Can Shawnna Journagan and Rusty Sneary keep their Living Room party going?
Gunshots. Strobe lights. Stagehands with tie line wrapped around their necks like nooses.
This is preview night for the Living Room’s Master of the Universe, cast and crew’s last chance to run through the theater company’s world-premiere adaptation of Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck before it officially opens. Last and only: Until tonight, they’ve never made it all the way through without stopping. Two hours before curtain, the production team is still working on tech elements and adding new blocking.
“That’s just how world premieres go,” says Living Room co-founder Rusty Sneary. “Traditionally, you open a show, and hands come off the reins. The stage manager takes over. We don’t ever really operate that way.”
The mood onstage is more excitement than anxiety. Actors swap jokes and take last-minute notes with good humor, vibrating with the caffeinated anticipation of the soon-to-arrive audience. There are goose bumps, some of them literal; the Living Room’s industrial-grade air conditioner is too loud to run during the show, so the thermostat has been turned down to a Hoth-like setting in preparation. The noisy blower mingles with the mechanical crunch of a cordless drill stripping out screwheads.
Kyle Hatley, Master‘s writer and director, bounces between doling out notes to the actors and rearranging light and sound cues. He’s a one-man catalog of nervous tics, twiddling his pen rapidly between his fingers, hugging his arms to his chest and rocking back and forth while he listens to a scene, absorbing the rhythm of his own lines.
An hour before the house opens, he shouts up to the booth, asking to jump ahead to the sequence he has been dreading: a lengthy audio recording designed to mask a series of tricky maneuvers as actors shift set pieces and move in the dark. “Let’s just do it,” he calls. “Let’s just train-wreck it.”
“Hoookay,” chirps stage manager Mackenzie Goodwin over the God mic. The lights snuff out. Cue sound: an ominous knocking, loud enough to beat against your skull; a woman hushing her son, voice electric with fear.
Hatley clicks his pen a few times. He turns to sound designer Joe Concha. “It’s interesting that we have a radio play here,” he says, as if offering a dramaturgical consultation for someone else’s script. “It’s interesting. There’s something dangerous about that design.”
Concha glances over, then turns back to his laptop.
The recording’s canned sobs give way to the smooth voice of performer Linnaia McKenzie crooning a few bars of a Nina Simone song. It’s a haunting effect, Hatley at his directorial best.
Then the lights come up, and Rusty Sneary moves to sit on a chair that isn’t there.
Everyone laughs, Sneary loudest. Someone forgot to put the chair where it goes.
Hold, please. Rewind. Run it again.
This is what a career in the theater gets you: chaos. Chaos of a kind that, for some, breeds confidence. Also: pressure. Pressure of a kind that, for some theater companies, yields to collaborative effort.
But collaborating under pressure doesn’t work everywhere as well as it does at the Living Room. It helps that Sneary and his co-founder, Shawnna Journagan, have worked with Hatley each season since their first, in 2010. They know what they’re getting into now.
They didn’t back then. The pair’s original artistic vision was smaller, more intimate theater, meant to draw a younger crowd — “More indie film, less jazz hands,” Journagan jokes.
“We have ended up doing musicals — Hatley!” she shakes a fist in mock outrage. “But those were our rules, originally: no Shakespeare, no musicals, no casts larger than four. And then, right away, he brings us Carousel.”
After Carousel came Hatley’s Titus, which broke all three rules at once. And now, at the close of this most recent season, Master of the Universe has both a large cast and a live band. But Hatley’s shows, Journagan and Sneary admit, have all been wildly successful while remaining essentially true to the Living Room’s roots: accessible, visceral, unpretentious theater.
Drawing audiences seems worth the compromise. The house for the preview performance is nearly two-thirds full — about 75 people — and if the murmuring in the seats is any indication, many have come because of Hatley.
A man in line for the bar whispers to his companion about how many drafts he heard the script went through. Eleven, he thinks. Maybe 12.
Hatley addresses that question when the houselights come down for his introduction: 10 drafts. The cast received his final pages only the night before, a hardship he acknowledges. “These actors are warriors,” he says.
“This is where I like to do the craziest projects I dream up, the most passionate things I dream up,” Hatley adds. “And I bring them to Rusty and Shawnna. Sometimes they say yes.”
Sneary and Journagan have made a career of saying yes to crazy ideas. Their decision to open the Living Room may have been the craziest.
They lived in New York at the time, where they had moved together from Kansas City. Both were working service-industry jobs to pay the rent, which left virtually no time for their creative lives. “It was really starting to kill us,” Journagan says.
She and Sneary tell me the tale as we sit upstairs at the Living Room, in a second-floor space that’s part conference room, part art gallery, part island of misfit furniture: sexy track lighting, pure-white walls, an enormous display case that wouldn’t look out of place in a jewelry store. They pause to scratch one of their two ancient office cats, refugees from a family member who couldn’t keep them. Journagan picks up the story. At a low point in New York, they found an online rental listing for this building, 1818 McGee — former home of the Pearl Gallery.
