A space odyssey
For all the talk about what a varied and healthy theater community Kansas City has, many small theater companies still struggle to find a home. The budget-minded have some options, such as the Alanz Theatre on East 63rd Street, the basement of the Westport Coffee House on Pennsylvania, and various school or church auditoriums, but for several performance troupes, those venues (for whatever reason) don’t work. Enter the Just Off Broadway Theatre as the ultimate antidote.
The space is literally just off Broadway, tucked into a humble plot of grass at 3051 Central. The building housed the police department’s stables around the turn of the century, then sat idle until a fire eviscerated it in 1991. Only part of the stony facade remains, but enough is there to give the wooden theater in its belly a vaguely European air.
The space belongs to the Kansas City Parks and Recreation department but is managed by the Just Off Broadway Theatre Association, a cooperative of 15 performance troupes that includes Lisa Jorgenson’s Piccadilly Productions, Geri Eicher’s Vintage Playhouse, and David Luby’s Gorilla Theatre. Though most of the cooperative members are small — some are one-person operations — there are bigger players. The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival is a member and plans to use the space for camps or workshops.
Eicher, whose company is in the business of dusting off such old gems as Carl Reiner’s Enter Laughing and has the motto “See it again for the first time,” says of the Just Off Broadway Theatre Association, “We started meeting three years ago because we wanted a place to do our shows, and we just don’t do things you can do in a coffeehouse.”
“It’s about groups working together and sharing knowledge, talent, and equipment,” says Luby, whose Gorilla Theatre has been nothing if not persistent over the past decade. “The question was asked in a recent study, ‘Where is the artistic center of greater Kansas City?’ Geographically, it’s Penn Valley Park. So the neighborhood is also part of Just Off Broadway’s vision.”
The space doesn’t have a stage yet, but many see that as a plus; its movable seats adapt to set designers’ creative whims. The house seats just over 200, the lighting equipment is sufficient for a modestly technical show, and the walls have been painted the kind of flat black that keeps audience members’ eyes focused on the actors. And for a start-up space that has been open only since March, it is ambitious, having been booked nearly a year in advance.
The space is “not intended to be anyone’s permanent home,” Jorgenson says. But to have squatting rights, a company must contribute 20 volunteer hours per production and pay a $50 rental fee for each performance.
“A few of us are overworked,” Eicher says.
“I’m astounded by the hours we put into it,” Jorgenson adds. “But it’s worth it.”
The Just Off Broadway Theatre Association’s other members are In Play (which will perform Harlem Nights there in July), MC Players, Potluck Productions, River and Prairie Storyweavers, the UMKC Theatre Department, Big Itch Productions, Byrd Productions, City in Motion Dance Theater, CrossCurrents, The Culture House, and the Distaff Theatre Company.
“And we’re taking in new members all the time,” Luby says.
That theater companies can put competition aside to maintain the space is something of a miracle. But the variety of staffs and outside commitments contribute to the problems that have cropped up.
“It’s like any not-for-profit group,” Luby says, “in getting people to follow through on what they commit to do. We’re learning about the limitations of the space as we go.”
Other drawbacks include the space’s concrete floor and, though thousands of cars drive by it daily, its location. The entrance from the east is a severely raked and pockmarked drive that few cars want to traverse in good weather, much less when the snow starts to fall. And Central Avenue at 31st Street is less a street than a weird cut-through used by people exiting Broadway from the north.
“For a while, the post office didn’t even know it existed,” Eicher says. “There are bugs to work out.”
“But once (people) start realizing where it is, the address will be superfluous,” Luby adds.
“It’s about new people with fresh ideas — the power of numbers,” he says. “And with the performing arts community coming together like this in one location, it just might put Kansas City on the artistic map.” Just Off Broadway helps alleviate KC’s homeless-theater-troupe problem.