Performing Arts

‘A really wonderful guy’: Meet the new artistic director of KC Repertory Theatre

Stuart Carden, a veteran of the Chicago theater scene with a reputation in new play development, has been named artistic director of Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the theater announced Sunday.

“Stuart offers the perfect combination of artistic achievement, personality and vision for moving the company forward,” said Scott Hall, chairman of the Rep’s board and head of the search committee.

“He’s a really wonderful guy — collegial, collaborative,” said Hall, a senior vice president with the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. “We heard from people throughout Stuart’s background who told us they wished that they could recruit him back to their theater companies.”

Carden, who starts his new job within days, will be only the fifth artistic director in the Rep’s 55-year history. Previous directors were Patricia McIlrath, George Keathley, Peter Altman and, most recently, Eric Rosen, who also came to the Rep from Chicago and left last year to live and work in New York. Jason Chanos has been serving as interim artistic director.

In a recent telephone conversation from Cornwall, England, where he was vacationing with his family, Carden said he’s barely had time for news of his impending gig to sink in.

“This is all so brand new. … The agreement was just finalized yesterday,” he said. “This phone call is the first time I’ve been introduced as the artistic director of Kansas City Rep. Hearing it said aloud raised some hair on the back of my neck.”

In a freewheeling phone conversation Carden exhibited an infectious enthusiasm about Kansas City and the possibilities of his new job.

Moving from one Midwestern city to another should minimize culture shock, he said. “In both Chicago and Kansas City there’s a sense of working hard and playing hard.”

Carden grew up outside Louisville, Kentucky, a city that he believes mirrors much of the atmosphere of Chicago and Kansas City.

After college (he holds a bachelor’s in theater from Hanover College and a master’s in directing from Carnegie Mellon University) Carden worked a stint as associate artistic director of City Theatre in Pittsburgh and then came to Chicago in 2001.

“Even though I’ve been a Chicagoan for 19 years,” he said, “I’ve always wanted to get back to a city the size of KC and Louisville, where you can not only know your neighbors, but get to understand their curiosities, their passions, their excitements — and program work that engages with them.

“It’s a bit harder to do that in Chicago, where there are 200 theaters, many just little storefront 50-seaters. In a town that big, it’s a challenge just to wrap your head around the theater scene, much less the larger cultural scene.”

Vanessa Severo and Nathan Darrow in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF (Photo by Don Ipock).jpg
The Kansas City Repertory Theatre opens its 2019-20 season with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” starring Vanessa Severo and Nathan Darrow. Don Ipock

He will not be directing any of the shows in the Rep’s upcoming season, which starts Sept. 6 with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” starring Nathan Darrow and Vanessa Severo. So, Carden said, he will have time to really get to know his new home.

He’ll be moving here with his wife — art exhibition specialist Neysa Page-Lieberman — and their twin sons.

“My wife and I came out to Kansas City for a couple of days earlier this summer, and we were surprised by the city from the most simple to the most profound ways. The city’s support of the arts is a major draw for both of us. You’ve got not only a culture of attending arts events but also a strong foundation of philanthropic support.

“All in all it feels like an incredibly good fit. We’re really excited to begin our next chapter in KC.

“The boys, too. Somehow they’ve convinced themselves they’re getting a dog.”

From 2009 to 2014 Carden was associate artistic director of the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, where he produced more than 25 shows and was key in launching the company’s new $32 million complex.

As leader of that company’s Literary Development Initiative, Carden was behind the U.S. premiere of Conor McPherson’s “The Dance of Death” and Laura Eason’s world premiere musical “Days Like Today.”

Since 2015 Carden has been a freelance director and producer working with theater companies as varied as San Diego’s Old Globe, the Williamstown (Massachusetts) Theatre Festival, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Philadelphia Theatre Company and, in Chicago, the Second City and the Chicago’s Children’s Theatre.

Though a theatrical jack-of-all-trades, Carden sees new play development as his strong suit, stressing his commitment to bringing “new plays, new voices, diversity in both style and point of view.”

When he joined the Writers Theatre, Carden said, the company was doing a mostly classical canon — Shakespeare, 20th-century plays, classic musicals. His job was to widen the possibilities.

“That experience has put me in a position to build on what the Rep has been doing. You already have a vibrant new play program with a national reputation. It’s a perfect fit with my history and expertise.

“All over the country, regional theaters are getting back to the impulse behind their founding. Leaders are refocusing. Rather than just cherry-picking plays from New York, I’m much more interested in commissioning stories from the region, working with playwrights and storytellers who can bring alive that history.”

Not that he envisions an isolated or insular atmosphere. “I’d like to see an interplay of the local community with nationally known artists. I’ll be going to my Rolodex.”

Carden also has a long history as an educator, having taught directing, acting and movement at Carnegie Mellon, DePaul, Northwestern and Loyola universities, among others.

According to Troy Lillebo, UMKC’s assistant vice chancellor of external relations, Carden “made it very clear that he is personally invested in helping cultivate the next generation of theater professionals and relishes the opportunity to play a role in the development of our students.”

The recent merging of the UMKC Department of Theatre with the Conservatory of Music and Dance, Carden said, offers an opportunity to “chart a new course for the Rep and the university.

“One of the things that drew me to Kansas City was a chance to develop a university program with professionals in residence. This could be an opportunity not only for student actors to learn from the pros in the room, but for the established artists as well. The very act of talking about your craft with young people informs your work. Having to articulate what you believe and why is a clarifying part of your artistic process.”

Carden’s family will join him in early December. One result of his new job will be a marital role reversal.

“For the last four years I have been the one jumping around the country freelancing while my wife has held down the home front,” he said. His wife is currently is director and curator of exhibition and performance spaces at Chicago’s Columbia College.

“So this is a flip for us. I’ll be the one rooted and committed to an institution while Neysa will be free to find work not just in Kansas City but nationally.”

Season opener

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre kicks off its season with “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” Sept. 6-29 at the Spencer Theatre, 4949 Cherry St. See kcrep.org or call 816-235-2700.

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