Hooked on crooks: How ‘Breaking Bad’ created a bona fide binge-watcher

This article originally appeared in the Kansas City Star on March 22, 2014.
By ROBERT TRUSSELL

The Kansas City Star

It took awhile, but I finally went over to the dark side.

There’s nothing new about binge-watching — Netflix says it’s here to stay — but I could never get myself to take the plunge.

Until recently.

I was defeated in a war of attrition. I broke down, upgrading my Netflix account to the two-DVDs-at-once plan. Then my wife and I took another ominous step. We ordered Apple TV, hooked it up to our 8-year-old TV and to our amazement discovered that it worked.

Now a universe of movies and TV series is available at the touch of a finger. We’re free to roam the Netflix streaming library. Delayed gratification is a thing of the past. And it didn’t take long to discover that I wasn’t alone. In fact, I was late to the party. But then I usually am.

I took an early plunge with “The Sopranos” just before its third season.

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano. (HBO)

James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano.

We hadn’t watched the iconic show about New Jersey gangsters trying to acquire the trappings of suburban respectability until HBO ginned up interest in the new episodes by running a marathon of Seasons 1 and 2. The TV happened to be on. We happened to have HBO on the screen. And we happened to watch one episode. And then we watched another. And then another.

After consuming a couple of years of “Sopranos” episodes in a single day, there was no choice but to become regular viewers.

Last year we immersed ourselves in the “House of Cards” experience. We weren’t set up for streaming yet, so we watched the entire first season on DVDs as fast as Netflix could get them to us.

The addictive narrative about an American politician scheming, lying and murdering his way into the White House offered just the right mix of elements to keep us hooked. It was smart. It was sophisticated. It was lurid. And it put some great actors together with some distinguished directors. What more could you ask for?

But then we discovered “Breaking Bad,” the AMC series about a schoolteacher in New Mexico who becomes a meth dealer after his lung-cancer diagnosis.

The show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, has said the fictitious idea was to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. Evidently he hit a chord. The show now has a permanent place in pop culture.

You can buy T-shirts advertising Los Pollos Hermanos, the fried-chicken franchise that fronted a drug-smuggling empire. Or shirts with the image of Heisenberg, schoolteacher Walter White’s drug-dealer persona, looking pretty scary in his sunglasses and black porkpie hat.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White. (AMC)

Bryan Cranston as Walter White.

Once again, we were late to the party. It was months after AMC broadcast the final episode that we began watching. It was all because of our friend Julie, a cancer survivor in Leawood. She insisted we had to watch the show. She and her husband, Terry, had consumed the entire series in a matter of weeks. Now she wanted us to watch it so we could share her obsession.

My wife, Donna, was unconvinced.

“I don’t know,” she said. “A high school teacher who becomes a drug dealer? It just sounds so contrived.”

“Just watch it,” Julie insisted.

“But …”

Just watch it.”

So we did — more out of loyalty to Julie than curiosity.

But viewing the episodes in order was a challenge. Netflix had a “very long wait” for Season 1, Disc 1. Area libraries, same problem. We had no choice but to buy the first season on disc.

So, Season 1 in hand, we started watching. Then we watched some more. Before long the show about chemistry teacher Walter White and high school dropout Jesse Pinkman wading into a world of meth addiction, murder and organized crime had us — well, hooked. We’d watch three or four episodes in one sitting. The other seasons were readily available on Netflix, so we began working through them. There were painful days, inevitably, when there was no red envelope waiting in the mailbox.

Julie understood.

“You won’t want to stop,” she said.

When Julie and Terry were in the grip of their “Breaking Bad” binge, they structured their weekends around the show. Friends would invite them to dinner but they’d say, “No, we have plans.” After all, there were unwatched episodes just waiting to be loaded into Terry’s Blu-ray player.

“I would say the show is as addictive as blue meth is to addicts,” Julie said.

At one point they began to toss around Jesse Pinkman’s favored epithet.

“We walk around the house saying, ‘Hey, bitch, you ready?’ ” she said.

And Julie, the most kindhearted person I know, found herself identifying on some level with monomaniacal Walter as he metamorphosed from unremarkable high school teacher to murderous, power-hungry sociopath.

“There were things about his cancer diagnosis that I related to,” Julie said. “Going through chemo and being sick I could kind of relate to. I don’t think I’d be able to put a bullet in someone’s head, but you know …”

The word “binge,” of course, has a pejorative ring to it. It’s a word to describe eating a package of Oreos in one sitting or knocking off two or three bottles of wine before the 10 o’clock news.

But what if you decided to read “The Odyssey” and “The Iliad” back to back one summer? Would that be considered “binge reading”?

Watching Kevin Spacey as Francis Underwood claw his way to power on “House of Cards” inevitably brings William Shakespeare to mind. Francis and Richard III have a few things in common.

images-2

Richard III meets Lady Macbeth: Kevin Spacey & Robin Wright in “House of Cards.” (Netflix)

Indeed, long before anyone had heard of TV bingeing, the Bard set a precedent of sorts with his history plays about the succession of English monarchs in the Middle Ages. Shakespeare wrote eight plays that form a continuous narrative from the reign of Richard II to the rule of Henry VI. Now and then a brave or foolhardy theater company — usually in Britain — takes it upon itself to stage all of them.

Some companies like to pair two of Shakespeare’s Roman history plays, “Julius Caesar” and “Antony and Cleopatra,” with one actor playing Antony in both. On matinee days audiences could sit through both with a dinner break in-between.

Eugene O’Neill had a penchant for writing plays that clocked in at more than four hours. And some contemporary playwrights have created binge-like viewing experiences with epic dramas, including Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America” and Robert Schenkkan’s “The Kentucky Cycle,” both of which must be viewed as two full-length plays.

But nobody in theater or film had ever produced anything quite like “Breaking Bad,” which followed a clear thematic progression and coherent narrative from beginning to end.

