she hopes it has a future life.
Van, 37, grew up in Kansas City, Kan., and majored in history and political science at the University of St. Mary in Leavenworth. Later she expanded her degree to include theater.
In 1998 she won an internship to work at the Gate Theatre in London during the fall semester. She worked as a production assistant and took classes at the Globe Theatre.
“I was there eight hours a day,” she recalled. “Because they were like, ‘Oh, a person who can work for us!’”
She answered phones — the Brits quickly explained that saying, ‘Have a nice day’ simply wasn’t done — and at one point drove a truck through the streets of London to deliver sets.
After St. Mary she trained at the Dell’Arte International school for physical theater in California. That’s where she acquired formidable skills in the European clowning tradition.
On tap at the Fishtank this fall: “A Romp Through Verona,” a commedia piece from the Hyperion Theatre Company, Sept. 9-11; a reprise of “Bond: A Soldier and His Dog,” another Fringe Festival hit written and performed by Logan Black, Sept. 18-27; and “The Legend of Faust,” a premiere that Van conceived and is directing in a co-production with UMKC Theatre.
Van said she’s also working on projects she can’t yet discuss in detail.
Managing an unpredictable career that encompasses everything from playwright/producer to working actress requires a certain level of organizational skill — not to mention a philosophical view of life. But Van knows what to do if the pressure gets a bit too intense: She goes to the Aquarium and does handstands.
“It’s a metaphor,” she said. “You can’t just throw your hands on the floor and stand and expect to stay there unless you’re stacked correctly. … I know how to fall gracefully.”