KC Rep's Eric Rosen looks to future

He’s sticking around.

At least for a while.

Maybe for a long while.

That’s the word from Eric Rosen, Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s 41-year-old artistic director, who plans to remain at the helm of the city’s leading nonprofit theater company at least through 2014. Rosen just finished his fourth season at the Rep with a box-office hit: a classy production of the sublimely silly musical “Little Shop of Horrors” at Copaken Stage, the company’s downtown performance venue.

When Rosen, a veteran Chicago theater artist who was a co-founder of the edgy About Face Theatre there, was hired as the Rep’s fourth artistic director beginning with the 2008-09 season, the Rep’s board of directors knew what they were getting: a young, ambitious guy who would most likely eventually pursue his career elsewhere. But Rosen said recently that he could envision staying in Kansas City indefinitely.

“The short-term answer is, I extended my contract — it’s not signed yet, but it’s all but inked — for two more seasons, and that is primarily to get us into the 50th anniversary campaign,” he said. “That’s enormously important to me and to the organization. We’ll be launching a fundraising initiative to really transform the theater and make sure that we have the resources we need that will make the theater everything I want it to be.”

The Rep has made no official announcement of a capital campaign, but Rosen said discussions so far include significantly boosting the company’s endowment, which has ranged between $8 million and $10 million during Rosen’s tenure, and giving the Spencer Theatre in the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center a major makeover. That could include upgrading the theater’s scene shop, remodeling the lobby and the seating area, expanding the number of restrooms and consolidating the Rep’s administrative offices, which are spread among several buildings on the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus.

Peter Altman, Rosen’s predecessor, replaced the Spencer’s seats and installed new wall coverings, but Rosen envisions a far more extensive redo.

“It would have been so nice to have been an artistic director in 2005, instead of to be constantly dancing around the not-enough-money-to-do-what-we-want-to-do issues that the recession has brought,” he said. “We’re very lucky. We’ve finished every year in the black, which is a miracle. There aren’t many theaters that can say that of our size. But it took a lot of dancing and a lot of creativity and an amazing amount of hard work.

“I think what’s ahead for the Rep is so exciting. There are a lot of people in the community saying that, you know, we’ve done the Nelson, we’ve done the performing arts center, we’ve done the ballet and the opera and Symphony, and the Rep is the next thing. And that’s how we’re trying to position ourselves.”

In other words, after the corporate and philanthropic communities in Kansas City kicked in hundreds of millions of dollars to build a major addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, to create the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, to establish a new rehearsal and administration facility for the Kansas City Ballet and the Lyric Opera’s new rehearsal-studio and scene-shop complex, maybe now it’s the Rep’s turn.

“We make the biggest economic impact in this community,” Rosen said. “We keep the most money in our community of the major performing arts organizations. People who live and work here are employed by us, from actors to administrators to carpenters.”

Some might take issue with that claim. The Symphony and the ballet, for example, maintain resident companies of musicians and dancers, and the Lyric Opera each season hires local artisans, designers and sometimes actors and singers.

Cynthia Rider, the Rep’s managing director, said it was too early to discuss details of a possible fundraising initiative, but she said discussions were focused on guaranteeing the Rep’s longevity.

“I don’t think there’s anything we can officially say,” Rider said. “But we will be celebrating our 50th anniversary, and that will include a campaign to ensure the future of the Rep.”

Consideration of a money-raising campaign for the Rep comes amid discussions of possibly moving the UMKC arts campus to a downtown location. The Rep’s physical home is in the James C. Olson Performing Arts Center, which houses offices, rehearsal studios, the UMKC Conservatory (including White Recital Hall) and the Spencer Theatre, which is the Rep’s main stage.

But the Rep assumed a downtown presence in the 2006-07 season when “Love, Janis” became the inaugural production at Copaken Stage, the $7 million theater in the H Bloch headquarters at 13th and Walnut streets. And Rep officials have been involved in the downtown arts-campus discussions. To what extent the Rep will have a downtown presence beyond Copaken Stage is unknown, although Rosen is enthusiastic about the idea.

“It’s really an exciting idea, and we’re supportive of it whether it includes us or not,” Rider said.

William C. Nelson, who chairs the Rep’s board, said it was unclear how much establishing a downtown arts campus would cost or where the money might come from.

“We’ve been very much in favor of the downtown initiative, but there is little or no financing for that venture,” Nelson said.

A promotional downtown arts campus page on the UMKC website says under the FAQ section: “Possible funding sources will be recommended once the feasibility/economic studies have been completed. However, it is anticipated that significant private funding will be required.”

When Rosen moved to Kansas City, he signaled a radical departure, both in terms of the board’s expectations for the Rep and the kind of theater that was acceptable at the Rep. In some ways he was able to build on the groundwork Altman had left in place, but he also declared himself the least conservative artistic director in the company’s history.