“Shakespearean” is an apt description. Each episode was an existential journey into darkness, as cerebral as it was lurid. And the show religiously adhered to Gilligan’s original vision: to turn a protagonist into an antagonist as the series progressed.

Responding to questions by email, Gilligan said he, the actors and his team of writers and directors all were committed to Walter White’s journey.

“When it became clear in Season 4 that Walter White’s story was headed toward its natural conclusion, we didn’t fight or ignore that realization,” Gilligan said. “It’s important to know when to call it quits.”

Gilligan, by the way, says he’s not much of a binge-watcher — with one notable exception.

“Every New Year’s Eve, the SyFy Channel broadcasts a marathon of the original ‘Twilight Zone’ episodes, which I wind up consuming one right after the other, like potato chips, for hours on end,” he said.

“It doesn’t seem to matter that I already own every episode, uncut and commercial-free, on pristine Blu-ray and can watch them anytime I like. I can’t quite figure out why I do that. It’s turned into a bit of holiday tradition for me, I guess.”

But Gilligan in no way underestimates the power of binge-watching and what it says about the way we now consume television shows and movies.

“No matter how old-fashioned I may be personally, I am foursquare behind the concept of binge-watching,” he said. “I think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. ‘Breaking Bad’ benefited immensely from it — and perhaps was ultimately saved by it. Binge-watching transformed my career.”

As for Spacey, an executive producer on “House of Cards,” he was quoted recently saying that while his show didn’t start the bingeing phenomenon, Netflix did set a precedent by releasing an entire season at once so people could stream every episode if they chose.

“I think it goes to say how much an audience is really digging being in control and being able to treat a series the way they treat a novel,” Spacey said. “(They) pick it up when they want to pick it up and put it down when they want to put it down.”

Since then I’ve explored other binge candidates. We watched the complete “Luther,” a British police procedural starring Idris Elba as a detective with a history of mental problems and ethical lapses who nonetheless nabs a serial killer by the end of each episode.

I’ve watched a couple of episodes of “Ripper Street,” a blood-spattered depiction of police detectives in 1889 London.

We checked out “Dexter,” another show I never watched when it was in production. It’s enthusiastically grotesque and somehow invites the word “lighthearted” in its depiction of a serial killer who only kills murderers who got away with it.

And I checked out “The Walking Dead,” another AMC show, about the zombie apocalypse; plenty of action, but too much time spent on humorless survival-camp politics for my taste.

So what are the “Breaking Bad” fans supposed to do? No other show has offered such a consistent, dramatically coherent through line. No other show could draw viewers into an extreme-yet-plausible narrative with such skill.

“There’s an intensity, of course, when you watch back-to-back episodes,” said Paul Tyler, grants director for the Arts Council of Metropolitan Kansas City. Tyler said he and his wife didn’t discover “Breaking Bad” until the third season, so they watched the first two in a frenzy on DVDs.

“ ‘Breaking Bad’ is one of the best things we’ve ever seen on TV,” Tyler said. “The realism of the show made it all so believable. And the consistency and the arc of those characters over such a long period of time was really phenomenal.”

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in "Breaking Bad" (AMC)

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in “Breaking Bad” (AMC)

In the interest of something — let’s call it closure — we invited Julie and Terry to watch the final two episodes of “Breaking Bad” with us.

The doorbell rang, I opened the door, and there they were — wearing T-shirts showing the periodic table of elements, a reference to the show’s unique credits. And Terry was wearing sunglasses and a black, flat-brimmed Heisenberg hat.

“We’re here, bitch,” he said.

As the credits rolled at the end of “Felina,” the final episode, in which Walter White meets his inevitable end, there was a real sense of loss. The series was over. And we could never watch it as newbies again.

Some of the “Breaking Bad” acolytes are eager to see “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan’s prequel. But how can it wield the power of the original? Julie wants to watch “Breaking Bad” again from the beginning — when the time is right.

“There was something about ‘Breaking Bad,’ ” she said. “We couldn’t stop.”

(c) 2014 by the Kansas City Star

Advertisements

Filmmakers and theater artists in KC find symbiosis

This story originally appeared Sept. 23, 2013 on kansascity.com.

By Robert Trussell

Forrest Attaway had nobody but himself to blame.

One day the actor found himself on a remote country road somewhere out in Kansas, where filmmakers Mitch Brian and Todd Norris were shooting him from various angles and distances to put together a 60-second trailer promoting the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre production of “The Rainmaker.”

“There was not a QuikTrip or anything within 30 miles of this place,” Attaway said.

469385283_640In the play Attaway plays a character named Starbuck, a confidence man who blows into a drought-stricken rural community selling his services as someone who can bring rain.

“Originally my idea was Starbuck’s just standing out in the field and the camera pans in and moves in on one eye and you see a lightning bolt in his eye,” Attaway said.

Brian and Norris didn’t have the equipment to do it in one shot the way Attaway envisioned it. But they accomplished the same thing in a series of cuts that go from an extreme long shot of Attaway coming down a dirt road to an extreme close-up of his eye where, indeed, a lightning bolt flashes.

It wasn’t a particularly hot day, but they were able to shoot Attaway from far enough away that heat waves can be seen rising from the dirt. And in the editing process they turned the lush greenery on the roadsides parched and brown.

“They made it a better idea,” Attaway said. “I love those cats.”

A still from the Jetpack trailer for "The Rainmaker."

A still from the Jetpack trailer for “The Rainmaker.”

The slick trailer for “The Rainmaker,” shot in muted colors, is one of several Brian and Norris have made over the last year or two for local theater companies. Their first effort was a short promotional film for the Living Room’s 2012 production of “Bucket of Blood,” a play Brian wrote based on the 1959 Roger Corman cult film, in which interviews with artists involved were intercut with scenes from the public-domain film.

