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FRESH START: Spinning Tree launches third season of newly framed company

There was a time, during the restless months of 2020, when many performing arts groups wondered whether they would survive. In the decade since its founding in 2010, Spinning Tree Theatre had by then already earned a reputation as one of the region’s most adventurous companies.

Each year it produced three or four “intimate productions, of both Kansas City premieres and classics, reimagined for smaller audiences,” said Managing Director Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst. “We liked pieces that would challenge us in producing them and challenge the performers … and send the patrons home talking about the show.”

Andrew and Michael Grayman-Parkhurst moved from New York to Kansas City in 2010 to establish Spinning Tree Theatre.

To a large degree, these goals have not changed. But Spinning Tree post-pandemic has taken on a new outlook, one born from the crucible of a further “reimagining.”

In the spring of 2020, “we realized that we could not be closed for months and still have the money to come back and produce theater at the standard to which we were accustomed,” said Andrew, who established the company with his spouse, Artistic Director Michael Grayman-Parkhurst.

“So we had heart-to-heart conversations and dug deep … and we realized that we did want to continue theater, but that the only way we could do it is if we made significant changes in our financial operations.”

As they pondered what a new, more cost-effective Spinning Tree might look like, the memory of a recent success was still fresh. During the summer of 2019, the company had forged a collaboration with Variety Children’s Charity of Greater Kansas City, which advocates for children with physical and cognitive disabilities and their families.

With Starlight Express in 2019, a collaboration with Variety KC, Spinning Tree began focusing its efforts on theater for youth with and without disabilities. / J. Robert Schraeder Photography

The Youth Theatre Project was originally built as a sort of summer “theater camp,” but the resulting all-youth production of Starlight Express (using a mixed-mobility cast) was so successful that it got the producers to dreaming.

“The Starlight project was something we really loved,” Andrew said. “We called it our ‘heart project’ because Michael and I just fell in love with that experience and with the cast.” The production brought together a group of young actors aged 13-18 of all abilities, and a production team of theater veterans. “There was a lack of ego among everybody there,” Andrew said. “The adult professional designers and directors and musicians were all there to support the artistic development of the kids.”

Andrew and Michael knew how to produce professional theater: Now it was time to for them to push the company a step or two further, toward a model that provided opportunities for young artists with and without disabilities to work together.

In Spring 2022, Spinning Tree presented 21 Chump Street, with Cameron James, Amiyah Nelson, Nicholas May, Robin Robles, and Rhaelin Green. / Photo by Allison Bush

“We’ve found that there’s a need, not only in Kansas City but all over the country,” said Michael, the company’s artistic director. “Everybody should be looking at theater this way: that it should be accessible for all. And that was missing even before COVID.”

Representation in theater was one of the main topics of conversation in 2020, but few were talking about transforming theater for young people. “And for kids with disabilities, there just have not been the opportunities or the representation,” Andrew said.

Spinning Tree took up its new mission beginning in 2021-2022, and since then it has produced a range of works such as Children of Eden JR, The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, and Once on This Island, all using mixed-mobility youth casts and professional production teams. For 2022-2023, the company announced a full season, and for the 2023-2024 season it has resumed season-ticket sales for the first time since 2019.

Aubrey May and Caleb Mitchell will both reprise their roles in Ride the Cyclone this November. / Photos by Nicole McCroskey

This November 3rd through the 12th, the company opens its season with a reprise of Ride the Cyclone, starring Aubrey May and Caleb Mitchell, and from February 9th through the 11th, Young Playwrights Live! presents works by Emma Andrews, Alexandria Radford, and Billie Valdivia.

Then from April 26th through May 5th, Spinning Tree unveils its first commissioned work, Vanessa Severo’s Rubik: a play about, and starring, teens on the autism spectrum. The season concludes with Working (June 21st through the 23rd), a revue based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 book, in a localized adaptation featuring actual stories from working Kansas Citians.

As the season lineup makes clear, Spinning Tree’s new mission is not to produce children’s theater. “Our programming has not really changed from what it was before,” said Michael, who will direct Ride the Cyclone. “There are pieces on our season that are edgy. … What we’re looking at is pieces that can be told really well by youth, and at the highest professional level.”

The Amazing Karnak is the fortune-telling carnival oracle of Ride the Cyclone.

As anyone who attends theater here knows, the level of ability of Kansas City’s youth is often quite astonishing. This is especially noticeable at Spinning Tree, where actors in wheelchairs have begun to feel more at home than ever. “People will say, I completely forgot that she was in a wheelchair, I just bought into the story,” Michael said. “They go from, ‘Oh, it’s an actress in a wheelchair’ to, ‘It’s an actress portraying a role that seems just right for her.’ ”

Spinning Tree’s goals remain unchanged: to produce quality theater and at the same time provide enriching experiences. “The parents of the kids with disabilities have told us that they are just so grateful that their kids get challenged,” Andrew said. “It’s a professional environment: We have expectations, we have high standards. We treat them like young professionals.”

Similarly, parents of young people without disabilities are speaking highly of the “new” Spinning Tree. “They appreciate it because their kids are working with all different types of people,” Andrew said. “The kids’ compassion level is increasing, they are getting outside of themselves.”

It is not uncommon for artists with disabilities to need assistance onstage, and Spinning Tree’s teenaged peers are always happy to help: even when a need arises unexpectedly, as in mid-performance. “If we can create and facilitate the right energy in the room, the right vibe, the right supportive environment,” Andrew said, “the kids will do a lot of the work toward maintaining that.”

Robin Robles and the cast of Starlight Express / J. Robert Schraeder Photography

Andrew and Michael would like to create a world where all of those things can happen. “And because we didn’t see a template or a model for it, either locally or elsewhere, we wanted to create it,” Andrew said. “The future of theater relies partly on people of all abilities seeing themselves represented on professional stages.”

The mission is still to produce wonderful theater. “How can we help each kid, with or without disabilities, to do a good job: producing a show at a high level that people will want to see and be proud of?” Andrew asked.

The answer, partly, is to set high expectations and maintain them. “Young people don’t want to be coddled,” Andrew added. “They want you to expect a lot out of them and challenge them appropriately. … They want to do work that they feel good about and proud of.”

—By Paul Horsley

All performances are at Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center. For tickets and information, go to spinningtreetheatre.com. To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter/Instagram (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.