Ricardo Khan said hearing the news last week that his teaching position at the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s theater department had officially been restored felt like one “huge exhale.”
Khan, a Tony-award-winning artistic director who has taught at UMKC for 10 years, will return to teaching at the university’s theater program this September, just a few months after Khan and three other faculty members’ jobs were eliminated as part of University of Missouri System budget cuts prompted by slashes in state funding.
The unexpected retirement of design professor John Ezell, as well as several budget adjustments, allowed UMKC to restore two teaching positions within the theater department, the university announced Wednesday.
Khan and lightning designer and theatrical technician Shane Rowse will return to the program, Tom Mardikes, chairman of UMKC Theatre and professor of sound design, said Thursday.
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“I am delighted that we found a way to restore these positions amid the profound financial challenges that will continue to need our attention moving forward,” Interim Chancellor and Provost Barbara A. Bichelmeyer said in a statement. “The UMKC Department of Theatre plays a very significant role in the cultural life of our community, and the people of Kansas City’s university worked very hard to find a way to lessen the impact of a still-difficult budget situation.”
The theater department lost four of its 18 faculty members when state funding cuts and declining campus enrollment prompted $101 million in cuts within the University of Missouri System earlier this year.
The UMKC cuts, which included the elimination of 55 faculty, staff and athletics positions throughout the university, were part of an ongoing effort to cut spending by $20 million, spokesman John Martellaro said.
Before he learned he would not be renewed, Khan had been working on researching and writing a play called “Freedom Summer,” which is about 1964 voter registration during the civil rights movement. He worked alongside students pursuing their master’s of fine arts degrees. Without Khan, work on the script and performance ceased.
The spending reductions also inspired several rallies and events aimed at showcasing support for the university theater department and its relationship with the Kansas City arts community.
Supporters of the department, many of whom participated in Save UMKC Theatre rallies, lauded the program as a crucial contributor to the Kansas City performing arts industry. UMKC students work, sometimes for college credit, for local theater companies as actors, designers and interns. UMKC graduates have founded community theaters such as the Unicorn Theatre, the Coterie Theatre and the New Theatre.
“When the Save UMKC Theatre town hall was held, it opened a lot of eyes, and it allowed us as faculty members and students and professional members of the arts community to put a voice to an issue,” Khan said. “Since then, having been heard, the question was, ‘How can we make this happen,’ not whether we should or not.”
Bichelmeyer previously told The Star that the university had no intention of eliminating the theater program, but school officials have had to examine how best to support a program that is both expensive and not a major revenue-generator for the university at a time when money is tight.
The theater has maintained a deficit of $1.3 million in the past, though the university has committed to subsidizing the program with roughly $1 million a year.
Still, Mardikes has said the past few years have been difficult for the program, which has continued to shrink. He’s watched the budget drop from $3.3 million in 2013 to $2.7 million for the past few years to $2.3 million this year.
“We are really happy that we were able to work this out,” Mardikes said. “We don’t feel like we are completely out of the woods yet, but we have the funding and the people, and we’ll be able to move forward on the academic year.”
Khan said the prospect of budget restraints and cuts in the future is never far from his mind, but he feels confident in the arts community’s resilience.
“If they fought for there to be a way in 2017, there is always hope that they’ll do the same in 2018, and maybe one day we won’t even have to fight,” Khan said. “I’m just grateful for the outcome.”