Since then they’ve shot trailers for “Burn This,” “Fool for Love” and “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll” at the Living Room; “The Rainmaker,” their first for the MET; and “The Mountaintop” and “Venus in Fur” for the Unicorn. Their latest is a promo for “Gruesome Playground Injuries,” which opens at the Fishtank Peformance Studio this weekend.

Visit a theater company’s website and you find videos, but often they fall into two categories: yakking talking heads and performance footage shot from a stationary camera. Brian and Norris are offering a third option: Deftly edited little movies meant to stimulate the viewer’s curiosity.

“We’ve all seen those bad local TV commercials with bad lighting,” Brian said. “And it never makes me want to see the play.”

Norris put it this way: “What’s more fun as a filmmaker? To shoot a rehearsal? Or make a minimovie?”

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the "Venus in Fur" trailer

Rusty Sneary and Vanessa Severo in a still from the “Venus in Fur” trailer

Not so long ago, filmmakers in Kansas City did their thing, and theater folk did theirs. There wasn’t much overlap between the two communities. But that’s changing. When Attaway directed “Fool for Love” for the Living Room earlier this year, he cast one experienced stage actor — Robert Elliott — but for the other roles turned to performers who had mainly worked in film — Amy Kelly, Jason Miller and Curtis Smith.

“I like the more real, gritty kind of film acting,” Attaway said. He added that the trailers Brian and Norris are shooting might be one way to achieve what every theater company wants: Finding a younger audience.

“Anything we can do to bring that younger audience in has to have that familiar feel to it,” he sad. “We were all raised on television and movies.”

Brian, who had supported himself as a screenwriter for years, had never considered writing a play until sitting through rehearsals and performances of the Coterie Theatre’s second production of “Night of the Living Dead,” in which his daughter played a zombie.

“After watching ‘Night of the Living Dead’ for 10 performances, I realized I knew how I could do this,” he said.

Jeff Church, the Coterie’s artistic director, approached him about writing a “Living Dead” sequel. The result was a 2009 production of “Maul of the Dead,” a comedic gorefest directed by Ron Megee, which began with zombies chasing security officers into the lobby of the Off Center Theatre before the audience had been seated.

“For me it was great,” Brian said. “I didn’t want any blackouts. I wanted to write sustained action, which you don’t get to do when you’re writing a movie.”

Subsequently, Brian wrote “Sorority House of the Dead,” an homage to 1980s slasher movies, which was staged by Megee at the Living Room. Then came “Bucket of Blood,” also performed at the Living Room. Now he’s firmly in the Living Room orbit. All three plays have been published and have been produced elsewhere, including two productions in Australia.

The cross-pollination between art disciplines in Kansas City is at an all-time high, Brian said.

“There’s a lot of creative synergy right now,” he said. “There’s a lot more crossover. There’s just a creative vibe going on in Kansas City.”

Norris said shooting the trailers has introduced him to a community of artists he hadn’t known.

“Mitch is much more familiar with the theater scene than I am,” Norris said. “I am very new to this so one of the fun things for me doing these promos is meeting all these terrific actors. So for me it’s like networking.”

An image from the "Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'" trailer for the Living Room.

An image from the “Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll'” trailer for the Living Room.

Shooting the trailers has fundamentally changed the way Norris thinks about actors and playwrights.

“It went from a zero to a thousand for me,” Norris said. “I was one of those guys who had never seen good theater. My perception of theater was: ‘This is kind of lame, sort of stupid.’ But when I started seeing good theater at the Living Room and other places, I was like, ‘Oh, now I get it.’ I’m kind of a born-again theatergoer right now.”

When Attaway approached Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, and pitched the idea for shooting a “Rainmaker” trailer, she didn’t hesitate.

“I said, let’s go for it,” Paisley said. “It’s interesting when you’re working with a modern audience. We can’t make theater be a medium that it isn’t, but helping people access something in their imagination in a mode of communication that is acceptable to them is not a bad idea. I love the whole look of it.”

Cynthia Levin, the artistic director of the Unicorn, said she first saw some of Brian and Norris’ work at a fundraiser for the Living Room. She invited them to shoot a promo for “The Mountaintop,” the final show of the previous season, which resulted in a moody black-and-white piece showing actors Walter Coppage and Chioma Anyanwu performing short clips of dialogue.

Levin said she was pleased with their work and wanted them back.

“The quality is fantastic,” she said. “They’re filmmakers. They do really great work, and I just knew I wanted them to do something for ‘Venus in Fur’ to open the season.”

Brian and Norris first worked together when Brian directed “Stay Clean,” a short film based on a James Ellroy story. Norris was the director of photography. They’ve worked independently and in partnership with others, but the work they do together falls under the umbrella of their company, Jetpack Pictures.

Where can they be seen? There’s no central forum for that. Some of Brian and Norris’s work can be seen on the Unicorn and Living Room websites. Videos cannot be embedded on the MET’s website at the moment. But the minimovies get shared widely on Facebook and Jetpack Pictures has its own Vimeo channel.

Brian said he and Norris hope to expand their client list and make trailers for other theater companies in town.

“No one has been disappointed yet,” he said. “A lot of it is getting people to trust you. We’ve both been making films since we were kids. So we have got a combined 70 years of filmmaking experience. It sounds awful but it’s true. We live and breathe this stuff.”

© 2013 Kansas City Star

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.”

Drag queens, circa 1880

Note: This article appeared in the Nov. 26, 1880 edition of the Kansas City Evening Star.  There was no byline. This is a verbatim transcription.

The Kansas City Evening Star (from microfilm)

The Kansas City Evening Star (from microfilm)

STRANGE MEN

Female Impersonators — Their Manners, Customs, Life and Amusements

A Queer Set of Men Who Make From Thirty to One Hundred and Fifty Dollars a Week

By Aping the Frailer and Fairer Sex — Some Ridiculous Love Scenes

Among the many queer people on this terrestrial ball, the variety actors and actresses may be set down as the queerest. They constitute a little world in themselves to which all other people are merely visitors. They have their grades, their heroes, their scandals, their butts of ridicule, their philosophers, their aristocracy, middle class and lower ten thousand just like the busy world of which they form a very important yet exclusive factor, all of which is introductory to the subject of female impersonators in general and some in particular who are the queerest of all these.

