Eric Rosen

Artistic Director, Kansas City Repertory Theatre

Kansas City Repertory Theatre artistic director Eric Rosen talks A Christmas Carol, influential playwrights and KC's expanding pool of diverse actors. 

QUICK HITS

Favorite Little-Known Restaurant

Novel

I love Novel; it’s one of the best restaurants in town.

Favorite Place to Show Off in Kansas City

The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art

The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art. 

Favorite KC Tradition

Neighborhood Traditions

I love the neighborhood traditions in Kansas City. In my neighborhood (Westside), the children’s Mardi Gras Parade and the Fourth of July Parade are just all of the neighborhood kids getting together—and it’s incredibly diverse, from poor families to wealthy families—running around making mischief. It’s really uniquely “KC” to me. 

The full interview

Kansas City’s arts and culture scene has grown in prominence in the last decade. How do you see KC Rep fitting into that progress?

This is my 10th year at the Rep, so this is the decade that I know Kansas City. It’s pretty astonishing to think about where we were at the cusp of the recession 10 years ago—that we’d emerge all these years later with the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts Center being built, the new modernist wing at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Rep having renovated its space, the Bolender Center opening.

But what I think is most exciting for me, as the leader of KC Rep, is the renaissance for the theatre community that we’ve seen, and a huge transformational energy—not just for the Rep as it’s grown, but also for smaller theatres that have emerged over the last 10 years that have become really important players in town. They offer actors incredibly diverse experiences and audiences an incredible opportunity to see great actors in smaller spaces and great actors on our stages, all of them making their lives and livings here in Kansas City.     

You came to KC by way of Chicago, where you cofounded a playhouse known for its innovative plays that take on tough and complex issues. What made you want to move on and work in KC?

I think the thing about being a young theatre artist in this country is generally “work to make a name for yourself on the cutting edge,” whether it’s avant-garde or LGBTQ work like we did at About Face, or if you’re experimenting in form. You’re typically not directing classics, you’re generally not dealing with mass audiences. It was never my dream to only work kind of on “the fringe.”

Kansas City Rep was an extraordinary opportunity to have these important conversations with a much broader audience—bringing the aesthetics, the politics and the artistic sensibility in a lot of the artists and allow it all to flourish here in Kansas City and at the Rep. 

KC Rep has become an incubator for high-quality talent and production that make waves in the national theatre scene. What did you and your team do to put KC Rep in the position to succeed both at home and across the country?

Again, the 10-year mark. Thinking about what I was talking about when I was applying for this job, which was, “How do we bring the playwright back to the center of this theatre?” That first became a mantra of, “How do we turn the Rep from an importer of the talents and productions of other cities, to an exporter of our own creativity?”

"This has led to not just successful productions, which have been seen across the country on Broadway and on tour, but it has also more importantly led to an institutional change in that new work and the playwright are really at the heart of what we do: our new works programming, the Origin KC programs, the festival, the playwright commissions and the playwright slams."

You really have to start at the beginning of the playwrights’ projects to get them moving and have a pipeline of productions that are ready for the national stage. You need to be open to extraordinary opportunities like Between the Lines, projects that are already cooked and ready for their pre-Broadway try-out. That’s really all rooted in a philosophical shift, which is putting the generative, creative artists at the center of the theatre.     

You’re debuting a new adaption of A Christmas Carol¬, returning to KC for its 37th season, for the 2017-2018 season. What made you want to revisit the production, and how did you approach reimagining the timeless classic?



Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

I first thought I’d write a new adaptation of A Christmas Carol in 2007, when I was applying for this job. Then I realized it’s a juggernaut, it’s huge and it’s a tradition. Instead of a radical transformation, what it needed was time to grow and change, so the production has continually evolved. What we did last year is incredibly different from what was being done 10 years ago, but it’s technically the same script.

So in a way, the new adaptation is me taking everything I’ve learned about A Christmas Carol in watching and working on the production for the last decade, and fine-cooking everything into a new version that skews more closely to Dickens, that allows kind of a fresh start with the material but really honors the heart, core and soul of what is unique about KC Rep’s production. I think the people that don’t come every year won’t notice that the script is different. Purists will see the major events are intact. I think it allows me to let go of an accumulated 37 years of history of a production and start fresh. 

