Cuts to UMKC theater department also hit Kansas City’s arts community

Kansas City’s theater community is on edge.

It’s worried that recent budget cuts will diminish the University of Missouri-Kansas City Theater Department, and that the sting will be felt in theater companies throughout the city.

“We are trying to get that word out,” said Tom Mardikes, who chairs the UMKC Theater Department.

Mardikes joined a group of theater department fans one night last week waving signs and handing out bumper stickers — “Save UMKC Theater” — on the corner of 17th Street and Broadway Boulevard. That was in the shadow of the Kauffman Center For the Performing Arts and in front of the site marked for the university’s planned $96 million Downtown Campus for the Arts.

The rally was the second in a series of events planned to persuade the university administration to reverse a roughly 12 percent cut in the department’s budget. That cut, theater community supporters say, could ruin efforts to further grow the arts in Kansas City.

“The UMKC Theater Department is part of this eco-system that is Kansas City theater,” said Heidi Van, founder and producing artistic director of The Fishtank, a theater company in the Crossroads district.

UMKC students perform on community theater stages, like the one the department shares with the acclaimed Kansas City Repertory Theatre on the UMKC campus.

Students work with theater companies as actors and designers, and do a variety of theater-related jobs as interns paid in the form of college credit. Their work saves big bucks for small companies like the Fishtank.

After graduation many students are hired here. Some leave and later return to work as resident artists fueling the city’s growing arts enterprise.

“That’s why we say the city is our campus,” Mardikes said.

Community theaters in Kansas City — The Unicorn, The Coterie, The New Theater — all were founded by UMKC graduates.

For many years the theater department has attracted “great talent,” to the city, Van said. Some come as promising students while others come as instructors who want to be a part of a department ranked among the tops in the nation and recognized around the world.

“If a key part of the ecosystem disappears,” Van said, “the rest of it suffers in some way.”

Consider professor Ricardo Kahn. Last fall Kahn was busy leading the dramatic light and theatrical production that marked the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

At the same time, the Tony-award-winning director was teaching theater students at UMKC. He was working under a year-to-year contract.

Kahn, the co-founder of Crossroads, the first black theater in history to receive a Tony as Outstanding Regional Theatre in America, has also been researching and writing a new play, Freedom Summer. He’s been writing it with UMKC students seeking a Master’s of Fine Arts degree.

When finished, students were to perform the play on the KC Rep stage.

That’s not going to happen now. The play is off. Kahn, after 10 years teaching at UMKC, has returned to his native New Jersey, and probably won’t be coming back.

State funding reductions and declining enrollment across the University of Missouri System forced the university last week to shave $101 million from the budgets of its four campuses, resulting in the loss of 474 jobs.

Slashing UMKC theater was part of $15.4 million in budget cuts overall for the Kansas City campus. Those cuts include a $2 million reduction in capital expenditures, $2.5 million in the elimination of vacant positions and a $1.3 million cut to the athletics program.

The theater department has to cut roughly $300,000 and is losing four of 18 positions — three faculty members, including Kahn, and a costume room manager.

“They just told me we will not be renewing your contract but we appreciate what you have done here...,” said Kahn, who this summer is back working as artistic director for the national African American museum.

Kahn’s plays were produced in Kansas City and for the most part reflect the role people of color have played in the American experience.

“It’s about priorities,” he said. “It is not surprising to me that programs that involve the state of black people are the first to go.”

Others in the Theater Department as well as members of the Kansas City Theater community have different reason for the cut.

“It was a budgetary decision,” said Wayne Vaught, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “We understand that it is a strong department for our university.”

Barbara Bichelmeyer, provost and executive vice chancellor, said theater is an expensive program and not a revenue generator for the university.

Theater doesn’t attract large classrooms full of tuition-paying students. Instead it consists of small intimate classes with one or two faculty members and a handful of students talking around a table.

Often the tuition reaped per class can’t cover the salary of the faculty person teaching the class.

UMKC theater maintained a $1.3 million deficit, by far the largest deficit of any program in the college, Bichelmeyer said.

“We are strongly supportive of the theater department and we have never said that we are going to eliminate the theater department. And we have no intention of eliminating the theater department,” she said.

But Bichelmeyer argues that UMKC is strapped.

“Our state appropriations are such that we are solving for 10 percent of our budget going away. It is going to take more than one year to solve for that.”

The pain of that, she said, is campus-wide.

“We know we need to subsidize theater, but what’s the right amount in this moment in history where we are losing state appropriations and we have to think about how we do our work differently,” Bichelmeyer said.

“We have to completely re-envision our operation,” she added. “We are trying to solve for a $20 to $30 million campus deficit.”

Vaught said that even with the recent cuts, The College of Arts and Sciences will still subsidize theater to the tune of about $1 million a year.

“That is still a substantial investment in the arts,” he said.

Theater has been tightening its budget belt for several years, Mardikes says. He said that since 2013 his department cut spending from $2.7 million to $2.3 million a year.

In the 2014-15 academic year, he said, Theater was forced to use $100,000 of a donor’s gift and the department’s budget was cut by $500,000. Since that time, he said, four positions have remained unfilled “and new hires are non-tenure track.”

The earlier cuts, Mardikes said, had already caused the department to shrink its premier Master’s of Fine Arts program.

“We can only support two classes of graduate actors at a time, and we will have no incoming first-year MFA actors this August,” he said.

On top of that, Mardikes said, he also wonders what happen to a more than $900,000 pool of gift money he says the university was supposed to keep restoring for his department.

“At the $2.3 million level, we have either a faculty with no students to teach, or students with no faculty to teach them,” Mardikes said. The elimination of the latest four positions, he said, is the kind of loss that takes the program down a notch.

It certainly puts Marianne McKenzie’s future in limbo.

The second-year master’s of fine arts acting major was one of Kahn’s students. With him gone and his project dead, she’s not sure where that leaves her. She said administrators have assured her she could still graduate from the three-year master’s program.

“It’s just a little scary for me because I’d like to know what shows I’m doing,” McKenzie said. “It’s also scary when we keep going through these cycles where faculty members keep getting cut.”

And administrators say more cuts are coming.

Logan Black, a 2014 graduate of the UMKC MFA program, cautions university leaders.

“You can’t look at arts programs as an item on a budget,” Black said. “If you just look at the numbers, you don’t take into consideration the cultural significance and the money that the arts program brings to the local community.”

“I can’t begin to tell you how difficult it is to do the work that we are doing now,” Bichelmeyer said, adding that she’s not opposed to the community stepping up to defend the theater department and back it with financial donations to subsidize student scholarships and faculty endowments.

“If we can garner community support I think this program will continue to flourish collectively,” Vaught said.

In the meantime, Mardikes has called on theater supporters to bombard University of Missouri System Curators and the system president with letters calling for UMKC to reverse the cut on the theater department.

“We are not trying to hurt the university,” Mardikes said. “We actually love this university and we love this city. The city loves us back.”

Mará Rose Williams: 816-234-4419, @marawilliamskc