VERY QUEER PEOPLE.

Two of this class are now performing at one of the variety theatres. Their stage names are Lansing and St. Leon, and an Evening Star reporter interviewed them in regard to their business with very satisfactory results. One fact that would interest anyone from a Methodist deacon to a sport is the number of “mashes” that these men in the guise of women have made in their travels. It is an actual fact, well substantiated, , that men of intelligence and wealth have fallen madly in love with them. Some of these cases, The Evening Star proposes to relate.

MASH NUMBER ONE

While playing on the island opposite Philadelphia, Lansing made the acquaintance of a rich resident of the Quaker City, who became very much infatuated with him. Lansing was playing Columbine in the Farette pantomime troupe, and formed the singular acquaintanceship in the green room of the theatre. The man was a prominent citizen , and the case became very interesting to the actors and actresses , who carried out the joke so well that the duped man did not discover the sex of his idol for several months. In the meantime he fairly revelled in his absorbing love passion, and every day presented Lansing with silk dresses, laces, jewelry, or some costly article to the great delight of the recipient and his friends. He pressed

HIS QUEER SWEETHEART

to let him see her outside of the green room, but Lansing invariably refused, and never met him unless fully equipped for the stage. Finally the enamored suitor became so pressing that the secret could no longer be kept, and so one night the object of his affections, just before going up on the stage, revealed his sex. The distinguished resident of the city of white window-blinds was paralyzed for a few minutes, and then solemnly declared that he did not believe it, and continued his attentions for several more months, until he was thoroughly convinced that he had been duped, when he desisted, much disgusted with the turn of events.

MASH NUMBER TWO

In Terre Haute, Ind., about five weeks ago, a prominent railroader beheld the fascinating can-can performed by St. Leon and Lansing and was very much struck with it. Without troubling himself to investigate the programme, he went into the green room and inaugurated a very violent flirtation. He ordered wine at a big price per bottle and the two female impersonators drank it. Then he ordered more which went to join the first bottles and he furthermore kept on ordering until $100 of the costly beverage had been consumed, by which time he was very much elevated, though strange to say the alleged females were reasonably sober. Then he proposed that they go out with him on

A BIG “TEAR”

and after much solicitation, they agreed, but first excusing themselves they retired and resumed their natural garb, after which they returned to the green room, “guyed” him a little without being recognized and quitting the theatre went up the street leaving their friend leaning against a telegraph pole waiting for his lady companions. It was three o’clock in the morning and very cold, but the railroad official waited with a persistence worthy of a better cause. Returning in fifteen minutes they watched  him until they became chilled, when they walked past him on their way home, leaving him still braced against the post

WAITING FOR HIS “MASHES.”

Here in Kansas City the dupes are numbered by the dozens, and over $100 in bets have changed hands upon the question of their sex. They receive visitors every night who become smitten with their bogus charms and furnish any amount of fun to the actors and actresses in the green room.

Kelly and Leon sheet music from the Harvard Theatre Collection

Kelly and Leon sheet music from the Harvard Theatre Collection

Female impersonators form a very exclusive class among actors. As a rule they are, outside of their business, very effeminate, and are not in high favor with the members of the profession. Ricardos, Justin Robinson and Leon, who traveled with Kelly & Leon’s minstrels, are among the most noted. Leon was thought, by those who ought to know, to have been a woman, and there are many facts to bear out this belief. The writer was personally acquainted with

KELLY & LEON

at the Grand Opera House, Chicago, now the New Chicago Theater. At that time there existed between the men an intense affection, which was of the nature of a passion, which should or could exist between men. In addition to this, they loved each other far in excess of even the most intense masculine relationship. Many are familiar with the history of Leon’s humorous intrigue with Coal Oil Johnny, from whom Leon received presents of fabulous value — by some estimated as high as a million dollars; at any rate, whether he received these presents or not, he assisted in no small degree in despoiling that very famous young man of all his many dollars. Leon died in Australia several years ago.

GUS MILLS

Another very famous female impersonator is Gus Mills, now playing his second season in Leadville. He is the most singular of his tribe. He not only personates female character on but also off the stage. He dresses like a woman on all occasions, associates with the opposite sex, associates with the opposite sex, with whom he is a great favorite; cuts, fts and sews all his own dresses, underwear, etc., in fact performs all the duties of a woman and completes this strange anomaly by falling in love with men. As a female impersonator he draws a huge salary and is a most remarkable success, but as a man he is a gigantic failure and not worth the powder that would blow his effeminate soul to purgatory.

WOMANLY MEN

There is another singular circumstance connected with this subject and that is that off the stage there are many men who are so effeminate that they dress constantly as women, act like women and become as womanly as possible. In all large cities, and to a greater or less extent in Kansas City, these men are to be found. In Chicago they are so numerous as to form a class by themselves, and it is no uncommon thing for a score of them to be seen at a masquerade ball, acting their parts so well that they make any amount of conquests. To while away the hours they congregate in each other’s rooms and occupy themselves in cutting and fitting

ELEGANT COSTUMES

in which they dress when they give their private parties, known as “drags,” where they take the place of women and invite a select gang. The “drags” are kept very quiet or the police would not hesitate to raid them. So secret have they kept these dances that they have never been exposed by the lynx-eyed reporters of the Chicago papers; still they exist, as can easily be proven if search is made diligently.

There are worlds within worlds, circles within circles, and The Evening Star has opened one of the innermost to the gaze of the public. It is a strange subject, and the people are strange characters. What is their economy in this world is “one of those things no fellah can find out,” and must be relegated to the list of unanswerable conundrums, in which are included the questions “Of what use is the bedbug, the New Jersey gallnipper and a lawyer.”

