Goodbye to Folk Alliance…and My Accidental Career

Folk Alliance International just wrapped up its fifth year in Kansas City.

Next year the conference, which attracts thousands of musicians from around the world, heads to Montreal.

And in 2020, the conference heads for parts unknown. That has a nice ring to it. I can relate.

Writing as a guy who literally stumbled into journalism in the late 1970s and who will soon stumble out — or, if you prefer, stumble on — I have to say I will sorely miss the annual FAI conference, which I’ve covered since 2015.

The annual shindig that wrapped up earlier this month at the Westin is not like anything else. It’s not really a festival, although the Folk Alliance plans to continue sponsoring an official, annual Kansas City Folk Festival moving forward. But the conference is it’s own weird thing.

The gathering is one part family reunion and one part schmooze-fest  (“It’s a fucking trade show,” is how one musician pal described it.) For any folk musician — or anyone who can rationalize applying the word “folk” to his or her music — this is the place to be. That covers almost everyone — from solo artists performing real folk songs to hip-hop singers, former rock stars and people patching together disparate genres to create something utterly new.

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Soul/blues duo Hat Fitz and Cara of Australia rocked the house at Folk Alliance International 2018. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The idea is that musicians from across North America and the world convene to perform a series of short showcases to impress music promoters, festival producers, DJs and anyone else in a position to boost somebody’s profile so that they may gain (or regain) “traction” for a career path that could easily lead to obscurity and poverty. Or maybe, just maybe, success.

I’ll miss the chance to meet and rub shoulders with that many musicians within four days of jam-packed performing. Before I became an oh-so-serious arts reporter covering theater and institutionalized arts organizations for the Kansas City Star, I had two roles — B-movie critic and pop music writer. Reviewing bad movies was fun (does anyone out there recall The Incredible Melting Man?) but interviewing musicians was even better.

Musicians tend to be unguarded, spontaneous, impolitic. They give you good quotes simply by thinking out loud. Sometimes they give you epithet-riddled poetry, a little like the playwright David Mamet when he wrote good plays back in the ’80s.

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Mile Twelve, a progressive bluegrass band out of Boston, performs an official showcase at Folk Alliance International 2018. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The decade sandwiched between the rowdy ’70s and corporatized ’90s is rightly recalled as an era of hollow movies and plasticized pop music, but interesting things were happening in Kansas City. Once I visited the old Grand Emporium (near 39th and Main) to review The Legendary Blues Band, the group that for years had backed up Muddy Waters. During a break I scored a quick interview with harmonica player Jerry Portnoy and at one point he stared at me through a cloud of cigarette smoke and said something like: “So you mean they pay you to go out and see shows and write things down in your little book?”

Yep. And it’s been a privilege.

Before I landed a job as a copy clerk at the Star in 1977, where my new employers were no doubt impressed by a resume that included college drop-out and liquor-store clerk, much of my time was spent playing the guitar and listening to Townes van Zandt, Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt on vinyl.

The job got me into the Star newsroom, a din of clattering typewriters and teletype machines where heavy-smoking copy editors ground out their butts on the linoleum floor. It was acceptable for reporters and editors to engage in shouting matches and post-shift drinkathons were a cherished tradition.

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Jayme Stone’s Folk Life reinterprets historic field recordings in a private showcase at Folk Alliance International 2018. From left, Stone (banjo), Joe Phillips (bass), Moira Smiley (accordion) and Sumaia Jackson (fiddle). (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The world was low-tech and manageable. We bought records at PennyLane when it was still on Troost. Carless for two years, we took the bus and we walked. Sometimes I took cabs to movie theaters in Johnson County and KCK to fulfill movie-reviewing assignments.

I scaled the newsroom ladder, moving up to obit writer, then news clerk, then reporter. All along I cranked out movie reviews for the arts desk. In ’83 I formally joined the arts-and-entertainment staff. And that’s when I discovered the pleasures of interviewing musicians — Jay McShann three times in his east Kansas City apartment, Claude Fiddler Williams twice in his east-side home, Eddie Baker at the Charlie Parker Foundation. I talked to Claude “Blues Boss” Long, a blind guitarist, in his small northeast house. Over time I met the members of Colt. 45, Rich Hill, Ida McBeth, Priscilla Bowman, David Basse. The list goes on and on.

