There’s an old saying in show business: It’s all in who you know.
Consider: An appealing young actor named Claybourne Elder, who first appeared at Kansas City Repertory Theatre in 2009, will be on the Rep stage again this month in “Angels in America,” directed by David Cromer.
Elder has serious credits on his resume — he made his Broadway debut in 2011 in “Bonnie & Clyde” — and has earned good reviews for work on and off the Great White Way.
But it might be easy for outsiders to assume that Elder had an inside track on “Angels” — he’s now married to the Rep’s artistic director, Eric Rosen.
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Rosen and Elder’s relationship, 2012 marriage and creative partnership have been covered extensively by the New York theater press, and they are also included in a story about theater couples in February’s American Theatre Magazine.
In any other field, some might cry conflict of interest or nepotism. But in the theater world, these kinds of personal and professional relationships are business as usual and, especially with smaller venues, often necessary to keep productions going.
To make it work, though, takes effort and a lot of consideration.
The Rep is a unique case because of its relationship with the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
The Rep began in 1964 as a summer theater that was an outgrowth of the UMKC theater department. It incorporated as a separate nonprofit company in 1979, but to this day it continues a financial relationship with the school.
The Rep, which has a $7.5 million budget, uses UMKC offices and facilities rent-free. The school’s annual support of the theater company was valued at $1.8 million in an internal report prepared by a faculty committee in 2005. The Rep’s tax returns in recent years suggest a lower number.
The Rep’s top three officers — Rosen, producing director Jerry Genochio and executive director Angela Gieras — are state employees listed in the University of Missouri’s 2014-15 salary report.
As state and university employees, the three arguably could be subject to a University of Missouri regulation that prohibits employees from hiring relatives “by blood or marriage,” as well as to an anti-nepotism provision in the Missouri Constitution directed at state officials and employees.
Elected officials have occasionally been removed from office after violating the state law. In 2013, the recorder of deeds in St. Louis resigned after hiring a great-nephew; in 2012, the mayor of Tracy, Mo., was removed from office after hiring her son-in-law.
But the Rep says those rules don’t apply to the theater company.
In response to queries about the Rep’s hiring practices, the board of directors issued a statement: “We do not have a no-nepotism policy at Kansas City Repertory Theatre. KC Rep is a not-for-profit corporation and a legal entity separate and distinct from UMKC. The University’s employment policies do not apply to the KC Rep, directly, indirectly or otherwise. Our mission is to bring world-class theatre to Kansas City. Therefore, it is our policy to cast the very best talent that meets our high creative standards.”
Gieras added that the board doesn’t consider the state law to be binding, either. Also, she considers anyone hired for shows as contract workers for specific projects.
“Our policy related to hiring is we hire the best person for the role, on stage and off,” Gieras said.
Scott Boswell, board chairman, reiterated that UMKC and the Rep were “two completely separate legal entities” but that the relationship has been important to the Rep.
“The university is a terrific partner of the Rep,” Boswell said.
Kansas City Rep does have a conflict-of-interest policy that is distributed once a year to board members and top officers requiring them to alert the leadership about any possible conflict. But it doesn’t cover nepotism.
James Klahr, executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission, said the state nepotism law normally is applied to appointed or elected officials in state or local government. He said Kansas City Rep officers hiring spouses as contract employees appears to be a unique case and posed “an interesting question.”
But he said it would be tough for a prosecutor to show that it’s a violation of the Missouri Constitution.
“I think it’s likely not,” Klahr said.
For Rosen, it comes down to trusting playwrights and directors to make artistic choices that best suit the productions they lead.
“I believe the success of that trust is demonstrated in the consistently excellent work on our stage,” he said in a statement. “Any institutional discrimination against Kansas City artists due to their marital status would compromise our mission (and) our capacity to attract and retain the best talent.”
A budget measure
Like the Rep, the smaller theater companies in town are organized as nonprofit companies. As such, their finances are publicly accountable. Sometimes it’s apparent theaters are simply trying to stretch tight budgets.
For example: the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre’s current production of “Mary Stuart.” The MET was founded by Karen and Bob Paisley 10 seasons ago, and both appear in “Mary Stuart.”
Karen Paisley, who is not in the Actors Equity Association (the actors and stage managers union), performs the title role opposite Cheryl Weaver, an Equity actress playing Queen Elizabeth.
Paisley said according to the company’s current agreement with the union, she was allowed to hire two Equity actors without having to hire an Equity stage manager. If she had hired a third Equity actor, the union would have required her to hire a union stage manager.
So she hired herself and saved several thousand dollars. Had her role been played by an Equity actress, it would have added $12,000 to the show’s budget.
“To our company, $12,000 is a big deal,” she said. “I think the unfortunate reality now for small companies is you see people making choices trying to balance their artistic integrity and their fiscal responsibilities at the same time. I don’t think audiences are being badly served by that because I think those of us doing that are smart, modest people by nature.”
It’s not even uncommon for theater artists to hire themselves. Kansas City Actors Theatre, one of the city’s most respected companies, was founded by a group of theater artists with the specific goal of not only producing quality shows but also providing themselves employment.