Notes:

1. “Coal Oil Johnny” refers to John Washington Steele, a 19th century heir to an oil fortune who spent astounding sums according to his whims but died in near poverty. I haven’t dug very deeply but at the moment I’m unaware of any evidence corroborating the assertion that Steele lavished gifts on a female impersonator named St. Leon.

2. Gus Mills was a well-known female impersonator who did, indeed, appear often in Leadville, Colo. His most famous role, apparently, was Pocahontas.

3. Kelly & Leon refers to Edwin Kelly and Francis Leon, who led a blackface minstrel troupe and performed internationally. Leon was highly regarded as a female impersonator, prompting a New Zealand critic to write: “Were it not announced that this artist belonged to the male sex, people would be quite ignorant of the fact, as neither by word, look, nor gesture is it betrayed.” The performer named St. Leon, interviewed by the Evening Star, was likely not Francis Leon, but someone cashing in on his fame. Francis Leon often was billed as “The Only Leon.”

4. The abrupt change in tone in the final phrase of the paragraph on Gus Mills suggests the brutal hand of a disapproving editor — perhaps William Rockhill Nelson himself.

5. I have no explanation for the obscure quotes in the mystifying final paragraph of the article.

Another round of ‘Skillet Tag’ at the Living Room

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

“Skillet Tag,” a memorable R-rated farce that made its debut at the Kansas City Fringe Festival last summer, returns to the Living Room in somewhat different form.

The show, written by Pete Bakely and produced by Play On Productions,  depicts a corporate retreat at which a megalomaniacal boss insists that his employees engage in a game of “skillet tag.” Things get out of control, to put it mildly. The company, by the way, makes greeting cards somewhere in the Midwest.

Bryan Moses is directing the Living Room production, which features Matt Leonard and Aurelie Roque, both of whom appeared in the Fringe Festival version. Other cast members include Missy Fennewald, Briana Marxen-McCollum, Jeff Smith, Coleman Crenshaw, Tim Ahlenius and Devon Barnes. The show runs through Dec. 22 at the Living Room, 1818 McGee St.

For more information, call 816-308-2131 or go to BrownPaperTickets.com.

Here’s my KC Star review of the Fringe Festival production:

Posted on Wed, Jul. 25, 2012 11:05 PM

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

I can’t say why, but there’s something highly amusing — and imminently satisfying — about seeing somebody get hit on the head with a frying pan. Let’s face it: A pie in the face isn’t half as funny.

OIvsO.St.81

Matt Leonard and Aurelie Roque in the Fringe Fest production of “Skillet Tag.”

That particular brand of comic violence is central to Pete Bakely’s “Skillet Tag,” a raucous farce that finds time to satirize the global economy between outrageous acts of onstage violence.

The set-up is a “team-building” exercise called by Jeff, an executive at a global greeting-card company that happens to be based in Kansas City. He brings together his office assistant, his staff attorney, his I.T. guy, a junior executive and a woman who shows up at the office each day to do nothing but drink.

This exercise is carried out in Jeff’s home and his idea is for the assembled employees to play an unusual game of tag in which the “tagging” is done with cast-iron skillets and steel frying pans. This can lead to nothing good, naturally, and when one of the characters is “tagged” with fatal results, a chain reaction is set in motion. Before the final curtain, the stage has been littered with bodies.

What makes the show fun is what Bakely does with his characters and plot. Revelations and reversals are cleverly woven into the story and the R-rated comedy is often so over the top that laughter is the only natural response.

The talented cast has varying levels of experience but director Sam Slosburg gives them a good run. Timing is key, and while some of the action was off a beat or two Wednesday night, much of it was on the money.

Of the men, the best performance comes from J. Will Fritz, the insecure computer technician, who finds himself reluctantly drawn into a hedonistic nightmare. Fritz plays the role like a little kid who just wants to go home and he scores some of the biggest laughs in the show.

Matt Leonard gives us a successful, aggressive performance as the megalomaniacal boss with a bizarre sex life that becomes clear as the play progresses. He’s the kind of employer who expresses frustration at the Human Resources Department for its insistence on things like firing with cause and its fussy rules about sexual harassment.

Phillip Shinn is amusing as a glib executive who looks for ways to turn the evening of murders to a business advantage and Kyle Wallen makes an impression in a brief but indelible appearance as a cop, whose incongruous beard and long hair would lead you to peg him as a heavy metal musician or resident of a hobo camp.

The women offer nice comic performances across the board, but none is more impressive than Kenna Marie Hall, whose transition from PMS-crazed office assistant to sexually aggressive serial killer is something to see.

Laura Jacobs gives us a smart, smoothly realized performance as the blithely inebriated corporate untouchable who settled a sexual harassment lawsuit by choosing to keep her job without having to do any work. Aurelie Roque seems a bit straitjacketed as the lawyer, although she knows how to deliver amusing one-liners. Chelsey Tigue, who shows up as a second cop in the closing minutes of the play, uses her obvious miscasting to her comic advantage.

Bakely exhibits a gift for absurdist humor and shows us that farce is far from dead. But with his penchant for the grotesque and wild sexual humor, Bakely is unlikely to see his work produced at the dinner theater anytime soon.

Slosburg puts together a clever curtain call, in which each actor comes on stage to be murdered by another, until at last the cast is piled in a heap at center stage. A fitting end to a show that delights in homicide.

Read more arts news at www.kansascity.com/entertainment.

(c) 2012 by the Kansas City Star

George Hamilton on the road: ‘La Cage’ star reflects on Evel Knievel, Hank Williams and so much more

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

The other day I rang up George Hamilton.

He was out in L.A., catching some rays poolside. And my first thought was: Well, where else would he be?

“Couldn’t be a better day,” the actor/producer said. “I love to be in the sun, sitting around the pool.”