And then there were the telephone interviews: Benny Goodman, Lionel Hampton, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, Dolly Parton, Tom Jones, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Mose Allison, Pete Seeger, Taj Majal, Tony Bennett and many more.

Some, like Goodman, could be guarded. But most were open and candid. Once I talked to Tony Joe White, the legendary Louisiana swamp rocker. Back in the day Tony Joe had played gigs in my hometown down in South Texas near the Gulf Coast and about midway through the conversation I said: “Look man, I know who you are. I’m from Kingsville, Texas, and I remember when you played the Inferno Club down there.”

Tony Joe fell silent. And after a long pause he said: “Man, you could’ve told me a thousand things and nothin’ would’ve been as weird as you bein’ from Kingsville, Texas.”

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Canadians share a laugh during an impromptu collaboration in the BreakOut West Room at FAI2018. Celeigh Cardinal (blue dress) and her band perform with Madeleine Roger (center with acoustic guitar) and guitarist Sam Gleason (far right), who plays with Sarah Jane Scouten. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

Musicians aren’t quite as loose at the FAI conference. They’re on tight schedules and they need to impress people with their professionalism as well as their artistry. But a sense of shared happiness and gratitude permeates the gathering. Everyone’s glad to be among their own kind. Everyone’s happy to be part of something bigger than themselves. That’s why I kept coming back, even after I retired from the Star in 2016.

But that’s always been true of musicians. The music is what matters. The music is what lasts. Folk Alliance gives you a chance to see artists perform in ballrooms and tiny hotel rooms, but in every case the music is what lingers. The music works its way into your psyche and into your soul — which, come to think of it, is precisely what it’s supposed to do.

To read my story on the 2018 FAI conference’s protest musicians, click here.

 

 

 

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Folk Alliance International 2018: Music, politics, more music, more politics. And more music.

 

It’s no secret that folkies lean left.

You know the drill: Folkies write the protest songs. They sing the labor songs. They sing about injustice, racism, greed and destruction of the environment. They join hands and sing “Kumbaya” and “We Shall Overcome.”

In fact, the 2017 Folk Music International Conference adopted protest as a theme. But this year the organization celebrates 30 years of existence. And according to FAI executive director Aengus Finnan, the fundamental purpose remains the same: For musicians to experience a sense of solidarity and community. The conference goals, he wrote in his welcome letter, is not fundamentally different from the very first gathering three decades ago in Malibu.

“We must also collectively acknowledge and address the chronic issues of harassment and discrimination that continue to plague the music industry, of which folk music is no exception,” Finnan wrote. “We can do better in all regards, but it requires dialogue and commitment . . . Let’s not just be leaders, but let’s do what is right as we set course for the next 30 years.”

This year the political vibes were palpable. As Finnan said, a sense of community coalesces at the annual gathering, and that’s a good thing for musicians who spend a big part of their lives on the road for modest financial rewards. The conference always feels a bit like a family reunion. And at a time when a lot of politicians are working overtime to divide people, community matters.

As usual, the coming together of the tribes attracted musicians from across the U.S. as well as Ireland, Britain, Australia and Canada.  Bands from Sweden and Norway were on hand. So was an Italian guitarist and another from Holland. A vocal group from Zimbabwe attended. While it was possible to hear actual folk songs, the music spanned a wide spectrum, from rock to hip-hop to “progressive” bluegrass.

Next year the conference moves to Montreal but will return to KC in 2021. Where it will be in 2020 has not been announced.

The 2018 conference spanned four days (Feb. 13-17) at the Westin Kansas City at Crown Center. Musicians filled the hotel lobby with spontaneous jam sessions day and night. Private showcases ran on tight schedules in the afternoons and wee hours on three floors upstairs, while prime-time hours were devoted to “official” showcases in the downstairs ballrooms as well as Benton’s (the former steakhouse) and a new venue this year — the terrace level with the big rock formation and bubbling water an escalator ride up from the lobby.

