Community theaters thrive on challenging material

Community theater isn’t what it was.

Back in 1977, when the Olathe Community Theatre Association settled into what would become its permanent home — a 19th-century church on East Loula — its first production was “Arsenic and Old Lace,” Joseph Kesselring’s black comedy about a couple of murderous little old ladies.

To this day, “Arsenic and Old Lace” is a show thought of as a community-theater staple, along with “Harvey” and a host of creaky Broadway musicals. In truth, however, community theater — at least as it exists in the Kansas City area — has become a place where audiences can see serious dramas, offbeat comedies and musicals that might challenge the resources of a professional theater company. The local community theaters also have a way of staging shows that have never been produced here professionally.

At OCTA (as the Olathe group is commonly referred to) that list of titles includes Stephen Sondheim’s controversial musical “Assassins,” Ronald Harwood’s postwar drama “Taking Sides” and Mark St. Germain’s offbeat historical comedy, “Camping With Henry and Tom.”

At the Barn Players, which performs in Mission, that list includes the musicals “Urinetown,” “Side Show,” “The Drowsy Chaperone” and the dramas “A Few Good Men” and “Frost/Nixon.”

And they take on hard-hitting dramas: “Glengarry Glen Ross,” “The Laramie Project” and “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde” in Olathe; “Buried Child,” “The Shape of Things” and “Macbeth” at the Barn Players, and, coming up in January at the City Theatre of Independence, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Home for the Independence theater group is the Roger T. Sermon Center, and on a recent Monday night the place was alive with activity. Downstairs, in the theater, rehearsals for a melodrama were about to begin. Upstairs, in a classroom with a piano, director Jessica Franz rehearsed a company of actors for a new musical called “Suburb.” Elsewhere on the second floor, director Mary Deaver auditioned actors for “Streetcar.”

Community theater — or amateur theater, if you like — has a long and proud tradition. Henry Fonda’s first performance was at a community theater in Nebraska. And Arliss Howard, a Kansas City native who has forged an impressive film and stage career, once performed for the Barn Players in Johnson County.

Almost every suburban area surrounding Kansas City has a community theater. The Bell Road Barn Players in Parkville, founded in 1952, is considered to be the oldest, while the Barn Players in Johnson County traces its history to 1955.

In true community theater, nobody gets paid. But some theater groups in the Kansas City area dwell in a zone between amateur and professional, because although the actors aren’t paid, sometimes the directors and designers are.

The theaters attract the talents of a diverse group of directors and actors, some of whom have worked professionally and may again when the opportunity strikes.

“I’ve read tons and tons of plays and I’ve seen tons and tons of plays, on Broadway and in London,” said Deaver, who once worked at the American Heartland Theatre before moving to Los Angeles for several years. “I’m not really interested in doing a lot of comedies that some community theaters have to do.”

So now she’s rehearsing “Streetcar,” a searing melodrama that made Marlon Brando a star and established Tennessee Williams as a playwright who could write hits without compromising artistry.

“I have a series of plays I’d like to do, but Williams has always been on my list,” she said.

Franz, a Detroit native who studied theater at Smith College in Massachusetts, has worked professionally in productions at Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre (“Rules for Widows,” “Hot L Baltimore”) and as an assistant director at Kansas City Repertory Theatre for Kyle Hatley and Eric Rosen.

She’s also appeared in amateur productions at the Olathe Community Theatre Association and directed there as well. She said the amount of theater in the metro area took her by surprise when she moved here in 2007.

“I was in New York and I needed to have some more personal space,” she said. “Some friends of mine were moving to Kansas City and they said there’s a lot of theater here. And I said, ‘No there’s not. It’s in Kansas.’ ”

She was happy to find out how wrong she was.

“There was so much community theater, and also professional and non-Equity professional,” she said. “Detroit doesn’t have that. I didn’t realize how strong a community could be in that area.”

“Suburb,” which concluded its run last weekend, was a quirky musical about the foibles of suburban living, but in directing the show Franz found herself working with at least two other theater artists who traffic between professional and amateur theater. Ray Ettinger, the music director, has appeared in shows for Late Night Theatre, Martin City Melodrama and Musical Theatre Heritage; actress Kristin Janell Sullivan has appeared in “1776” for Musical Theatre Heritage and “Little Women” for Padgett Productions.

As long as an actor doesn’t join Equity — the union for actors and stage managers — he or she is still free to work for nothing when the right opportunity comes along.

Paul Hough, director of production for the American Heartland Theatre, used to make a habit of scouting talent at the community theaters. Now, not so much. But he does recall that he “discovered” Licia Watson — currently appearing in the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “All My Sons” — in a Theatre in the Park summer musical at Shawnee Mission Park. Watson has since established herself as a professional actress.

“I certainly did my time in community theater in high school,” Hough said. “It allows gifted people who have structured their lives in a way that they can’t do professional theater. It provides a place for those talents to express themselves and be seen. The people who are passionate about theater exist on every level. There’s a lot of people who just want to do theater.”

What the casual theatergoer may not know — or care about — is that theater is one of the most time-intensive, labor-intensive creative endeavors known to man. Professionals are accustomed to being locked in a theater with a demanding director. The non-professionals have to balance their dedication and passion with a life in the real world.

Andy Penn, a veteran community-theater actor, is appearing in Olathe’s “Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and Then Some”), a three-actor romp in the tradition of the Reduced Shakespeare Company. He and his fellow performers — Peter Leondedis and Don Leonard — between them have years of stage experience. But they all have day jobs.

Penn’s theater activity is concentrated in the fall and winter because he runs an aquatic services company that provides pool maintenance, life guard training and swimming lessons. So he has no time to act during warm weather.

“I’ve worked with people at OCTA who live in Lee’s Summit or Blue Springs and they drive five nights a week and spend three or four hours a night,” said Penn, whose previous OCTA show was the drama “Twelve Angry Men.” “I’ve always felt at Olathe they were very, very grateful for the actors and our willingness to devote that kind of time.”

Penn once taught theater and he admits to entertaining the possibility of someday going pro.

“I have indeed given that some serious thought,” Penn said. “But I wouldn’t want to audition and then tell them I’m not available for certain shows. But the metro area is saturated with theater. So hopefully I can earn a paycheck doing this at some point in the future.”

Lee’s Summit has been without a community theater for several years, but that will change next year. The newly formed Summit Theatre Group will present an inaugural season of three shows. The company won’t have a permanent home to begin with, but its first production, William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” will be staged in a café in old downtown Lee’s Summit.

Later the group will stage “The Music Man” and, in the fall, “A Piece of My Heart.” That play, co-produced with the Lee’s Summit Veterans of Foreign Wars post, focuses on the experiences of female Vietnam veterans.

Actor James Wright, appearing in the MET’s “All My Sons” (story on Page 18) is a Lee’s Summit resident who joined the board of the new company. He won’t be performing, although he said he may direct at some point.

“Our goal is to be equal parts theater and equal parts community organization,” Wright said. “We really want to make it a community effort and do some partnering with other organizations.”

Eric Van Horn, who staged Barn Players’ current production of “Sweet Charity,” has become something of a musical specialist with the group, although he’d welcome a chance to do a straight drama. Van Horn has more than 20 years of experience directing for community theater, and he’s rarely, if ever, been paid.

“I would love to do professional directing and I have worked as an actor here and there over the years,” he said. “But you know what? I’m satisfied. I do theater to fill my soul, not my bank book.”