Kansas City’s theater community gathered Sunday evening in solidarity with the master of fine arts program at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, which many believe to be existentially threatened by budget cuts.
On Friday, University of Missouri System President Mun Choi announced $101 million in cuts, including the jobs of four non-tenured faculty members of the 18 instructors in the UMKC theater department. That is part of a $15.4 million cut in the budget for the Kansas City campus as a whole.
Supporters filled the Helen F. Spencer Theatre as several people spoke with emotion of the masters program and what it has meant to them personally and to the community.
“It was clear to all of us that the reality of this budget cut would destroy the program and almost 40 years of careful, nurturing decisions that delivered the MFA theater training program to national prominannce,” said Theodore Swetz, Patricia McIlrath professor of theater arts.
Karen Vorst, a professor of economics and a former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, called the planned cuts “catastrophic.”
“This is going to destroy a program that has been, long time running, the best quality program producing the best students who are going out there and making a name for UMKC,” she said.
UMKC Chancellor Leo Morton attended the program, which was billed as a “town hall.” The University of Missouri system cuts are made necessary by reduced state funding for public higher education and a decline in enrollment.
A statement issued by Morton, provost Barbara A. Bichelmeyer and Arts and Sciences Dean Wayne Vaught said they “deeply believe in the importance of UMKC’s Department of Theatre as one of our primary centers of excellence, a key component of our mission to lead in the performing arts.”
Sidonie Garrett, executive artistic director of the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, said its productions have benefitted for 25 years from the expertise coming out of the UMKC theater program.
“Classical training programs prepare you to do that work,” she said. “The thought of not having that kind of excellence available to us is daunting.”
John Rensenhouse, artistic chair of the Kansas City Actors Theatre, echoed that point, saying the UMKC theater department plays an important role in “the renaissance we are having here in Kansas City.”
Cynthia Levin, producing artistic director of the Unicorn Theater, said that venue would not exist if it had not been started by UMKC theater graduates.
Jeff Church, producing artistic director of the Coterie Theatre, said the UMKC theater department and its master of fine arts program is “a major part of a healthy ecosystem here.”