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Anais Mitchell performs with Rachel Ries at the keyboard at Folk Alliance.  (Photo by Donna Trussell)

The political zeitgeist expressed itself early and often, most notably in the closing minutes of a standing-room-only showcase by Anais Mitchell, the exceptional songwriter whose mix of emotional vulnerability and steely determination has melded many a male and female admirer’s heart. Accompanied by her longtime friend and fellow singer/songwriter Rachel Ries (aka Her Crooked Heart) on keyboard as well as Brooklyn record producer Alec Spiegelman on bass clarinet, Mitchell turned to one of her most potent songs: “Why We Build the Wall.” It comes from “Hadestown,” Mitchell’s folk-opera retelling of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth. Hades, king of the underworld, performs a call-and-response with his people about what seems to be an eternal public works project meant to “keep out the enemy.”

As she introduced the tune, Mitchell allowed that some listeners might perceive certain parallels between Hades and the current occupant of the White House, even though she wrote the song years before a Trump presidency was conceivable to anyone except clairvoyants, comedians and schizophrenics.

“Not everything is about him,” she said.

Then she proceeded to sing as Hades: “Why do we build the wall, my children, my children? Why do we build the wall?”

To which she replied as the chorus: “Why do we build the wall?/We build the wall to keep us free/That’s why we build the wall.”

Mitchell’s parable of state paranoia triggered a visceral reaction from a vocal audience. Elsewhere at the conference I saw a man carrying an enormous sign that read: “Trump That Boy Don’t Act Right” and met someone else wearing a button with the same slogan. Personally, I emerged from the exhibition hall wearing a “Woody Guthrie for President” lapel pin. That would be the same Woody Guthrie who wrote “This Machine Kills Fascists” on his guitar.

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From left, Seth Bernard, Alex Spiegelman and Ana Egge share a private showcase slot at the Folk Alliance International 2018 conference. (Donna Trussell)

The night before Mitchell’s show, Spiegelman offered a tune of his own, “Kelly Anne,” an ode to White House flack Kellyanne Conway, the “Garden State blueberry princess” who learned to show her boss “that she could talk like a man.” “She knows the difference between a story that’s good for us and one that’s true,” Spiegelman sang.

Minutes later, impassioned songwriter Seth Bernard, who shared the time slot with Spiegelman, Ana Egge and Mark Lavengood, sacrificed his last chance to perform a song in order to voice a plea to the small audience. To paraphrase: Things get worse by inches until finally there’s a “paradigm shift.”  At that point people have had enough and band together to make a change. He urged all Americans to reject propaganda, accept the hard facts about the history of racism and genocide in this country and to be guided by love to make a healing contribution.

Canadians, who were well represented at the conference, are usually too polite to comment on American politics. But not always. At an afternoon showcase in the Breakout West Room, singer Adrian Glynn of The Fugitives introduced the band’s song “No Words,” a tribute to Leonard Cohen, by saying that when he heard the news that the great songwriter had passed, he was so shaken that he sat on his bed and stared at the wall for five hours.

“But that might have been the day Trump was elected,” he deadpanned. (Mr. Cohen died Nov. 7, 2016. Trump, perhaps supported by Russian bots and hackers, was elected the next day. I gather it’s not uncommon for people in shock to conflate tragedies.)

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Chris Lee Becker, center, performs in the Oklahoma Room at the 2018 Folk Alliance International conference. (Donna Trussell)

A late-night visit to the always-soulful Oklahoma Room offered a chance to hear Chris Lee Becker, a Tulsa songwriter I’ve admired since listening to him on a compilation CD three years ago. Becker, a blunt but consistently surprising lyricist who writes compassionately about people on the margins, has the look of a burly trucker.

He described his tune “Stigmata” as a song about misogyny, which he first performed at last year’s conference because Trump had been elected. “And why is he still there?” Becker said with a tone of simmering outrage.

Later in the set, Becker blanked on the lyrics to one of his songs and the music came to a temporary halt. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This shooting (in Parkland, Fla.) has really gotten to me.”

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Ken Pomeroy, left, impressed listeners with the honesty of her lyrics. She performed in the Oklahoma Room at FAI18 in Kansas City. (Photo by Donna Trussell)

 

I discovered someone else in the Oklahoma Room: Ken Pomeroy, a young woman who sang with mournful eloquence of the folksinger’s life — and how itinerant artists can lean on each other if nobody else is available.

