Performing Arts

Q&A: ‘Santaland Diaries’ actress Shanna Jones fell in love with KC and left New York

Shanna Jones is playing her own version of Christmas songs as part of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s “Santaland Diaries” show.
Shanna Jones is playing her own version of Christmas songs as part of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s “Santaland Diaries” show. rsugg@kcstar.com

In case someone out there needs convincing that Kansas City is a theater town like never before, consider the case of Shanna Jones.

The 33-year-old actress and musician has been popping up in Kansas City Repertory Theatre productions with increasing regularity since she made her local debut three years ago in “Santaland Diaries.”

The show, based on a famous David Sedaris essay, is ostensibly a one-man play in which Brian Sills plays a disgruntled temp-worker required to be an “elf” in Macy’s during the holiday season. But that first year the show opened with a set of music and jokes performed by Jones and her old friend Claybourne Elder. They called themselves the Shenanigans.

Last year, Elder was not in the production, but Jones was, and her music was integrated into the body of the show. That’s the plan this year as well.

In addition to “Santaland” Jones has appeared in the Rep productions of “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hair,” “Sunday in the Park With George” and a workshop of a new musical, “Stillwater.”

Jones is a native of Utah who spent most of her childhood in Virginia before her family moved back to the Beehive State, where she attended college as a theater major. Elder was one of her freshman-year classmates. She is also a songwriter who plays guitar, piano and ukulele.

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And she represents something unique: A professional actor who moved away from New York City to settle here, in little old KC. She officially relocated here about a year ago with her wife, Amanda Wheeler, a physical trainer.

We recently spoke to Jones by telephone about her career, her feelings about Kansas City and New York and why she decided to relocate.

Q: Where were you born and where did you grow up?

A: I was born in Salt Lake City. My father is a colonial gunsmith — he makes black-powder rifles — and when I was very little we moved to the colonial coast … in Matthews County, Virginia. He was one of three people in the world who did it professionally. He handcrafts these black-powder rifles and engraves them (and sells to) collectors all over the world and re-enactors. I think that’s where my theater life began because we would go all over the country, but mainly on the East Coast, to re-enactments. They were usually the local historical societies or museums in charge of the actual battlefields. So I would dress up as a little girl in the 18th century and pretend that I lived in that time period while my dad sold his rifles. For a little kid it was extremely cool. And it definitely set the stage for me to be an actor.

Q: Where did you meet Claybourne Elder?

A: We met in Acting 101 and immediately became friends. It was the beginning of a lifelong adventure of tramping around the world. We’ve been kind of joined at the hip for like 15 years now. Because I wasn’t moving through college as fast as he was, he moved out there (to New York) first and about the time he was really starting to make some moves career-wise, I moved out there. Been there just over six years. For a young artist it’s one of the best places to cut your teeth. You have to figure out how willing you are to work or fight for what you do. And you have to figure out what you do. Everyone there is insanely talented. Everybody can sing or dance. So you have to figure out what you have to bring to the table. You either quit or figure out what you’re made of.

Q. How did the Shenanigans come to be?

A. I was writing songs for a burlesque show. When I had gigs in those burlesque shows or bars and clubs in New York, I would get Clay to play with us. And my wife would play with us. That was the beginning of the Shenanigans. … Clay decided to pitch a show to Eric (Rosen, the Rep’s artistic director who is now Elder’s husband.) We kind of locked ourselves in my apartment for two solid weeks and just started messing around with Christmas songs or Christmas carols and changing the words around to make them dirty. Clay played the violin and figured out to make a foot drum. So we pitched it to Eric and Jerry (Genochio) and they decided it would be a great pairing with “Santaland.”

Q: Did you know much about Kansas City before coming here to do “Santaland” the first time?

A. I’d never been to Kansas City in my life. So I got here and immediately I was just blown away by the audiences. I feel like New York audiences are very jaded because, of course, they’re seeing all the theater and all the music. As a performer it’s very intimidating and frustrating at times. But these audiences here were so loving and so with us. And as a performer that’s ideal, right? Here’s a group of people who just want to go with you and be entertained. We just had a blast. …

I ended up staying for “Romeo and Juliet” and that’s when I really fell in love with Kansas City. Got to know a group of local actors and I couldn’t believe how supportive the actors were of each other here, and how strong and tight-knit the community was here. They would go to each others’ shows. I had never been around that, not even when I was doing theater in Utah. (In New York) no one has the energy to be very supportive. It’s just so hard to live there and be there that it’s difficult to keep that support up for everyone else. The other thing I found was not only were the artists here supportive, they were really talented. They were just as good as anyone in New York.

Q: What was your impression of the city outside the theater world?

A. Every artist I come across is incredible. I’ve heard some of the best jazz I’ve ever heard here. I saw that Kansas City was kind of going through a renaissance. All of it is really thriving and it’s really good. I’ve never seen a place like this. I think it’s extremely special. So I went back to New York and within nine months I had moved here. I missed it. It didn’t make sense to be anyplace else.

Q: Do you want to perform at theaters in town beyond the Rep?

A. I did a show at Musical Theater Heritage, which was the music of “Company,” which was a blast. … I’ve been doing a lot of music here. I’ve been hiring out do special events like corporate gigs. I’m also finding that most of the theaters hold an annual audition. I moved here this time last year, so I had missed all of those auditions. Hopefully this year I’ll be able to work at some of the other theaters.

Q. So it sounds like you’re making a living as an actor and musician.

A. It’s just unreal. That I can make a full-time living as an artist is unbelievable. I would commend the Kansas City audiences for being so supportive. I get the sense that a lot of people are proud of this community. And when I talk to people I hear them say this place has grown so much in the last 10 years. It’s almost legacy-minded. These people care about not only building a community for themselves but for the future.

Q. What do you have in the creative pipeline?

A. I’m trying to put together a bluegrass band similar to the Shenanigans. Clay and I have actually written a two-person show that is ready but we haven’t performed it anywhere. It’s about what our lives were like before we met our spouses. I would love to do that show with Clay here sometime. I have also been the front-man for a lot of blues and rock bands. And seeing the caliber of music here, I basically just want to dive in, but I don’t have enough time in the day to do everything.

Robert Trussell: 816-234-4765, @roberttrussell

Onstage

“Santaland Diaries” runs through Dec. 24 at Copaken Stage, 13th and Walnut. Cal 816-235-2700 or go to KCRep.org.

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