Hamilton, thought of less as an accomplished actor than a charming personality, is on the road with the national tour of “La Cage aux Folles,” the award-winning musical that opens next week at Starlight Theatre. Hamilton plays Georges, the owner of a nightclub where his partner, Albin (played by Christopher Sieber), performs in drag as the club singer Zaza.

When Georges’ son brings his fiancée and her conservative parents to visit, Georges and Albin have to conceal the nature of their relationship. Laughter ensues.

Hamilton, 73, plays the “straight man,” as it were, but says his real job is to charm the audience.

Hamilton has been performing steadily since the late 1950s, when he was a contract player at MGM. In that era he appeared in a number of high-profile films — “Light in the Piazza” with Olivia de Havilland, “Home From the Hill” with Robert Mitchum, “All the Fine Young Cannibals” with Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood — and he has maintained an active career since.

Christopher Sieber and George Hamilton in “La Cage.” (Paul Kolnik)

He played Hank Williams in “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and eventually began developing and producing his own films, including a biopic about daredevil Evel Knievel and the comedies “Love at First Bite” and “Zorro the Gay Blade.”

He was part of the cast of the prime-time soap “Dynasty” and even appeared on “Dancing With the Stars.”

In 2008 he published a memoir in which he described his unconventional upbringing — his father was a bandleader, his mother an actress — and his relationships with a cavalcade of actresses and other famous women, including Lynda Bird Johnson when her father was president.

The book also revealed that he and his stepmother had an affair when he was 12, although he hardly considered himself a victim.

But in our conversation, Hamilton revealed a businesslike attitude when it comes to his chosen art form. He’s not a man who tries to impress you. But he does have some great stories to tell.

Q. Tell us about life on the road.

A. I’ve grown to like the show. It’s a very difficult thing to do for me. It’s a steep learning curve. I love to do things that are a little out of my reach, sometimes out of my grasp. But I always like the challenge. And so it’s gotten easier for me. If the audience doesn’t feel you’re pleased to be there, why should they?

I like the people I’m working with. I like the part. I like the atmosphere. The challenge is always still there because there’s so many … things that go on in a live performance that you have to develop a whole new set of techniques than you would in film. And I like that a lot. I’ve had a lot of things happen that have given me a chance to dig down and try things I hadn’t tried before.

Q. How long had it been since you performed on stage?

A. Four or five years. I was on Broadway with “Chicago.” But then I was hurt and had to have an operation on my knee, and then I came back and did it again.

Broadway is a different animal than touring, and touring is a different animal than dinner theaters and plays. There’s a circuit of summer things that a lot of actors do, and I used to do without telling anybody because it’s the only way to learn timing. So I made it my business from the time I was under contract to the studio to make them think I was in the south of France living the life of a playboy, but the truth was I was often billed above the roast beef out in the sticks. So it’s been fun for me to do it. Touring for me is pretty hard. It’s much harder than Broadway. You have eight shows a week, five of which are Friday through Sunday. And you then have to go to the next city and get ready for your next performance. And you have press and travel all in the same time. So there’s no time off. You learn a whole different set of survival techniques.

It’s not very glamourous, the life on the road.

Q. A couple of years ago a local theater company produced the musical “Light in the Piazza.” Coincidentally, Turner Classics showed the (1962) film about the same time, so my wife and I watched it. We agreed you were convincing as a young Italian guy and there you were playing Rossano Brazzi’s son. What was that like?

A. You can be in the business for a lifetime and still not have captured what you’re about on film or have a performance you can point at and say, “This is really good or great.” Because this business is about their vision of you and not what yours is. It’s very hard to break molds and stereotypes, especially when you’re under contract to a big studio as I was.

Yvette Mimieux and George Hamilton in “Light in the Piazza.”

That movie came at a time when contract players were thought of as chattel. So being under contract to a studio was not a really a help. It was more of a hindrance. New actors were coming on the lot and they were independent. … (The studio) knew they had you in a pinch, but they didn’t respect that very much.

So I knew that I had to do things that were not expected.

They used to have what they called the script cage, where they mimeographed all these scripts at night that would go out to producers. So I spent a lot of time after hours … and I’d read every script the studio had. And I found “Light in the Piazza.” I loved the idea of it. I thought it was a very sensitive movie and one that would be hard to pull off.

So I started working on the accent, and I went to Rossano Brazzi and said to him, “I want to play your son.” Rossano was a very nice man, typically Italian, and was henpecked by his wife quite a lot. But I spent time with him, and I would watch every mannerism he had and how he would speak.

I went to the head of the studio, who didn’t want to know about it at all, and he said they had a fellow by the name of Tomas Milian, who was a young actor, and he was going to play the role. And I said, “He’s not Italian.” And he said, “It doesn’t matter, he’s got an accent.” I said, “It does matter. Don’t you understand the difference between an Italian accent and a South American accent?”

So I said, “Why don’t you let me do the (screen) test?” They were surprised that they had the guy right under their nose who could play the role.

I had a lot of other things I wanted to do. But even if you did that they didn’t believe you could play another character. And characters were what I wanted to play.

There was a character named Hank Williams. He was a very sensitive country and western musician … and he was really a wonderful writer. So I went down to Nashville. It was a small picture. It wasn’t thought of as anything except the exploitation (of the songs).

And I actually worked on it and could do the songs to the point where they almost let me do the album. But I had to convince them. And that was the hard thing. They really wanted to put me in the playboy roles and leave it that. So I had to buy my way out of my contract with MGM.

Hamilton in “Love at First Bite.”

And then finally when I got to produce my own movies, I would hire me. You know, I’d say, “OK, I’m going to play Dracula and do ‘Love at First Bite’ and put myself into it.” So I raised the money, had the script written and played the role — and made $78 million dollars for them. … Then I had the ability to go on and produce another movie, which was “Zorro the Gay Blade,” and I again hired myself for that role.

It’s much easier to produce a film than it is to convince the producer of another film to hire you. I found that out the hard way. And there were periods when I was basically dead in Hollywood.