“The idea hatched, as we always say, on the front steps of a brownstone,” she says, then makes a face. As the Living Room’s executive director, Journagan is ostensibly the company’s public face, but she’s quick to make self-effacing detours from the PR script. “Let’s be real. It wasn’t a brownstone. It was just a front porch. It was, like, a row house.”
Their initial plans, she admits, were too ambitious. “It was supposed to be a wine bar as well as a theater,” she says. “We thought we’d have a coffee shop. Apparently, we thought we were business executives and millionaires.”
Sneary jumps in to add a list of hits to the misses: They wanted the bar in the lobby to be made out of old televisions (check). They wanted the audience to sit in comfortable armchairs and couches (check). They wanted the houselights to be lamps they grew up with (check).
And the name itself was easy.
“It made sense,” Sneary explains, “because so much of what we wanted to do was to deconstruct the audience’s fear of theater, or what they thought theater to be. We wanted them to be as comfortable at the theater as they would be in their living room.”
So, from the comfortable chairs to the PBR-stocked bar to the repertory (plays by David Rabe, David Mamet and Neil LaBute tend to pull in a younger, more testosterone-fueled crowd), the Living Room’s aesthetic was, and remains, consistently anti-formal.
But is there really a fear of theater to conquer?
It’s a generational thing, Journagan and Sneary say, equal parts millennial aversion to presumed stodginess and a simple lack of exposure. Both of them believe that audiences for live theater tend to skew much older than other forms of entertainment, and both are concerned about the medium’s longevity.
“The subscriber base is probably over 60, the majority,” Sneary says. “And this city has an amazing, supportive audience base, but they’re dying.”
“Aging,” Journagan says. “Let’s say ‘aging.’ ‘Dying’ makes it sound like there’s a bunch of corpses in the lobby.”
Local data on audience demographics is tough to come by, but national trends show a slight uptick in the number of young theatergoers. According to the Broadway League’s most recent audience-demographics report, the average age of the Broadway audience over the 2012–13 season was 42.5, down from a 2009–10 high of 45. The 2012–13 season also attracted the largest percentage of 18-to-24-year-olds in the Broadway League’s 16-year history of data collection.
And if ticket buyers at Master of the Universe are any indication, the Living Room is statistically in line. The under-30 set made a strong showing at the preview and responded generously to some of the play’s immature humor. (It’s hard, at any age, not to laugh at the non sequitur “Well, I’ll be a snail’s dick” when it comes from the mouth of Charles Fugate.)
After the preview, the production team gathers for notes and another round of changes ahead of opening night. It’s Hatley’s show, but it’s Sneary and Journagan’s house, and the three commence a series of good-natured negotiations, leavened by post-show drinks from the bar. Sneary suggests script cuts and prop additions, holding firm when Hatley advocates for changing a song. Journagan cracks jokes to keep the tired crew at ease.
No one is going to get much rest tonight. More changes to design elements will require showing up early the next day to work them. Hatley says he’ll need a couple of hours to work sound the next morning, and at least one more for lights. “Unless we have bigger cuts than we anticipated,” he adds. “In which case, we’re going to have a huge amount of stuff to do.”
Stage manager Mackenzie Goodwin nods and wipes a bead of condensation from the lip of her whiskey glass. Mackenzie Goodwin is patience. Mackenzie Goodwin is composure. Mackenzie Goodwin is somehow not losing her shit as Hatley cannibalizes her promptbook for the umpteenth time.
The notes continue. Solutions are worked out for a stubborn blood pack, a late entrance, a place to stash the child actors during the more obscene parts of the show. “Did we cut the exploding testicle?” someone asks. (The exploding testicle is still there.) More PBR cans snap open. It’s 12:30 a.m.
At some point, Hatley stops in the middle of a sentence and laughs, the sound tinged with equal parts exhaustion and resolve. “We’re opening this tomorrow, and there’s so many things we’ve never done.”
“That’s good,” Sneary says, leaning back in his chair. “That’s exciting.”
As any fan will tell you, the beauty of live theater is its unpredictability. Each performance has its own energy and rhythm.
But funding can be just as unpredictable, and going nonprofit (as the Living Room and most of this town’s theaters have done) isn’t necessarily a fast track to financial solvency.
According to a 2008 National Endowment for the Arts report, the number of U.S. nonprofit theaters doubled between 1990 and 2005 (Missouri ranked sixth among states in terms of theater growth), while total earned income fell sharply. That means theaters have had to lean more heavily on grants and direct donations at a time when the competition for arts funding has never been fiercer. And when ticket sales fund only a small portion of the budget — Sneary estimates that the Living Room’s box office covers less than 25 percent of the company’s expenses — you can’t help but wonder: Is anyone at the Living Room actually making a living?
