I have winnowed down my tuxedo-wearing to one night a year. Not that it was ever much higher. I think I maxed at two. The one event that now commands my attention is the annual Heart of America Shakespeare Festival Gala, the main fund raiser for Kansas City’s annual Shakespeare in the Park program.
If you can bear the sight of 80-year-olds doing the boogaloo, you should put the event on your calendar. What makes Shakespeare work for me is the language. As an author in the Internet age, I marvel at how a guy without a typewriter, white-out, carbon paper, let alone Google and a laptop, could turn out such an extraordinary quality of literary work over time. Hell, the man didn’t even have a fountain pen.
So rich is Shakespeare’s output that as early as 1852, critics began to question whether he wrote his works at all. The first skeptic, an anonymous one, wrote an essay titled, “Who Wrote Shakespeare,” and opened a spanking new literary territory in the process. In the years following, other critics—as diverse as Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and Helen Keller—rushed in as though it were Oklahoma circa 1889.
To this day, investigators continue to question Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays that bear his name, but not a one of them—and there are thousands—makes a case for Bacon or Oxford or whoever nearly convincing enough for me not to don my tux for the annual gala.
The gala is the rare event in these divided times that attracts people from all races, creeds, and political deviations. Unlike, say, the Oscars or the Tonys, no one is inclined to use his or her moment in the sun to trash that half of the audience whose deviations from the norm skew sideways from his or her or her own.
The unifying force, of course, is Shakespeare himself. He was sufficiently bawdy and transgressive the right can’t claim him and so damn good the left won’t condemn him. In the not-too-distant future, Shakespeare may be the only dead white male left on a university curriculum.
The founding mother of the Shakespeare Festival is Tony award-winning producer Marilyn Strauss. Her inspiration was the legendary Broadway producer Joseph Papp. The late founder and director of the New York Shakespeare Festival, Papp encouraged Strauss, as she tells it, to “give something back, something you personally create.” Papp added, “You can’t beat the feeling, kiddo. Do it now, make it the best, and keep it FREE!”
In 1990, Strauss abandoned her glamorous New York digs and headed home to Kansas City to fulfill Papp’s vision. It wasn’t easy. Strauss helped launch a Shakespeare Club and then petitioned no fewer than 100 city officials and civic leaders for support.
Dr. Felicia Hardison Londrè of UMKC lent her expertise early on and was named honorary co-founder. Strauss’s Antonio proved to be Crosby Kemper III, the rare merchant intellectual in the Midwest or anywhere.
Then a scion of the family that runs UMB and now the director of the Kansas City Public Library, Kemper helped Strauss organize a board and agreed to serve as president. His civic heft inspired other local honchos to participate, and Strauss’ vision began to morph from chimera to show biz.
Missouri-born actor Kevin Kline, then at the peak of his career, lent a major boost by donating a gala theater presentation. The funds raised allowed the fledgling company to recruit the people and create the infrastructure necessary to mount a show.
In 1993, the company performed its first play in Southmoreland Park just west of the Nelson-Atkins, and the festival has been going strong ever since. Shakespeare fans bring their own chairs, their own refreshments, and their own knowledge, or lack thereof.
A shrewd businessman, Shakespeare wrote his plays with every taste in mind and threw in something for everyone from prince to peasant. I marvel at how a guy without a typewriter, white-out, carbon paper, let alone Google and a laptop, could turn out such an extraordinary quality of literary work over time.
In addition to the annual equity production in the park, the Shakespeare Festival has created any number of programs for aspiring young devotees of the bard. These include a two-week Camp Shakespeare program for kids 8-14, a Shakespeare Exploration for young people 14-18, Shakespeare Unbound! (with an exclamation point!) for girls 9-15, and a variety of year-round education programs.
At the annual gala, many of the kids involved tell their tales. And for more than a few of them, these programs are as much therapy as they are education. Cheerleader camp, I have learned, is not for everyone.
In 2017, the 25th anniversary year, the combination of decent weather, Hamlet, and House of Cards star Nathan Darrow resulted in a record attendance of 28,000 for the three-week run, with one Saturday night crowd exceeding 3,000 people.
In a Kansas City summer, weather is always an issue. This year’s production of the comedy Much Ado About Nothing tested the fortitude of the actors and the loyalty of the fans. On eight of the 18 days the play was up, the temperature topped 92 degrees, with a peak of 99 on June 28. Theater in the park has never been for the faint of heart.
Still, the fans turned out. “To our great civic pride, we became a destination event for families and fans from all over the country,” says Strauss. “We fought hard and begged even harder to keep it free for everyone, and donations made by generous patrons at the park entrance became more plentiful.”
For the kids involved as well as for the actors, the staff and the board, the gala is critical. The annual budget for the entire festival program is now very near a $1 million. Those who are looking to park their earnings in a program that will enrich their lives and not insult their values might think about sending that tux to the cleaners. You have until February.
And never fear: The boogaloo is optional.