Other local examples:
▪ Quality Hill Playhouse. Executive director J. Kent Barnhart has staged cabaret shows for 20 years, and he has appeared in virtually every production as the emcee and pianist.
▪ Spinning Tree Theatre. Now in its fourth season, Spinning Tree was founded by Andy Parkhurst and Michael Grayman, whose long-term relationship is both personal and professional. The two veteran dancer/actors have directed and/or choreographed, either individually or as a team, most Spinning Tree shows so far.
Another example from the Rep: Genochio, directing the Rep’s annual production of “A Christmas Carol” for the first time in 2014, cast his wife, actress Dawnnie Mercado, as Mrs. Cratchit.
▪ The Living Room. The scrappy downtown theater company was founded by Rusty Sneary (the artistic director) and Shawnna Journagan (the executive director). This year the company will reprise a show from its inaugural season: “Love Song.” Sneary and Journagan will perform in the show, just as they did in the first production.
As a producer who is also a member of Equity, Sneary knew he’d be violating union rules if he worked for free. So he hired himself and put his earnings back into the theater.
“(Founding the Living Room) is not a decision Shawnna and I made so I could get more acting work in Kansas City,” said Sneary, who has appeared in a string of productions for other companies.
“It requires a really delicate balance and making sure decisions are made for the right and unbiased reasons,” Sneary said. “When we started our first season, I remember looking back and thinking, ‘Well, that doesn’t look so good’ because I was in almost all the shows.”
Perception vs. reality
That is a challenge to overcome. Elder said being the perceived “favorite” brings with it some psychological pressure. Other members of the company, whether they say so out loud, expect perfection.
“When Eric and I started dating we were both like: ‘We’re never gonna work together,’” Elder said. “Neither of us has ever dated anyone in the business before … and so were both very hesitant about it.”
So when they worked together for the first time in the Rep’s production of “Cabaret,” they set up rules.
“We don’t drive to the theater together,” Elder said. “We don’t have lunch together. I’m with the cast and he’s with the production team, because the cast needs to be able to say, ‘Boy, Eric is such a (jerk) today, why is he making us do this again?’ And they need to able to say that to me, and I need to be able to say that to them. … It kind of breaks down that feeling of, ‘Oh, you’re the director’s husband? You better really impress me right now.’”
Sneary said he has no qualms about performing with Journagan later this year in “Love Song.” He said it was an opportunity for them “to be able to step out of the office from behind all the piles of paperwork.”
“Everyone involved is multifaceted,” he said. “I think it’s absolutely imperative … when we can find opportunities for Shawnna and I to be artists and be onstage. We have the power to do that. I don’t think there’s any guilt in that.”
Barnhart has on occasion asked his personal partner, Brian McGinness, to choreograph a number in a Quality Hill show. But he said any ethical questions that arise are discussed by the staff before a decision is made to hire someone. He said that’s one of the obligations of running a nonprofit company.
“By virtue of being not-for-profit we are legally owned by the public,” Barnhart said. “We all own the Kansas City Zoo. We all own the Unicorn Theatre.”
Conflict-of-interest questions are considered on a “case-by-case basis,” Barnhart said. “We don’t have an official anti-nepotism policy but we’re very thorough.”
Barnhart said his choice to perform in almost every Quality Hill show is based in part on what audiences tell him: They enjoy his repartee and the biographical details on composers he shares. He’s part of what they pay to see.
“I’m putting together cabaret revues and people are coming to hear my commentary,” Barnhart said. “The point is that I am not casting myself in different roles. I am casting myself in the same role every time, and that role is Kent Barnhart.”
Parkhurst and Grayman say their goal in founding Spinning Tree Theatre from the beginning was to create a fully professional theater that could pay actors — both Equity and non-Equity — a decent wage.
In pursuit of that goal, they paid themselves nothing during the company’s first two years, despite putting in long hours to stage the shows. They make a living by offering private instruction: Parkhurst teaches dance, Grayman teaches acting.
Parkhurst said the board of directors and the theater’s panel of advisers convinced them to pay themselves. So now they do: $400 a month each.
“We really learned to live hand-to-mouth,” he said. “I think it was good that we were starving artists.”
The reality is that the theater community, locally and nationally, is like a small town. Virtually everyone knows or knows of others in the field. Personal relationships are inevitable.
Last year, Karen Paisley cast Robert Gibby Brand in “M. Butterfly” and hired Linda Ade Brand, his wife, to direct. She thought that Bob Brand was perfect for the part and that Linda Brand was uniquely qualified to stage the show.
“I understand the questions about conflicts of interest,” Paisley said. “But at the same time, artists do frequently marry other artists or be in relationships or great friendships. There’s an artistic camaraderie.”
As someone who’s been on both ends of casting decisions, Sneary accepts them at face value.
“I don’t believe Clay and Dawnnie are cast just because Eric and Jerry are their spouses,” Sneary said. “Is there a little favoritism there? Maybe. But I think Eric and Jerry do their best to be diplomatic about it, and they make the best decision in front of them, and if that happens to be a friend or a significant other, that’s just icing on the cake.”
To reach Robert Trussell, call 816-234-4765 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.