“Rolling chords and packing gear/All my folk friends got a friendly ear/
They’ve all got my back,” she sang in “Livin’ the Dream.” “They’ve got mine and I’ve got theirs/In this cruel world I know somebody cares.”
Indeed. Sometimes knowing somebody cares makes all the difference.

 

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Brooklyn-based singer/songwriter Dayna Kurtz performs a late-night private showcase at the 2018 FAI conference. (Donna Trussell)

The following night, earthy singer-songwriter Dayna Kurtz of Brooklyn began an after-hours private showcase with “a drinking song about the apocalypse . . .  I seem to be writing a lot of drinking songs about the apocalypse these days.”

Her song questioned what Jesus would think if he could see the state of the world.

“If Jesus comes back he’d be shaking his head,” she sang. “As we search for the missing and count all our dead/He’d say ‘did you or didn’t you hear what I said?’/ If Jesus comes back he’ll be shaking his head.”

The excellent Swedish band Kolonien, which made its American debut at the conference had nothing to say about Trump but took time to explain the group’s political roots. In the beginning the band, comprised of two brothers, a cousin and a neighbor, focused exclusively on green politics. Message was more important than melody. Gradually Kolonien evolved to embrace a larger world view and a sophisticated musical vocabulary.

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The Swedish band Kolonien combines excellent musicianship with hopeful political messages. (Donna Trussell)

But in performance Kolonien dropped plenty of hints about their likely view of Trumpism.

“We start with a song about tearing down walls and building bridges,” they said to enthusiastic applause.

Guitarist Arvid Rask introduced a song he wrote about one of his forebears who emigrated from Sweden to the U.S at time when Sweden lost a third of its population. He dedicated the song “to the people from Sweden who traveled here for a better life. And to the people coming to Europe. And the people now coming from the south to your country.”

That triggered another wave of applause.

Rask and the other members of Kolonien spoke English well. But they, like so many of their fellow musicians at the conference, spoke protest even better.

For more information on Folk Alliance International, visit www.folk.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The fate of the nation: It’s all showbiz

BY ROBERT TRUSSELL

I just love it when reality and fantasy collide.

Luckily for me, we live at a time when it’s almost impossible to tell the difference. Objectivity barely exists in public discourse, and the daily media-political mashup is the equivalent of a demolition derby.

“Politics is show business for ugly people,” analyst Paul Begala reportedly said in the ’90s. True enough, but the politics-as-showbiz era started long before.

If you want to pinpoint the moment when political decorum began its long downhill slide, then I vote for Richard Nixon’s two-second appearance on “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-in” in 1968 when he was running for president.

Nixon looked at the camera and deadpanned the show’s signature line with an incredulous tone: “Sock it to me?”

nixon-featThink of Tricky Dick’s novel decision to lower himself to the garish world of show business as a pebble bouncing down a mountainside that would be followed in time by a relentless avalanche.

Nixon was a legitimate political leader — a former vice president who had served in both the U.S. House and Senate — and his appearance on a prime-time variety show that riffed on ’60s counterculture was an amusing anomaly. And it raised an obvious question: Didn’t the candidate have better things to do? Crafting position papers on the Vietnam War, perhaps, or the nuclear arms race?

But Nixon had learned his lesson. In his earlier bid for the White house in 1960 he met in a series of televised debates with the future president, John F. Kennedy. The medium chewed him up and spit him out.

The debates trumped rhetoric with visuals: the relaxed, articulate Kennedy vs. the ill-at-ease Nixon, whose 5 o’clock shadow and sweaty face made him look scared and indecisive. By ’68, he’d wised up. Now he meant to be in control. He would use the medium, not the other way around.

Politicians were still figuring out how to dance with the succubus of television in the ’50s and ’60s because politics and TV were seen as separate worlds. Politics was serious business, historical clay being modeled by dour white men in dark suits in the Oval Office and the halls of Congress. TV was a box in your living room where you could watch rigged game shows, aging comedians hosting variety hours or Marshal Dillon blowing away frontier sociopaths.

One thing TV did have was journalists — a gallery of grumpy middle-aged guys who were credited with presenting something close to objective reality through the evening news and Sunday panel shows. Anchors were not yet considered stars. Journalists were not exactly celebrities. Not yet.