Q. If we could go back to “Your Cheatin’ Heart” for a moment, didn’t Hank Williams Jr. actually record the songs for the soundtrack?

A. The studio was very uncertain about the music track because Audrey Williams (Hank’s widow) wanted a lot of money and wanted certain controls. I went down to Nashville and spent about a month with her and convinced her that I was the right actor for the role.

The studio didn’t see that at all. They thought I was a sophisticated playboy. I had to explain to them I was born in Memphis, Tenn., and went to military school in Mississippi. I knew all about country music.

Poster for “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”

Finally I began rehearsing the songs. Because anyway you figured it I had to sing ’em to lip-sync them. And I got them nailed to the point where I could finger the guitar and sing the songs. … They were willing to let me do the recordings for the movie, but finally they made a deal with Audrey that Hank Jr. would do them. So I was lip-syncing to Hank Jr.’s interpretations of his father’s songs.

Q. You also produced and starred in a film on the life of Evel Knievel. How did that come about?

A. I was doing a TV series at Universal, and it required some stunts. And there was a young producer on the lot and I kept having lunch with him, saying, “God, I’ve got to get a stunt man who can do this stunt for me.” And he said, “Well, get Evel Knievel.”

And I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Who’s Evel Knievel?” And he told me about this guy and my first thought about him was he was kind of outrageous, kind of ridiculous. But I had the studio hunt him down. I had a stunt that had to be done, and he said he could do it.

He didn’t show up when he said when he was going to show up … and then one day, we were a week away from shooting the stunt and they called me from the gate and said there was a man out there with a huge semi-truck and some backup cars named Evel Knievel wanting to meet with me. … And I said, well, have him come to the commissary and meet me for lunch. And they said, “He can’t walk.”

They carried him into the commissary and put him down in the booth with me. And I said, “Mr. Knievel, I think there’s been a big mistake here. I would love for you to do the stunt, but I can see you can’t do it, and it would be ridiculous to pursue this.”

The real Evel Knievel.

And he said, “No, no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. When is the stunt?” And I said it’s in a week. He said, “I’ll be ready.” I said, “You’ll be ready to do a stunt in a week?” He showed me this 11-pound piece of metal that was going into his … left leg.

He said, “I’m going in tomorrow morning, they’re gonna put that in there and they’ll snap this thing into the hip, and I’ll be out of there in three or four days and be ready to go.”

And I just sat there looking at him thinking, “This man is totally out of his mind.” And the more I started realizing that he was out of his mind, the more I found him interesting.

I said, “Look, you don’t have to do this stunt, but I’d like to talk to you about other things.” And he said, “Well, let’s get the stunt out of the way. I wanna know if your money’s good.”

So he called me on the day of the stunt. He called me from a hospital, and he said, “I’m ready to do the stunt for you. Which gate should I go to?” And he’s talking and suddenly I hear this kaplunk and … I thought the phone went dead. And then a nurse picks it up and said, “Mr. Knievel just passed out. He shouldn’t have been out of bed.” I just couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

So I went out there and he was lying in bed and he said, “Oh, I had a little problem there. They gave me too much medicine. I could have come and done it. I told them not to give me any pain medication but they gave it to me. It’s their fault.”

So I kept trying to talk to him and find out his psychology and what he was about. And I thought this is what America is about. It’s about making our mark on the north wall of the Grand Canyon. It’s a little bit crazy here, what we’re doing.

I found him very interesting. He was a sociopathic guy. And he was a very potentially dangerous human being. … Evel put a shotgun to my head one night when I brought the script to him.

Hamilton as Evel Knievel.

And I said, “What is this about?” He said, “I want you to read the script to me.” I said, “I don’t need a gun stuck to my head to do it.” He said, “You do in my case because if this is gonna be a bad movie it’s gonna be ended right now.” I read that script probably better than anything I read in my life.

Q. What’s next for you after this tour?

A. It’s always a good question because you don’t know. I never plan my life, and I’m surrounded with people who do and they’re always a year or two years ahead. There’s been an offer for a TV series, weekly, based on “Love at First Bite.”

There’s a one-man show that I would take on the road. … I kind of don’t know what I really want to do yet. I think after this the first thing I’ll do is settle in for a long winter’s nap.

Q. Well, thank you for this time.

A. I didn’t talk too much about “La Cage” (laughs).

Q. I did read a quote from your co-star, Christopher Sieber, who said you don’t have a diva bone in your body.

A. (Laughs.) That’s nice. I like to believe that I am a very dedicated and totally professional actor, and I don’t have any room in my life for ego. You can’t expect to be as proficient as people who have been in this play for a long time, who are singers and dancers and dedicated to Broadway.

But what you can bring to it is a certain showmanship and a sense of providing the audience with a kind of permission to enjoy themselves because you’re enjoying yourself. That’s a hard thing to do. You can’t fake that one. You just have to enjoy it, and if you do it’s infectious. My gift, if there is such, is to be delighted to be there.

Read more arts and entertainment new from the Kansas City Star at kansascity.com.

KC Fringe: It’s all about the ripple effect

By ROBERT TRUSSELL
The Kansas City Star

Funny thing about KC Fringe — even when it’s over, it’s not over.

The annual festival of music, dance, theater, film and visual art in venues scattered across the Crossroads and midtown officially wrapped up Sunday. But the ripple effects continue.

Katie Kalahurka, for example, will reprise her Fringe show, “Lessons From Marlene,” this Friday and Saturday at the Fishtank Performance Studio to coincide with First Friday.

Vicki Vodrey’s impressive play, “Thank You Notes: Headed to Heaven With Flat Jimmy Fallon,” which received its world premiere at the Fringe, moved on to New York to be seen as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival this week.

Samn Wright and the creators of “Slaughterhouse Opera,” a rock musical about the zombie apocalypse, plan to mount a Kickstarter campaign to record the piece.