You’ve adapted, directed and written plays of all kinds. Which part of the creative process do you prefer and why?

I most love the thing that is the hardest, which is making something new. I’ve also learned that most playwrights have maybe five extraordinary plays in them, and so now I take much more time to get into the creative process and make sure that the thing that I’m working on is the thing I want to be working on, and that it’s something I’m going to be able to work on for five, six, seven or eight years. That’s my favorite part, the part I actually do the least.

"I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do next—always reading, dreaming, talking to my collaborators."

But I’m always thinking about what I’m going to do next—always reading, dreaming, talking to my collaborators. That to me is the most exciting thing as an artist: coming up with something brand new and seeing it through, from the dream you have one night to as far as it’s going to go in terms of a professional life.

KC Rep’s calendar is full of a diverse mix of productions featuring traditional classics, modern favorites and local debuts. How do you decide which productions to include each season?

We have a board in my office that all year long has thirty, forty, fifty different titles of things we want to do. I always have 12-15 things that I am committed to doing, and really only have six slots a year of things that aren’t A Christmas Carol, that aren’t the big musical and aren’t the New Works Festival. So, it’s really just a competition of things that we really want to do while keeping open to new ideas, new writers, new visions that are going to be coming down the pike last minute.

Some things might take five years to get into a season that I know I want to do, and some things can come up just six weeks before we’re finalizing the season. That’s the kind of the juggling act we do. We’re also not just thinking about one year, we’re thinking about two years, three years out. What’s the trajectory of our work? How are we changing and growing as a company of artists?

Which playwright, past or present, has been the most influential in your career?

Without a doubt, the most influential artist in my life is the director and playwright Mary Zimmerman. She was my teacher in graduate school. I started out my career assisting her, and her impact in the field of American theatre is sort of undervalued. People don’t know how much our aesthetics have changed because of her brave visions, of how works should be reimagined and recast and newly contextualized. It’s revolutionary.

Mary taught me that the physical beauty in the theatre is language, it is writing. It’s informed almost everything I do in the theatre, as a fusion of the spoken word and the full theatrical experience, into something that is more magical and elevated, and more saturated than we have in everyday life. That’s why theatre is important. 

What’s a dream play that you’ve always wanted to direct for KC Rep, and why?

Well, there are two things kicking around right now, and they’re very similar, strangely. One is the musical Carnival, which is based on a story called The Love of Seven Dolls, which is essentially a love affair between a girl and some puppets. It’s much darker and stranger than that, but I’ve had this vision between the created object and the human.

The second thing is I’ve started work on a new adaptation of an old Yiddish play called The Golum of Prague, which is the next project I’m working on with Matt Sax, the cowriter of Venice. It is also about a person who falls in love with an object he creates. In this case, it’s a Frankenstein myth of a man who creates a monster to save his community. I don’t know why I’m fascinated by plays about people creating things that ultimately become uncontrollable, but that’s a pretty common theme in my work and the two things I’m thinking about the most strongly right now. 

Local talent plays a big role (pun slightly intended) in KC Rep productions. That said, what’s next for the Rep and for Kansas City theatre?



Photo Credit: Cory Weaver

I think the most extraordinary transformation of Kansas City theatre is really located around the expansion of our acting pool, not just in numbers, although the number of equity actors in town has grown dramatically as the number of equity contracts available to them also grows. We’re seeing a real diversification in the talent pool from when I first arrived in KC, which seemed largely white, mostly middle-age actors, who are fantastic and we love, and are still part of our company.

But now we’re seeing a lot of young people staying here, a lot of diverse artists coming out of the graduate programs and undergraduate programs and spending the first five years of their careers in Kansas City. We’re identifying talent that has always been here, that maybe the Rep wasn’t as welcoming to as we should have been.

The most exciting thing has been seeing Kansas City theatre become more diverse. Last season, more than half the actors who worked at the Rep were people of color, which is really extraordinary. Given the national climate around conversations about race and identity, we are at the forefront of a vision of a theatre and a community that is truly equitable and diverse. I think that’s what’s next—not just for the Rep, but for all of Kansas City theatre.  

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