The politics-as-showbiz era began in earnest in 1980, when Ronald Reagan, a former Hollywood actor and TV pitchman, won the White House.

Reagan was an adequate actor in movies (his last feature-film role was as the heavy in “The Killers,” a 1964 Don Siegel crime flick with Lee Marvin, John Cassavetes and Angie Dickinson), but I think most Republicans and Democrats would agree that his greatest performance was as President Ronald Reagan.

Reagan never lost his handsome jawline — he always looked great in a Stetson — and at the podium spoke with a conviction that betrayed no hint of hypocrisy, no dissembling, just pure starry-eyed belief in the shining city on a hill. Sometimes that could be a little scary.

In 1980 he sat for an interview with televangelist Jim Bakker on “The PTL Club” in a bid to curry favor with evangelical voters and declared that “we may be the generation that sees Armageddon” — a cheery thought from a guy who would soon have access to nuclear launch codes.

Whether Reagan really believed everything that came out of his mouth is a question for historians to answer. But like any great pitchman, he made us believe that he believed.

After Reagan completed his two terms, during which he theatrically pursued a program of deregulation, tax cuts, defense spending and saber-rattling, I held out hope that we could watch him resume his acting career. Chalk it up to my weakness for post-modern weirdness. Just think if he had been available for, say, “Independence Day” or “Armageddon.” How wonderful it would have been to watch the roster of stars in the opening credits conclude with: “And Ronald Reagan as the President.”

No doubt about it, Reagan led the way. He showed us that qualifications didn’t matter. There’s just one goal: Become a celebrity. Be a salesman. In the words of playwright David Mamet, always be closing.

These days news people interview each other. Actors pretend to be journalists. Presidents go on talk shows. Politicians and celebs alike snort airtime like cokeheads. Stephen Colbert, like his mentor Jon Stewart, has become an obligatory TV stop for power-seekers, except now he’s talking to talking heads on a late-night network broadcast instead of a late-night basic cable comedy show.

Barack Obama, a sitting president, agreed to appear on daytime gabfest “The View.” And why not? Obama is the most TV-friendly president in history. It’s hard to name a talk show he hasn’t gone on.

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George and Laura Bush calculatedly demeaned themselves by sitting for an interview with Dr. Phil — the celebrity psychologist who became a star after appearances on Oprah Winfrey’s talk show — to discuss parenting.

Earlier, candidate Bill Clinton in his 1992 race for the White House put on a pair of sunglasses and played “Heartbreak Hotel” on the sax for Arsenio Hall’s TV audience.

Think about that for a minute. Try to imagine President Dwight D. Eisenhower going on “What’s My Line?” or “I’ve Got a Secret.”

We now live in an age when anyone can become an actor and any celebrity can run for office. For a Republican Watergate lawyer and U.S. senator, Fred Thompson was a pretty good actor as long as he played characters that were a lot like Fred Thompson. Sonny Bono was a pretty good congressman for a ’60s pop singer.

When the current GOP presidential candidates lined up for televised debates, it was tough to see them as anything but deadpan comedians.

There was Donald Trump, former reality TV star and “self-made” jillionaire, jutting his jaw as if posing for a Roman bust. Many a blogger compared Carly Fiorina’s demeanor to Cruella de Vil. And Jeb Bush, looking like a deer caught in the headlights, wishing he could rent a thimble of Trump’s charisma.

This is where we are: Politics as performance art.

There is a wild card out there, though: Bernie Sanders. His rumpled persona falls far short of movie-star translucence, and the pundits all say he doesn’t have a chance.

But I have to say the idea of a debate between Bernie and the Donald would make some fine television.

This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on Oct. 3, 2015. Go to www.kansascity.com

Acting is hard, and living on an actor’s income is even harder

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

To be an itinerant is the actor’s lot.

It was true in Shakespeare’s day, when strolling players would travel from town to town and perform in village squares or barns. And in a sense it’s every bit as true today.

One night Rusty Sneary, an actor and the artistic director of the Living Room, took the stage for his customary pre-curtain opening-night remarks and thanked the audience for being there.

