Hometown success story; Northland native Jessalyn Kincaid finds steady, satisfying work on Kansas City stages.

Posted May 11, 2008

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Jessalyn Kincaid drew a blank.

Somebody asked her what she does to relax. She had to think for a minute

“Down time?” she said in a tone that suggested a struggle to take in the concept. She tossed out a few bits of information. She crochets. She cooks. She collects cookbooks. She enjoys doing laundry. She keeps journals, but not every day and only about certain subjects. She prefers real letters to e-mail and makes her own greeting cards.

“I don’t really go out,” she said. “I don’t know. It’s not very glamorous.”

Jessalyn Kincaid and Darren Kennedy in "Perfect Wedding" (Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star)

Finally she got around to the heart of it: For Kincaid, one of the busiest actresses in Kansas City, her work is her down time.

“I enjoy it recreationally,” she said. “It’s not something I feel like I have to go do. I was at Planet Sub the other day, sitting there waiting for my sandwich, and I saw all these people file in, obviously on their one-hour lunch break, and they looked so sad. They were all in these bad suits and really uncomfortable pumps. It was awful. I almost couldn’t eat.”

She offered another thought on the subject: “You cannot completely distance your work from your life. I am my work….Actors are kind of weird and neurotic anyway, across the board — and I include myself in that.”

OK, so actors have to be a little crazy to do what they do. In Kincaid’s case, it seems to be a good kind of crazy, because the 30-year-old Equity actress is on a roll.

This year she was in the musical “Married Alive!” at the New Theatre. Now she’s in “Perfect Wedding,” a farce at the American Heartland Theatre. Then she’ll go back to the New Theatre for the company’s big summer musical, “All Shook Up,” a retelling of “Twelfth Night” with Elvis songs.

Last year she delivered three exceptional performances — Ado Annie, the girl who just can’t say no, in “Oklahoma!” at the New Theatre; a manic terrier in “A Dog’s Life,” a musical at the Heartland; and a precocious 10-year-old in the nostalgic memory play “Leaving Iowa,” also at the Heartland.

Before that she registered one of her finest comic performances as the acerbic Blue Fairy in the Coterie’s “Geppetto & Son,” one of three productions in which she appeared in 2006. And she was in three shows in 2005, including Late Night Theatre’s “The Show Formerly Known as Purple Rain,” in which she was unforgettable as Prince, and “The Dinosaur Show,” a wacky musical at the Coterie.

Considering the average attendance at theaters where Kincaid has been the busiest — 50,000 for a run at the New Theatre, 16,000 at the Heartland, 11,500 at the Coterie — she has been seen by more local theatergoers in the last three years than your typical Kansas City actor.

“I’ve been incredibly fortunate,” Kincaid said. “I’m booked through September. It’s an anomaly. It doesn’t happen. It’s a rare thing.”

Jessalyn Kincaid in "Perfect Wedding" (Rich Sugg/Kansas City Star)

Paul Hough, who directed “Perfect Wedding,” offered a partial explanation for her success. He said Kincaid has a no-nonsense work ethic and can cut directly to the meaning of a line or the heart of a scene. That, Hough said, is crucial when he has only two weeks to rehearse a show.

“She’s very low-maintenance,” Hough said. “That’s not true of everybody.”

Kincaid was born and raised in Kansas City. Her father, who died in a car accident when she was 12, worked for parks departments in Clay County and Kansas City. But her parents, who lived in the Northland, were weekend singers who always took her with them when they performed at the Renaissance Festival. They would attract audiences by dressing her up as a little waif and having her stand in plain view of the crowd filing past their booth.

“I imagine it was terribly cute,” she said. “I honestly don’t remember that. I remember there was one of those little Renaissance Festival theaters right next door to us. And I would always scoot over there and watch the shows. There was a production of ‘Rumpelstiltskin,’ and I would watch every performance of it for nine weeks. I loved it.”

Her stage work — demonstrative and uninhibited — gives no clue to what she described as excessive shyness during part of her childhood. For a year she spoke only to her parents and grandparents. Other people made her want to run and hide.

“She was always one of the most dramatic little children I ever saw,” said Susan Davis, her mother. At the same time, “she was a very quiet child, very introspective.”

Jessalyn was so quiet, Davis said, that at one point she attached bells to her daughter’s shoes so she could keep track of her in the house.

But Jessalyn also had a fiercely independent side. She wanted to do things for herself.

“I was thinking of her first full sentence: ‘I do it all byself me,’ ” Davis said. “She never wanted any help doing anything.”

Kincaid’s early school years were spent at the Schoolhouse, a private school in Independence. Kincaid said the enrollment was small, and the place had a home-school feel. At the same time, she went everywhere her parents went, including the Renaissance Festival; Missouri Town 1855, a re-creation of a mid-19th-century Missouri frontier town where her father worked as a fur trapper re-enactor; and any singing engagement they lined up.

It was a unique childhood.

At North Kansas City High School, Davis said, Jessalyn threw herself into choir and drama, arriving at school early and staying late. (She later married high school friend and actor-musician Ry Kincaid. )

Kincaid attended Drury College in Springfield and changed majors a few times before graduating with a degree in secondary education in theater. In college she played dramatic roles. Her favorites were May in Sam Shepard’s “Fool for Love” and the title role in August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.”

In Kansas City, Kincaid has yet to be offered a role in a serious drama.

“Not even close,” she said. “People in Kansas City like to classify you, and they like to know what they’re working with and know what you do, and that’s what you do forevermore. And maybe it’s like that in every job. But I know every actor in town wants to do what they don’t do regularly.

“I want to play Maggie in ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.’ You know, when I’m ready, I want to do that. I don’t always want to be a little dog chasing my tail.”

And how has she been typed?

“I’m the sassy, brassy sidekick — you know, loud, roll around on the floor — that’s what I do,” she said. “And if there’s a belting song in the middle of it, all the better.”

That’s why “Perfect Wedding” marks a change of pace. For starters, it’s not a musical. It’s a farce about multiple cover-ups in a honeymoon suite on a couple’s wedding day. Everything goes wrong when the groom wakes up in bed with someone other than his fiancée. Kincaid plays that someone.

It isn’t the play’s most overtly comic female role, but it’s oneKincaid lobbied for because it was going to be a stretch for her. She’s not the goofy sidekick. She’s the “normal” girl.

As for her career: “I think in the back of my mind I always thought that if I could work full time, that was pretty much my goal,” she said. “Now I’m here. And I’m only 30. It’s like, ‘Oh, gosh, that’s awesome; what do I do next?’ ”

It’s not uncommon for young actors to migrate to New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, but Kincaid isn’t sure that would be her best choice — especially when she observes the work of veteran actors who have stayed in Kansas City.

“I could very well stay here the rest of my life,” she said. “You know, there’s Cathy Barnett, Deb Bluford, Jim Korinke, Melinda MacDonald — they’ve made tremendous careers doing exactly that. And I don’t know that that wouldn’t make me happy.”

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