Uncategorized | September 22, 2011

Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts in Kansas City, Missouri

Finding out where my family really lies socioeconomically, caring how my fifteen-year-old brother treats his first girlfriend, and making my own doctor appointments are a few of the moments in recent years where I felt myself feeling sort of, kind of like I might be turning into an adult. These unceremonious moments keep trumping the expected gravity of traditional grown-up moments. My freshman year of college I had moved 1000 miles away from my family in Kansas City, Missouri to go to an art school in Savannah, Georgia after choosing exclusively from colleges categorized only as “Not in Missouri.” My jarring adult moment that year was not in sobbing as I waved goodbye to my parents or in the basement of an upperclassman’s house. The day I defended my home state to one of many peers who could not even locate it on a map (hint: the middle), was my first indication that I was maturing into a Missourian.

The expectations of Missouri’s place in the artistic world are summed up in the Christopher Guest film Waiting for Guffman (1996).  The premise of the movie is that the fictional town of Blaine, Missouri is celebrating their 150th anniversary. Christopher Guest’s character, Corky St. Clair, is a former off-Broadway producer who has taken on the role of directing some of the town’s locals in a community theater musical portraying Blaine’s history from covered wagons to industrialization to recent UFO sightings. Hilarity ensues. The Midwest has more to offer than community theater and bad acting is a universal problem, but Waiting for Guffman is a smart and funny portrayal of Midwestern stereotypes. It is especially unabashed in its depiction of Midwestern attitudes towards the arts as naïve, dated, and unrefined. I don’t know if I can bring myself to make the case that Missouri is on the cusp of any artistic movement. In my post-grad move, New York City is a contender. St. Louis is not. When I wear a dress to class (which is more often than not) a fellow  Missourian never fails to ask, “Why are you so dressed up?” No matter how many times I try to explain the breeziness of a dress, the fact that it is only one article of clothing, and therefore half the effort of wearing jeans and a t-shirt, they still look at me as though I have betrayed denim. Missouri is relevant in today’s conversation of theater, music, literature, and art, even if some want to have that conversation in bib overalls.

Until this point, it seems the perspective on artists coming from the Midwest was that they were successful despite being brought up in the middle. Famous Missourians like Robert Altman (director most famous for the film Gosford Park), William Burroughs (beat author most famous for Naked Lunch), and Vincent Price (horror movie actor most famous for mustache) are contributors to their artistic fields without a distinctly Midwestern voice. Missourians Mark Twain and Walt Disney took a route that amplified their Midwestern roots. The argument can be made today that the Midwest fosters an artistic community without needing to capitalize on values deemed wholly Midwestern.

I made the drive from school in Columbia, Missouri to Kansas City, Missouri last weekend specifically to see the open house of The Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. The new building will house the Kansas City Ballet, Lyric Opera, and Kansas City Symphony. Its cultural and architectural impact has already made national news. I headed west on 1-70 and knew I was approaching the city when the pro-choice and anti-pornography billboards became less concentrated. As they dispersed, I saw a billboard with an image of a flexible Tom Sawyer. It was announcing the forthcoming ballet Tom Sawyer to The Kauffman Center in November. My reaction to this billboard was the same as the one I had ten years earlier when my parents sat my brothers and I down, told us that our family vacation to Albuquerque, New Mexico would have to wait for the rising gas prices to fall, and then proceeded to give a frantic pitch for our new locale, Hannibal, Missouri. After weeks of learning to spell Albuquerque, the selling point for Hannibal was supposed to be that it is the birthplace of Mark Twain. My wording may not be completely accurate, but I believe my response was, “Let me get this straight.” I don’t have any aversion to Tom Sawyer or Mark Twain, but it was all too Missouri.

When I explore this further, the silliness of visiting my own state for vacation and seeing a ballet of Tom Sawyer lies in the contradiction of these contexts. A vacation and a ballet are supposed to be means for cultural expansion and the notion that Missouri would enter either seems like a joke. But the arts in Missouri is not a joke to the estimated 50,000 people who stood outside of The Kauffman Center on a rainy September day to get a glimpse of its interior. It is no joke that a Tony-award winning composer chose the heartland’s greatest literary work to express in a new medium so that it will reach audiences again. A community for the arts exists in the Midwest. My evidence for this is not because an expensive structure went up, but in the lines of people outside with umbrellas, the recognition of a Midwestern narrative, and a new “Where are you from?” conversation that does not include the phrase “I don’t even know where that is.” Although, “No, not in Kansas” may always be a part of the dialogue.

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