As if to stress the point, his first season opened with a one-man hip-hop musical called “Clay,” written and performed by Matt Sax and developed and directed by Rosen. Kansas City audiences liked the show, which later received a limited off-Broadway run.

At the time, Rosen likened beginning his tenure with a sight-unseen hip-hop solo performance to throwing a Hail Mary pass on the first play of a football game. And the gamble paid off.

But Rosen also reveres American classics, as evidenced by the brilliant production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie,” also in the first season, staged by New York director David Cromer.

All along, Rosen has struck a balance between a healthy respect for tradition and throwing the dice on new work. It wasn’t long after Rosen arrived that the word “fearless” began appearing in the company’s promotional materials. The word aptly describes the Rep in the Rosen era.

Rosen believes the Rep is experiencing a renaissance. But so is the theater community here generally. Rosen’s associate artistic director, Kyle Hatley, recently ran the company’s annual season auditions and reported that 200 non-Equity actors, many of them recent college graduates, showed up.

“Those kids arriving now in 10 years will be at the center of a whole industry of theater that has heretofore been a few, longstanding, venerable companies and is now turning into something that feels to me like Chicago felt when we were starting About Face,” Rosen said. “I don’t know exactly how that renaissance and the Rep’s renaissance relate to each other, but I know it’s connected. We’re proud to be part of that. And it’s the most I could have hoped for.”

Nelson gives Rosen a grade of ‘A.’ Rosen had done everything the board wanted him to do, Nelson said: increase the Rep’s artistic quality, elevate its national profile and improve relations between the Rep and UMKC, which will have to be a party to any major renovations in Spencer Theatre.

The Rep is an independent nonprofit corporation, but from the beginning the theater and UMKC have benefited from a symbiotic relationship. Indeed, Rosen’s salary — $191,042, according to the 2011-12 edition of the State of Missouri’s Official Manual — is paid not by the Rep, but by the university.

Some shows during Rosen’s tenure have failed to meet projected ticket sales, including “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” a co-production with several other regional theaters, which played Kansas City in January and February. Rosen said that in Kansas City the show’s attendance was lower than anywhere else. But failing to meet projections hardly makes the Rep unique.

Rosen and some board members suggested that enthusiasm for the Kauffman Center in its first year might have made a dent in Rep ticket sales during the season. But Rosen has also chalked up some major hits: “The Glass Menagerie,” “Venice,” “Cabaret” and, at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, “August: Osage County” all performed well.

“Nobody’s going to bat a thousand,” Nelson said. “But I think he’s batted .800 or .900.”

And just how much Rosen gets to spend on shows has, at times, been a source of tension with the board.

“It’s always an issue,” Nelson said. “It’s a tug of war.”

John H. “Topper” Johntz, the board’s vice chair, also gave Rosen high marks.

“He’s unequivocally done a remarkable job, both in terms of the quality of the productions but also in terms of the national attention to the Rep,” Johntz said. “It’s too bad that he came at a time when the economy turned almost immediately on his arrival. That’s made both ticket sales and fundraising problematic. But both have worked out as well as you could hope.”

An expected announcement of the New York premiere of “Venice,” the original musical Rosen and Sax wrote and which received its world premiere at the Rep, has been pending now for weeks. A likely scenario is that the show could open off-Broadway and then, with luck, transfer to Broadway.

“A Christmas Story,” an original musical that also received its world premiere at the Rep, is expected to receive a limited run on Broadway during the holidays.

If both events come to pass, the Rep’s brand will be well represented in New York within the next year. And “Venice” could be the steppingstone Rosen needs to establish himself as a New York director.

Rosen maintains residences in Kansas City and New York. And in July he will marry actor Claybourne Elder — whom Rep audiences saw in “Into the Woods” and “Cabaret” — in upstate New York.

But Rosen has a lot invested in Kansas City. Part of his enthusiasm for a fundraising campaign that could remake the Rep’s home physically is connected to his broader goal for the company: to take its place among the ranks of leading regional theaters in the country.

“We’re never going to be the Guthrie (in Minneapolis) or the Arena Stage (in Washington, D.C.) or Center Stage (in Baltimore),” he said. “But it would be crazy not to think that we could be in the same conversation as La Jolla (in San Diego) or the Alliance (in Atlanta) or the Dallas Theater Center. I think artistically our work is on a par with those institutions.”

Rosen, who declared the season just ended to be “awesome,” said he might eventually be tempted if an opportunity came his way to lead another major theater company. He estimated that there were 10 companies where he could see himself assuming artistic leadership. But he could just as easily remain in Kansas City.

“People say, ‘When are you going to leave?’ I hope I don’t really have to,” he said. “If we get through this campaign and if the community continues to develop artistically the way I think it is — if the city gets behind the Rep the way it feels like it’s going to — I think there aren’t that many jobs I would want. I really want to be an artistic director. It’s a job I love.”