“We get paid last,” Journagan says, in a way that suggests sometimes they don’t get paid at all. “We’ve had tons of fears the last few years because we’re always hanging by a thread. Since we started paying artists this year, rent has been way scarier.”
I ask about their recent fundraising gala, the Rent Party. Was it just a tongue-in-cheek throwback to the rent parties of the Harlem Renaissance, or was the need more dire?
A little of both. “It was definitely practical,” Sneary says. “This is a big building. A lot of costs.”
Those came to a head during the previous season’s first show, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. The company’s power was shut off — a low point, Journagan admits. “Summer’s hard because we’re dark for once,” she says. “You think, ‘How are we going to pay the bills?’ And the short answer is, we didn’t.”
But the season just past has ended on a high note. Though Master of the Universe‘s non-equity actors originally signed up as volunteers, without contracts or promise of compensation, Journagan and Sneary were able to cut them checks.
“That’s the point,” Journagan says, the lightness momentarily gone from her voice. The couple founded the Living Room as a way out of big-city starving artistry, but they’ve struggled here, too. For the first couple of years back in KC, they lived in the McGee building, sleeping in the third-floor control booth from which Goodwin now calls the show each night. Privacy was next to impossible: The room was full of windows, and artists and designers were always working around them.
“Several times, I remember waking up to Matt Weiss on a ladder, right outside our window, hanging a light or something,” Sneary jokes.
They weren’t the only ones who both lived and worked in the space. In its infancy, the Living Room seemed like a theatrical halfway house for artists between jobs, leases or relationships. Part-time residents included Forrest Attaway, Katie Gilchrist, Matt Weiss and associate artistic director Bryan Moses.
They’re talented, and they still work in Kansas City, but Journagan knows that may not be sustainable. “If people aren’t employing artists, they aren’t going to stay here,” she says. “That’s why they all leave.”
Journagan and Sneary still don’t pay themselves a salary, though bills and budgets are a constant stress. They count on work outside the theater to make up the difference. Sneary appears regularly onstage at the Unicorn and the Rep, and Journagan does some performing of her own, acting out symptoms as a standardized patient for the Kansas City University of Medicine and Biosciences. They say the heavy load is worth it if it allows them to continue working with their crew and their casts.
“It’s the daily reminder and humility that come with seeing people come through our doors every day and work so hard for so little,” Sneary says. Theater lifers often refer to one another as members of a family, but when Sneary does it, he conveys a gentleness and a bewildered gratitude that somehow transcend the cliché.
“There’s a whole lotta hugging around here,” Journagan says.
And there is. At the closing-night party for Master of the Universe, hugs and Costco-size bottles of scotch flow freely.
Sneary bounces between clusters of people, wearing a T-shirt and a trilby and smiling as he side-hugs everyone. Late in the evening, he gathers the cast and crew at the bar for a short but genuine-sounding toast to their efforts. They cheer him.
It’s Hatley who gets the last word, though, a locker-room speech that could climax a one-man show. Even tonight, he projects an actor’s always-on self-awareness, his baseline adrenaline countering Sneary’s self-assured ease.
“What we do is bigger than who we are,” Hatley shouts, and a sea of red-plastic cups rises up from the crowd in response. “Whatever we make, it’s not about us. People pay to see what we do. It’s astonishing. It’s a testament to this city, that we can make things here.”
But Hatley won’t be making things here much longer. Next season, a couple of collaborations remain with the Kansas City Repertory Theatre — where his job title has just shifted from associate artistic director to resident director — but Master of the Universe is his last show with the Living Room before he moves to Chicago in August.
Hatley is a big name and a box-office draw, and his departure is, in the short term, bad news for the Rep and for the Living Room. But even at this tear-down party, there’s a mix of fresh-faced and veteran talent perhaps ready to help fill KC’s Hatley-size hole. The city’s talent pool is broad, but his is one of a handful of names that has dominated playbills in recent years. There have been times when local theater’s presumed meritocracy has seemed disquietingly oligarchic.
The Living Room, if it holds true to its mission, might provide an antidote. Sneary and Journagan talk about the importance of providing opportunities for performers who haven’t yet broken into the Rep or the Unicorn. “We take a lot of pride in being a bridge theater,” Sneary says, “in tapping into the young talent that exists here and keeping them here post-college.”
And though the Living Room’s budget might not be comparable to some of the older venues in town, the talent and the treatment of each new script are hardly second-string. That’s more cause for optimism because the company has what it takes for a young theater to succeed: production quality to match more established entities, and a niche to fill.
Journagan and Sneary still have big dreams for the future. They want a youth-education program. They want a multilevel acting and playwriting studio to help local artists grow. They still want that wine bar. No check marks for those items yet, but the goal remains the same: “To showcase young talent,” Sneary says (and pay for it). “And, hopefully, to keep it here.”