And David Gaines, who attracted sizable audiences with his “7 (x1) Samurai,” stayed over to conduct a clowning workshop Tuesday at Just Off Broadway Theatre.

Marcie Ramirez, left, Eric Tedder and Amy Hurrelbrink in “Sexing Hitler.” (Susan Pfannmuller/Kansas City Star)

The eighth edition of KC Fringe appeared to come off without a hitch, although some spectators were still confused by the requirement to buy a $5 festival button before buying a ticket to an individual show. But most people who attend the festival and learn how it works tend to take its general inefficiency for granted.

There were 160 artist entries this year, which translated into 459 performances at 20 galleries, theater spaces and other ad hoc performance venues. Events followed a complicated, staggered schedule. The festival’s website is well-organized and fairly simple to negotiate. But this all happens with a volunteer work force. The only people who get paid are the tech crews who run lights and sound for performances.

Throughout the year the organization is run by an operations committee of 23. During the festival itself, that number jumps to 140. The front-of-house volunteers — the people who sell and tear tickets — put in an estimated 3,000 hours this year, according to festival director Cheryl Kimmi.

Part of the time is consumed by the nightly task of tallying that day’s attendance by physically counting paper tickets.

“We have a team that does that every night, and we’re usually here until 2 or 2:30 in the evening,” Kimmi said.

David Gaines performs his one-man show “7 (x1) Samurai” at KC Fringe. (Jill Toyoshiba/Kansas City Star)

Kimmi said the festival leaders have a wish-list that includes an automated ticket system, but there’s no money for one in the immediate future. The festival receives small grants from the ArtsKC Fund, the Missouri Arts Council and the city of Kansas City, but most of the festival’s revenue comes from the sale of the $5 festival buttons.

Kimmi said the festival has formed a development committee to explore more fundraising options. Kimmi is glad the tech crews can be paid, and she said the next step would be to pay the house managers at the venues.

“We’re planning to take it to the next level,” she said. “We have to grow it correctly.”

Last year the festival attracted an audience of about 14,500, and Kimmi said the festival was on track to match that figure once the final tally is in. Anecdotally, this reporter saw no sparsely attended shows this year, and two were standing-room-only.

Kimmi said attendance on most nights grew by double digits compared to last year, including a 27 percent jump on the first Saturday of the festival. But midweek performances, which usually attract fewer spectators than weekend shows, experienced a huge increase: 49 percent on Monday and 55 percent on Tuesday.

The final Friday of the festival saw a big drop-off, which Kimmi jokingly attributed to the opening night Olympic ceremonies on television.

From a critic’s perspective, the festival has played a significant role by allowing performing artists an opportunity to take risks and by exposing the public to experimental performances. It has also helped break down some of the barriers between art forms.

“There are different crowds for different things,” Kimmi said. “The fashion-show crowd is very much focused on the fashion show. But we have some crossover. That’s what our goal is, to cross over these audiences so we give the hard-core theater crowd an opportunity to experience dance and music, and we have the hard-core dance crowd who has the opportunity to experience theater.”

Fringe Festival highlights

The final week of the KC Fringe Festival, which ended Sunday, offered typically diverse performances. Here are some highlights:

“Sexing Hitler,” written by Bryan Colley and Tara Varney and directed by Varney. This peek into a weird corner of Nazi history — Heinrich Himmler’s decision to manufacture inflatable “comfort dolls” to prevent the spread of venereal disease among the troops — managed the neat trick of being raucously amusing, touching and ultimately haunting all in one package.

It was a loose-jointed performance, but central to the show’s success was dancer/choreographer Amy Hurrelbrink, who played the doll prototype. In the eyes of her manufacturers and the soldiers who “test” her, she gradually acquires human characteristics, only to be destroyed in the Allied firebombing of Dresden.

“Lessons From Marlene,” written and performed by Katie Kalahurka. Kalahurka is a gifted comedian, and her trippy, absurdist step into a kaleidoscopic dream-world populated by the ghost of Marlene Dietrich and a character named Katie, among others, becomes a showcase for a memorable performance. The show, directed by Vanessa Severo, has been extended through the weekend. Kalahurka will perform the piece at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Fishtank, 1715 Wyandotte St. Call 816-809-7110 or go to brownpapertickets.com/event/260143.

“Buck Hoss,” written by Scott Cox and directed by Trevor Belt. Cox’s attempt to transpose “The Bacchae” by Euripides to a backwoods Americana context didn’t quite work, but the Fringe production showcased some strong performances, particularly by Corbin Hernandez and Chris Roady as cousins, both preachers, each claiming divine ordination. The show admirably addressed heavy questions about human spirituality and our conceptions of God.

“Pilgrimage,” written by Ry Kincaid and directed by Bob Paisley. Kincaid’s rock musical based on Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” was an impressive achievement. Kincaid’s rhyming verse was consistently clever, and his songs were irresistible. He had a formidable cast to help him bring the show to life, including Cody Wyoming, Katie Gilchrist and Vi Tran.

“Skillet Tag,” written by Pete Bakely and directed by Sam Slosburg. This was the second memorable R-rated farce I saw at the festival — the first was Natalie and Talia Liccardello’s “Ice Cream Social…Issues” — and it again demonstrates that there’s an appetite out here among the great unwashed for rude, crude comedy. This show depicts a “team building” exercise at a megalomaniacal executive’s home that goes terribly wrong, resulting in a series of murders and some very strange sex. The festival cast was strong, with standout performances from J. Will Fritz and Kenna Hall.

“7 (x1) Samurai,” written and performed by David Gaines. This was the most polished show I caught during the festival. Gaines celebrates and spoofs Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” in this 60-minute performance.

Gaines has performed this piece a lot and it showed. He’s a highly skilled clown, and his mime-based performance, punctuated with guttural samurai “dialogue” and the occasional phrase in English, was very funny but also conveyed something of the film’s epic sweep.