The Kansas City Repertory Theatre this month provided a glimpse of the future to theatergoers adventurous enough to attend a show presented in the Spencer Theatre scene shop.
“Stillwater,” written by Nathan Tysen and his band, Joe’s Pet Project, is a tale of rock stardom, messy relationships, drugs, music and the inevitable truism that you can’t go home again.
Staged by Eric Rosen in an improvised space — a necessity because a massive refurbishment of the Spencer Theatre is underway — the show may or may not see a full production as part of the Rep’s regular season a few years down the road.
But it does represent a firm commitment at the Rep to developing plays and musicals that defy genres and the rules of theater-making.
“Stillwater,” Rosen said, was an effort to find a way to make rock — real rock, not the theaterized version we’ve seen and heard — serve a story in much the way he and Matt Sax tried to do with hip-hop in “Venice.”
Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director, said professional theater faces changing economic realities. Getting to Broadway is no longer always necessary for a show to find an audience, and even when a new production gets to a theater within the 26-square-block Broadway theater district, it can fail. Even with stars. Even with good reviews.
“It’s not an ideal time in New York to do anything outside of the box,” Rosen said. “Broadway is only working in smaller and smaller circles of success.”
So he may find a different trajectory for “Stillwater.” The nine-day workshop run concluded May 24 and attracted sold-out audiences that totaled about 1,000, Rosen said.
“What I learned the most from ‘Stillwater’ is that we found out almost everything we could have from a regular run; we learned what worked and what didn’t,” he said. “Now we can tear it apart and put it back together and use what we learned. … A rock ’n’ roll hybrid musical is going to need a different process than a lyrical musical about France in the 19th century or a play at the Living Room.”
Might Rep subscribers see a reworked version of “Stillwater” at some point? Maybe.
“When we started performances, I said to everyone that the success of this project is not that we do it on the main stage next season,” Rosen said. “I don’t want to jump the gun and say, ‘Yes, we’re gonna do it in ’16-’17,’ but I love the show and think it deserves a wider audience.”
In the works are a couple of concert readings of “Stillwater” in New York, Rosen said. Ultimately, the show could be produced by the Rep in collaboration with another regional theater as well as one based in New York.
Last year the Rep hired Marissa Wolf as director of new work, a staff addition Rosen said he had lobbied for since arriving in Kansas City in 2008. The Rep’s 2015-16 season will conclude with a New Works Festival that will include performances of “Fire in Dreamland” by Rinne Groff, as well as one of Rosen’s own plays, “Lot’s Wife.”
Rosen said the long-range plan is to develop an annual festival of new plays each summer, modeled on the prestigious Humana festival in Louisville.
“That would be uniquely tied to what we do best at the Rep,” he said. “To find projects that speak to our strengths and to our innovation-focused culture.”
Musicals, he said, would be a natural part of the mix because of their collaborative nature.
“We’re good at producing shows by asking artists what they need,” he said.
As the artistic director of a major regional theater company, Rosen said he’s faced with a challenge that is both strategic and philosophical.
“The question is how best to be a giant cruise ship and also be a small entrepreneurial think tank,” he said. “I have the mindset of the latter, and that’s kind of changed the cruise ship. But it’s still a cruise ship. ‘Christmas Carol’ is going to come every year. …
“We’re on a very good roll right now financially and artistically. I think the way out is to find new modes and ways of doing things — and new ways of getting people excited.”