Let’s get real for a minute…
Understandably, theater critic Robert Trussell has been doing a bit of handwringing over the impending demise of the 26 year-old American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center. After all, losing a high profile, 400-plus capacity theater venue is news and I’m sure there will be more stories to come.
However, dollar signs aside, does American Heartland closing really matter on the city’s pop culture landscape? And why, after 26 years in which the for-profit company supposedly never made a dime, kill it off now? Twenty years ago would seem to have made more sense.
Let’s take a look…
For starters, some theater insiders point to the recent death of Adele Hall as the reason for its untimely closing. The wife of Hallmark Cards chieftain Donald Hall is said to have been a staunch supporter of the American Heartland. Mrs. Hall passed away in January.
“You know, the theater had it’s champion up until the day Adele Hall died,” says one theater insider. “You don’t close a theater that Mrs. Hall liked.”
A handful of award winning shows aside, the overall quality of the American Heartland was thought by many to be suspect.
“I saw a couple of shows there and they were fine,” says one local. “But fine doesn’t cut it in this market.”
In the wide world of losing money, there are a couple of ways to cut the cake.
You can aim so high that only cutting edge theater insiders come to worship at your alter, leaving the unwashed unmoved and tickets unsold. With the odd exception, that doesn’t appear to be the case with the American Heartland.
Or you can lower the bar to the oft profitable “dinner theater fare” and pack the place with blue hairs and bus loads of hoosers like Overland Park’s New Theatre. That ought to have worked, but despite its best efforts, the bottom line would indicate that the Heartland failed there too.
So if a tree very few people ever saw falls in the forest should anybody here really care? Definitely, says Theater League head Mark Edelman.
“It’s not hard to understand why the actors are crying,” Edelman says. “Even on their small shows, the Heartland had probably seven or eight people under contract – that’s more than 400 actors a year. You’re talking about 500 to 600 work weeks a year for these people overall.
“And that’s some theater person being able to add to whatever else they do to put bread on the table. That’s right up there with the Kansas City Rep and the Coterie. You know, that’s a loss.”
Edelman points to critical successes by the Heartland over the years.
“Menopause the Musical and Sheer Madness were two of the biggest hits in Kansas City ever,” he says.
How to measure the loss to Kansas City on a cultural level?
“Kansas City didn’t lose a cutting edge theater, it lost a commercial theater,” Edelman says.
But don’t get too terribly wrapped up in mourning the Heartland, to a large extent its closing represents a generational changing of the guard.
“Although it’s a setback for the Kansas city theater community, every year there are new theater companies and new artists,” Edelman says. “And the way the world works is hopefully they’ll be there to pick up the slack and create more work for actors and more theater for Kansas City – groups like The Living Room, Spinning Tree and Egads!”
You know, life goes on…