But he also thanked the volunteers. Without them, Sneary told the crowd, these shows wouldn’t be possible. The audience that night in June had gathered to see “The Death of Cupid,” director/playwright Kyle Hatley’s exploration of Greek and Roman mythology, and the cast was enormous: More than 30 performers, most of whom had worked professionally in Kansas City. A couple — Vanessa Severo and Katie Gilchrist — were members of Actors Equity Association, the union for actors and stage managers.

Sneary welcomed donations and said the company’s goal was to be on a firm financial footing so that in the future the volunteers could be paid for their services.

Sneary later said in an interview that by “volunteers” he didn’t just mean people to tear tickets and work the bar. He was referring to the actors, none of whom was paid except the two Equity members.

“We’ve been striving from the beginning to be a supportive theater for the artists in this community,” Sneary said. “We’ve been incredibly blessed and inspired by a multitude of amazing artists who have done this just for the love.”

Sneary said the Living Room wanted to be a “bridge theater” to help talented young performers establish themselves.

“Other directors know they can come here and discover new talent,” Sneary said. “It makes us very happy for young artists to show what they can do and go on to be hired by the Rep or the Unicorn or any of the other wonderful theaters around town.”

Actors in Kansas City fall roughly into three categories: Full-fledged members of Actors Equity; non-Equity professionals; and actors who work for nothing either for the love of it or to gain experience. Some performers have feet in more than one camp.

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre employed a large, mainly non-Equity cast. Frome left, Jessica Franz, Kyle Dyck, Whitaker Hoar (foreground), Donovan Kidd, Jordan Fox and Alan Tilson.

The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre employed a large, mainly non-Equity cast. Frome left, Jessica Franz, Kyle Dyck, Whitaker Hoar (foreground), Donovan Kidd, Jordan Fox and Alan Tilson.

Actors Equity, founded in 1913, sets pay rates and ranks theater companies in terms of seating capacity and box-office revenues, among other factors. According to Equity, membership can happen two ways: An actor can be offered an Equity contract by a theater company, which automatically makes the performer eligible for membership; or actors can participate in the Equity membership candidate program, by which a non-Equity actor can register and eventually become eligible for membership after working 50 weeks at participating theaters.

Equity membership in the Kansas City area includes 183 actors and stage managers and 132 candidates.

Kansas City Repertory Theatre, the city’s leading professional theater, is a C-level company in the League of Resident Theatres, and pays a minimum of $731 a week for actors performing at the Spencer Theatre, less at the Rep’s downtown venue, Copaken Stage, which has fewer seats. In contrast, Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, which operates with a small-theater contract, pays $322 a week to Equity performers. Some theaters pay less.

Clearly, professional stage actors aren’t getting rich. Starlight Theatre, which sometimes produces its own shows, pays the highest weekly Equity minimums in the area — $922. Even if an actor could work at that salary every week of the year — and none do — he or she would still fall below the national median household income of $51,017.

The New Theatre Restaurant in Overland Park offers one of the best pay rates for actors in the area: About $590 a week for Equity members, more for principal performers and probably much more for guest stars. What makes New Theatre attractive to actors is its long runs. One show can offer as much as three months of steady work. Other theaters in Kansas City rarely run a show more than four weeks. Most run three.

Non-Equity professionals are customarily paid less than their union counterparts, although one company — Quality Hill Playhouse — makes a point of paying Equity and non-Equity actors the same rate. Another, Kansas City Actors Theater, pays non-Equity actors better than most other small theaters — about $400 a week.

“That was part of the founders’ commitment, to pay from the get-go a living wage,” said John Rensenhouse, KCAT’s managing director who is a member of Equity.

But often nonunion actors earn less than half what their Equity counterparts are paid. The MET doesn’t pay non-Equity actors a weekly rate but instead pays a stipend of $350 to $1,500 per show, which is determined by the actor’s experience and the size of the role.

Equity proscribes weekly minimums for union actors, although some performers can negotiate a higher rate. But that’s not always feasible at smaller theaters operating on tight budgets.

“We don’t do a lot of negotiating, because we can’t,” said Cynthia Levin, artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre. “If we paid people what they were worth, it would be a different business.”

Daria LeGrand, left, a non-Equity actress, performed with Equity member Vanessa Severo in "The Death of Cupid."

Daria LeGrand, left, a non-Equity actress, performed with Equity member Vanessa Severo in “The Death of Cupid.”

