Spotlight on J. Kent Barnhart

interview

{All photos courtesy the Quality Hill Playhouse Facebook page.}

Note: this article was previously published in the December 2007 issue of KC Stage Magazine.

With J. Kent Barnhart, it’s all about the intimacy. Sitting in a chair at the theatre of Quality Hill Playhouse, the intimacy almost is a third character in the room. Barnhart, wearing a black sweater with a grey stripe, is the ready host, and even with no one on the small stage (outside of the piano, bass, and drums), the space is comfortably intimate, almost homey. And that’s just the way Barnhart likes it.

“When I first started out,” Barnhart says, talking about the origin of his running the Playhouse, “I thought we would do a drama and a comedy and a musical and a cabaret. I discovered that what people really wanted and that our niche was the cabaret performance – professional singers in an intimate space, with me talking and introducing the songs and giving a little bit of the history and telling funny stories about the history of the songs.”

Barnhart is a Kansas City native, an alumnus of Raytown High School and the UMKC Conservatory of Music. He had started his professional career as a pianist for a show at the Playhouse. After that, he worked for a number of different theatres, and got a job as a director of music at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church on the Plaza.

“While I was at All Souls,” he says, “I started a cabaret series on Monday night, our night off, so that the local people and I could do things that we wanted to do. And it was a whole mix: it was jazz, it was classical, it was theatre, all kinds of things.”

In 1991, he and Deborah Ausemus put together a show called Simply Cole Porter, and rented Quality Hill Playhouse – and sold out for six months. The two then took the show to London. Fast forward to 1993: the owner of the Perry Street Theater in New York City, after coming to see the New Year’s Eve performance of Simply Cole Porter, booked the two to appear off-Broadway for the summer of 1994. He moved to New York, but then decided he didn’t want to live in New York, and came back in 1995.

Getting Barnhart’s history is getting the Playhouse’s history. Even though the building was built by Theatre League and went through more than a few managers before Barnhart’s reign as executive director, this is the Playhouse’s 13th season in its current inception. “That first year, we had 113 subscribers and we did six shows, three performances of each. And now, we have 2,668 subscribers, and 30,000 people a year come downtown to see our shows.”

Barnhart speaks of the Playhouse like a proud parent. He regales statistics such as that the Playhouse earns 85% of its income from ticket sales; their New Year’s Eve performances and annual trips to New York City don’t need to be publicized, as they sell out way in advance to subscribers; the third show in the season, No Business Like Show Business: The Songs of Irving Berlin, will be the 100th different cabaret show for the Playhouse; and the Playhouse just announced a renovation and expansion project. “We’re still a small organization,” he’s quick to assure. “But our mission is to provide live performance of musical theatre work and the American songbook and to hire only local performers, directors, technicians, and designers. We’re committed to people who decide to make Kansas City their home.”

To add to that, Barnhart feels that he needs to see what else is going on in Kansas City performing arts, so he can be aware of potential performers. “I feel it’s part of my job to see as much live performance in Kansas City that I can,” he says. “First of all, there are people who are working who haven’t auditioned here before, and so it’s important to me to go out and find who’s there, because we’re always looking for new people. But also, it’s important, I think, to see people in action, because I know actors and singers who are incredible performers, but can not audition – they just can’t. So, it’s not helpful to see somebody’s 16 bars when they’re not doing their best, but then you go see them in a show and you think, ‘Oh, my gosh! That’s great!'”

Promo photo from ‘Sh-Boom Sh-Boom’ – March 2013.

However, being connected to the Playhouse has its humorous disadvantages when he goes to productions. “I have a great interest in things outside of musicals. I did go to one theatre one night, and the producer saw me in the lobby and they said, ‘Oh, you know this isn’t a musical?’ Yeah, but I still want to see it! I’m a huge baseball fan, and I watch dramas, and I do things that aren’t just musical theatre. I think you have to know that stuff. I mean, Cole Porter’s one of my favorite composer/lyricists. Well, there are references to all these great writers and Shakespeare and all this kind of stuff you have to know. You have to be well-rounded and know about all those different things.”

The Playhouse does six shows a season now, one of which this year is the off-Broadway musical The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!). “The other five shows are ones I research and choose the music,” Barnhart says, “and I cast the shows with special attention to choosing the music for the performers. I do research about a year out, so that when we have our general auditions in the spring, I have an idea of what songs I want to include so I know what voices I’m looking for. It’s a unique performer we’re looking for, because they have to have a great onstage personality, they have to be an impressive solo singer, but they also then have to be able to blend in four-part a capella harmony as well.

“I have a list of songs that I want to do, and I have a list of show ideas I want to do. I’m always thinking of new ideas and putting them aside and coming back to them later, but I’m doing research months in advance to try to come up with something fresh and new to keep it exciting.”

Promotional photo from ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ – February 2013.

Keeping the show new and interesting is a sticking point for Barnhart. After all, not only does he have to keep the audience coming back, but he has to keep wanting to do it, too. “It’s a great privilege to have our own place and to be able to do what we want to do,” he says with a smile, “but it’s also a challenge to keep ourselves interested and our audiences interested. Our niche or our brand is the intimacy and the consistency of the quality, but at the same time, I always try to include something that people don’t know.”

Keeping it interesting and including something new is especially relevant to his current project, Christmas in Song. This is the 13th year Barnhart has done this program, and he says, “It’s become quite a tradition for people along the lines of The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol. We have, of course, our season subscribers, but then we also have people who – that’s their tradition: they come on Christmas Eve, and that’s their thing.

“It’s a whole mix – it’s a little bit of something for everybody,” Barnhart continues, “from sacred music to secular music, from traditional music to popular music. The first half of the show is mostly new arrangements of carols – not carols that you would think of normally. We’re doing a section of Alfred Burt’s carols, which are Appalachian carols. We’re doing 25 songs, and I’m going to bet 10 of them are songs that people have never heard before, which is really hard to do, but keeps it fresh.”

Keeping himself interested is never a challenge, but Barnhart does have one goal he looks forward to: developing a new musical here in Kansas City. He hopes to accomplish it when the renovation of the Playhouse is done. “Not just do a staged reading of something that’s already written,” he says, “but actually have the facility and the talent to put together a show and nurture it.”

Barnhart has a tremendous sense of wonder – about his job, about the success the Playhouse has experienced, and about the state of theatre both nationally and here in Kansas City. And it all comes back to the intimacy.

“Everybody in theatre always says the audience is the last character, and it’s absolutely true. We rehearse and rehearse and rehearse, and then we open and realize, ‘Wow! They think that’s funny!’, or ‘They are really moved by that,’ and I think audiences want that. The byproduct of iPods and DVD and movies on your computer is the fact that people even more so long for the live experience. It’s great to see something that’s been recorded, but there’s nothing like sitting in a room with 150 people who are experiencing the same thing that will never happen again. They come here, and they want that sense of sitting in the dark and sharing something with people that won’t ever be the same.”

To share you intimacy with J. Kent Barnhart, check out Christmas in Song at the Quality Hill Playhouse until December 24. For more information about the show, visit their website at qualityhillplayhouse.com or call 816-421-1700.