Reinventing the Rep

Taking a Kansas City favorite to a national level

Originally a part of the Chicago arts scene, Eric Rosen came to Kansas City in 2008 to be the fourth artistic director of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. During his seven years at the Rep, Rosen has steered the theater in a new direction, featuring a mix of productions that strike a balance between classic and progressive, and taking the theater to a national level. This month Rosen is directing a special performance of Hair that will both celebrate the original production of Hair while paying homage to the events that led to its creation. We caught up with Rosen recently to talk about Hair, the Rep and this nationally recognized playwright’s plans for the future.

Kansas City Spaces: Your production of Hair promises to reimagine the classic musical. How will the production differ from the original?

Eric Rosen: It will be a very different. The whole season is themed with plays that changed the world, and Hair changed the world in a more profound way than most of us can even remember. It changed how we think about theater, and it changed how we thought about the war in Vietnam and expressed hippie culture in a way that’s never been seen before. What I didn’t want to do was recreate Hair with young kids putting on wigs and pretending to be hippies. I’m more curious about what actually happened. So we created an ensemble of six people who were in one of the original productions of Hair and six younger actors. The show will still be a full concert with the huge concert aesthetic. But the meat of it, instead of telling the plot of Hair, will be about how Hair got made. What was it like the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated or the day of the Columbia student riot. We’ll show what it did to them and how it changed their lives. I think it’s going to be a really exciting musical, fun, nostalgic journey that reminds us of what theater can do.

KCS: This season marks the 50th anniversary of the Rep, so in effect you’re moving into a new era of the Rep’s history. What do you envision for the Rep’s future?

ER: In some basic ways the Rep is going to be a very different organization when the Spencer Theatre is complete in November. We are really transforming our home from a highly efficient 1979 university building to a branded, elegant, cozy living room of a theater that invites a level of fun and sophistication that we just haven’t had before. Finally the Rep will look like the theater it is. So the physical home will match the work we do on-stage, and that is a huge deal for us. We’ve worked really hard on that for five years. It’s a huge upgrade for us, and I think that is in line with a larger direction. I’ve been at the Rep for seven years, and during that time I’ve tried to make it into a national institution. These seven years have been a test period to see if we could achieve this, and it’s gone so much better than I could have believed. The region seems hungry for us to take a more progressive, more creative step. I think we’re emerging as a front-of-the-line theater at a national level. At the same time, I liken us to a tree. We’re reaching out into the nation in a broad and exciting way, and at the same time we’re deep into the community and becoming more and more engaged here at home.

Eric Rosen, Artistic Director of the Kansas City Rep.
Eric Rosen, Artistic Director of the Kansas City Rep.

KCS: What plans do you have for the next year?

ER: For me personally a lot of amazing things are happening. My husband and I are in the process of planning a family—we are hoping to have a family started in the next year or so. I’ve also started doing a lot of writing right now. Next year the Rep is putting on one of my plays, Lot’s Wife, which I’ve been working on for years and years. I haven’t produced a play in four years, so that’s a big step for me. I’m also looking at how we take the Rep to the country more. We’ve been incredibly successful moving plays to Broadway, off Broadway, and around the country. I’m trying to refine how it works so my professional path and the Rep’s professional path are really aligned.

Purchase tickets to see Hair at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre here.