Money defines the difference between professional and community theater — although the pay can be negligible even for Equity members. An Equity actor performing on “special appearance” contract at a small theater can earn as little as $215 a week.

But some young actors who are not yet union members prefer the freedom to perform in shows for no pay if it’s a show they really want to do.

“I don’t want to be Equity,” said actor Coleman Crenshaw, who has appeared at professional companies, including the MET and the Coterie, but has also performed at community theaters for no compensation.

“I never wanted to be. And I don’t think it’s very good for the business anymore. I think it definitely has a place if you’re in a bigger market. If you’re in New York or L.A. or Chicago, you pretty much have to be Equity just to get into the auditions. In a smaller market like Kansas City, it limits what some theaters can do. And it limits your opportunities.”

In the last year or so Crenshaw played the title role in “Hamlet” for the Alcott Arts Center in Kansas City, Kan., and the lead in “Les Liaisons Dangereuses” for the Barn Players, one of the oldest community theaters in the area. He was paid for neither performance and couldn’t have played those choice roles had he been in the union. Plus, no professional theater in town was likely to produce either title.

“Some of those dream roles … are on my list,” he said. “As I’m getting older I’m going to lose my ability to do those, so it affords me a lot more flexibility to work for free.”

A few actors have chosen to drop their Equity membership.

Bob Paisley, a co-founder of the MET, said after he formed a separate small company, Central Standard Theatre, he found himself in the curious position of hiring himself. When he appeared in “Driving Miss Daisy,” as the producer he had to post a bond covering two weeks of his own salary.

“Since I was only working for MET or myself, it didn’t make a lot of sense for me to stay a member of the union,” he said. “It was costing me money and it wasn’t getting me anywhere.”

Most actors based here, even the most successful, have other sources of income — either through day jobs, gainfully employed spouses or nonstage work acting in commercials, print ads or regionally shot films.

“I’ve found that temp agencies are great,” said Crenshaw, who also teaches and is an assistant property manager for the apartment building where he lives.

Kyle Dyck, a 27-year-old actor currently appearing in (and getting paid) for “The Rainmaker” at the MET, has signed up for shows for which he earned nothing — notably, “Titus Andronicus” and the first version of “Carousel” at the Living Room.

“Because I have a steady day job — I’m a handyman — it frees me up financially to be able to do things like that,” Dyck said. “When I choose to do a show I don’t get paid for, there’s a lot of value artistically for me.

“One of my favorite places to work is the Living Room, and every time I work there it’s extremely fulfilling. It’s always nice to get paid for what you do, but that’s the least of my worries when I work for a place like that.”

Dyck plans to join the union before making the move to New York in a couple of years. Until then, he wants to remain flexible.

Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, said the company has been committed from the beginning to making sure everyone working on a show got paid something.

“There’s a difference between community theater and small professional theater,” she said. “When we started we established a bar, and our bar was that every single person would be compensated, no matter how small your job or how new you were at it, because this is not a hobby.”

And she’s also been able to attract some of the city’s best Equity actors, including Cheryl Weaver, Robert Gibby Brand, Scott Cordes and Katie Gilchrist.

“The Equity actors appreciate coming here because it’s the material and the atmosphere that allows them to do something different,” Paisley said.

One of the advantages of Equity membership is health insurance. But Equity requires actors to work 20 weeks a year before they can use it. If you don’t get your 20 weeks, your contributions have paid for somebody else’s insurance.

There was a time when Missouri Repertory Theatre operated as a true repertory company. Like the Kansas City Ballet, which maintains a company of dancers, the Rep in the ’60s and ’70s hired a group of actors for the length of the season, all of whom performed in most of the shows, which were performed in a complicated rotating schedule. The season usually provided enough Equity weeks for actors to get insurance.

That relative job security is hard for actors to find these days.

Sneary, a member of Equity, said when he performs at the Living Room on a “special appearance” contract, he usually just donates his minimal pay to the fledgling company.

And he appreciates the donated talents of the the nonunion actors as well as the Equity performers who have worked for small compensation at the Living Room.

“As an Equity actor and as a producer, I would love to pay all the actors who have worked for us much more,” he said. “As a producer I’m humbled by what the artists working for us bring. This city is growing, and it’s a wonderful theater city because of that commitment.”