Eric Rosen has been looking back. And ahead.
After nearly a decade on the job, he is preparing to step down as artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre. It’s a time to reflect on his accomplishments. For starters:
▪ An annual budget that has grown from $6 million to nearly $9 million.
▪ World premieres of shows like the musicals “A Christmas Story” (based on the popular seasonal film) and “Venice” (a hip-hop spinoff of “Othello”), both of which played in New York as well as stages around the country. Then there was last year’s premiere of Jodi Picoult’s lavishly mounted musical fantasy “Between the Lines.”
▪ Introducing local audiences to works by some of America’s finest living playwrights.
But Rosen and Rep leaders agree that his most lasting legacy may be a human one — the artists Rosen recruited and developed and who will leave the institution stronger than ever.
“I’ve got this list of mentoring achievements that I’m really proud of,” Rosen said. “People like Jeff Calhoun, Chip Miller, Kyle Hatley, Marissa Wolf” — Calhoun is a director/choreographer, Miller and Hatley are assistant artistic directors and Wolf is the new works director.
“I feel the Rep is filled with astonishing future leaders.”
Among those leaders, Rosen says, is associate artistic director Jason Chanos, who will serve as interim artistic director until the Rep board names a permanent successor.
“I’ve always believed the most import legacy of a leader isn’t the work he did but the people he encouraged and left behind,” said Rep board president Greg Graves. “That might be Eric’s greatest strength: the team he built. I would put our assistant artistic directors and our director of new works against anybody in the country.”
Enthuses longtime board member Bunny Copaken: “He’s an amazing cultivator of young talent. He’s left us with a whole cadre of terrific young people who are more than ready to keep the Rep on track.”
Beyond the staff, Rosen is credited with building a loyal audience while regularly challenging Rep ticket holders with daring theater.
Graves says Rosen is a master at pushing the envelope to create an open-minded and adventurous audience: “It’s not that every show had to produce a huge audience or a Broadway winner. When you challenge yourself, some shows will be incredibly popular, some not. But you’ve got to take the chance.”
Former Kansas City Star theater critic Robert Trussell recalled how Rosen’s first Rep directing effort back in 2008 set the tone for his tenure:
“It was Matt Sax’s one-man hip-hop show ‘Clay,’ vaguely based on ‘Henry V.’ Eric directed and helped Matt develop it, and at first it seemed like a Hail-Mary pass. Halfway through the first act I was thinking, ‘I’m watching something unique here.’
“Eric was announcing that he wanted to attract younger people to theater and shake things up aesthetically.”
A fan of Rosen’s directing style and his New Works Festival, Trussell also credits Rosen with encouraging diversity in Rep productions and hiring. “It wasn’t just lip service.”
In recent years the Rep has shifted toward more traditional programming and musicals, the result, many local theater observers believe, of audience resistance to some of the more experimental work.
Nevertheless, Trussell says, “Eric has gotten the Rep’s name out there. It’s been given a national identity it didn’t have before. He’s been able to bring in important people on the national scene— like Moises Kaufman — to direct here.”
As Rosen puts it, “We used to be an importer of talent, and now we’re exporters of our best creativity. “
Burnishing the Rep’s national reputation was one of the goals set for Rosen from Day One, Copaken said.
”When he came here we asked him to do two things. First, put Kansas City on the map as a theater town so that distinguished playwrights, directors, actors and producers would come here to work in a safe and welcoming environment.
“And we asked him to create, develop and export new works — not just for Kansas City audiences but to advance the field of theater. And that’s just what he’s done.”
And will continue to do, although on the East Coast. Early next year — after seeing through the second year’s edition of the Rep’s new production of “A Christmas Carol” (for which he wrote the script) and directing the regional debut in January of the new play “Indecent” — Rosen, his husband (actor Claybourne Elder) and their young son will move to the New York area.
They’ve already started looking at homes in the suburbs. “All these parental things I never had to worry about before —school systems, what to do with a kid — now they’re front and center,” he said.
But driving it all is his ambition to produce more work in New York.
“I started in Chicago, then Kansas City. But I feel my true community is in New York. It’ll be exciting to take the skills I’ve developed over the years — especially directing and writing —and bring them to the center of American theater.”
“I’ve already got gigs lined up through this time next year.”