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‘Built for community by community,’ Theatre in Park continues 50-year legacy

In Theatre in the Park’s 2015 production of “The Wiz,” Benjamin Houpe played the part of the Cowardly Lion and Lindsey Hailes played the role of Dorothy.
In Theatre in the Park’s 2015 production of “The Wiz,” Benjamin Houpe played the part of the Cowardly Lion and Lindsey Hailes played the role of Dorothy. Courtesy photo

In early summer of 1970, on a simple stage constructed from a few boards and bricks, Theatre in the Park launched its 50-year legacy.

Its inaugural season of live performances were held at Antioch Park.

In the five decades since that first sell-out season – which featured “Mame,” “The Boy Friend,” and “The Music Man,” – the Theatre has flourished. Now one of the largest outdoor community theaters in the country, nearly 2 million have attended more than 250 shows under Theatre in the Park’s celebrated canopy of stars.

As the Theatre in the Park’s popularity continued to increase those first few years, the group also outgrew its Antioch Park venue. Committed to continuing the tradition of live community theater in Johnson County, the Shawnee Mission Sertoma Club made it their mission to raise funds for a permanent stage at Shawnee Mission Park. Dedicated in 1980, the park has been Theatre in the Park’s permanent home since.

“One of the most heartwarming things for me is that a group of people, the Sertoma Club, got together and said, ‘We should have this community theater.’ We exist because of them,” said Tim Bair, Theatre in the Park’s producing artist director since 2010.

“They sold newspapers, collected aluminum cans and sold concessions out of the back of their car trunks to raise the money for this stage.”

Bair, who at age 6 played the Elf in a church production of “Santa’s Elf Saves Christmas,” made his acting debut with the group in the 1984 production of “Applause.”

During the next several years, Bair joined Theatre in the Park’s artistic staff as choreographer and director, before heading to New York and a theater career on Broadway. After touring and performing around the world for more than 20 years, Bair returned to Kansas City to take on his current role with the Theatre.

“The most extraordinary story is that this Theatre was built for community by community,” Bair said. “We have so many different people from so many walks of life involved because they have a love for theater. They continue to come back and perform on stage, play in the orchestra and work behind the scenes.”

Kay Noonan is one of those performers. Though she holds a full-time position as General Counsel at NAIC, Noonan is passionate about acting and Theatre in the Park.

Her first role was as Edwin in the Theatre’s 1990 production of “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” This year, she is playing Miss Hannigan in “Annie,” which opened June 7 and is Theatre in the Park’s first production of the 2019 season.

“I’ve met great people here and some of my closest friends are those I’ve met through Theatre in the Park,” she said. “I’ve also met and performed with kids who are now on Broadway and in touring shows.”

“It’s a thrill when you rehearse for six people ... and then walk out opening night to see the park packed and people filling that great bowl.”

Throughout the years, the Theatre’s growth has boosted its respect within the community. In 2017, it became the resident theater company at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center.

In addition to the five summer shows mounted at the Shawnee Mission Park venue, the Theatre also produces three to four shows through the fall and winter in the Center’s Black Box Theatre. The Theatre Academy also uses the space for programming and classes for young students throughout the year.

While Bair has helped guide the organization into a new era during the last nine years, he also maintains a clear vision about the future.

“Ten years ago, my vision was to be the most professional ‘non-professional’ theater in this country,” he said. “Through my experience, I’ve learned about how theaters work and what we can do to become more professional — from our production value to how we treat actors and audience members.

“It’s an ongoing effort, but the minute we say ‘we’ve arrived,’ we’ll start taking steps backward.”

One area Bair and his team have focused on in recent years is the Theatre in the Park customer experience.

“We’ve stepped into a new world of digital engagement,” he said. “We’ve made a tremendous effort to be more user-friendly and accessible for purchasing and exchanging tickets.”

Looking ahead, Bair also envisions improvements to the group’s structures. He’d like to see a clamshell installed, so performances can continue in the rain, along with a new stage house and a paved area in front of the stage for reserved seating.

In addition, Bair is exploring uncharted territory in production choices.

One of those shows was “Les Misérables,” which was produced with an all high-school cast. Bair also plans to select shows in the future that will appeal to a wider demographic.

Noonan notes that Theatre in the Park could be the first exposure children and teens have to live theater.

“I think people learn how great live theater can be,” she said. “Now people who came in the early years are sharing it with another generation.”

Theatre in the Park’s 2019 season opened June 7 with a production of, “Annie,” which will continue through June 15.

Theatre in the Park’s 2019 season includes a production of the irresistibly fun musical, “Annie,” opening June 7 through June 15. In celebration of their 50th anniversary, the Theatre’s summer schedule features several more timeless, family-friendly shows, including “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “The Music Man,” and “The Wizard of Oz.” An indoor production of Disney’s “Frozen” is scheduled for the Black Box Theatre at the Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center in December.

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