Whim Productions will premier its annual ‘Alphabet Soup: Theater from Queer Voices’ this Friday. The cast has been rehearsing at the Northeast Kansas City Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Growth Gallery (EGG) on Independence Avenue for weeks in anticipation of the long-awaited return of the show.
“It is an annual LGBTQ short play festival,” said Whim Productions founder Kevin King. “Well, it’s an annual festival when COVID isn’t happening.”
This year’s plays include an insider’s look at an AA meeting, a voyeuristic tale of Jock Night at a gay bar, and lesbian submariners in a desperate search for a Selkie who might have the key to saving the world. This set of plays was supposed to be performed at the Spring 2020 show, but was postponed due to COVID-19.
“We were, I think, two weeks into rehearsal when the shutdown happened, and at that point, we were all just thinking, ‘Well, this is going to be a temporary thing,’ and we just postponed it for a couple of weeks,” King said.
A year and a half later, the fifth annual Alphabet Soup will premiere on Friday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m. at the Unity Performing Arts Center, in the lower level of Unity Temple on the Plaza, 707 W 47th St.
“There are seven short plays written by people from the LGBTQ community within a 50-mile radius of Kansas City, it’s very local, and people respond to an open call for submissions,” King said.
Hopeful playwrights provide a 10-minute play to the committee, who then reads over the scripts and selects the plays. The scripts are not chosen based on their initial quality, but rather the potential that the committee sees in them.
“We select the plays that we think have good bones, basically, and then we reach out to the playwrights that we’re interested in bringing in, and the playwrights will participate in a several weeks long workshop process,” King said. “And at that point, the playwrights come in and we all get around a table and read the scripts, so that the playwright gets to hear people read it.”
For many, that’s the first time that they’ve heard someone read their scripts, King added. The committee and the playwrights continue tweaking and editing the scripts, discussing the strengths and opportunities the script presents. The playwright goes back and does some final revisions. Then, the committee starts in on the next round of scripts.
“So the first week we talked about like three or four plays, the next week, we talked about three or four plays, repeating the process,” King said. “Then we have a week where nothing happens except people are furiously editing and revising, then we start over again and we usually do that about three times for each play, and we have just really seen remarkable growth in the plays that we go through each year.”
King said it’s been a rewarding experience to watch the writers grow through the process and over the seasons.
“One of the cool things about it, too, is that knowing that there is this workshop process there that has really given some fledgling playwrights the courage to submit work that they hadn’t ever done before, because certainly these plays, by and large, are written for this production,” King said.
Each year they have had people who have never written plays before submit work. The workshops really lower the bar for entrance into the creative space, King said.
King founded Whim Productions in 2011 after he attended the 2010 Fringe Festival where he decided that he could produce plays.
“I went to several productions at the Fringe Festival with one of my friends, and he happened to mention that several of those shows that we had just seen were written and produced by regular people here in Kansas City,” King said. “That idea had never crossed my mind and I just thought that was crazy, and I said, ‘Well, I think I can do that,’ and he said, ‘You should.’”
By February of 2011 King had written his first play since college, and went on to direct and produce it himself for the Fringe Festival.
“It was the seventh best attended show in the festival that year,” King said. “I’ve been doing shows since then with varying levels of intensity in given years.
Up until now, they’ve been doing “nomadic” shows, where they just go and produce work when there’s availability at some of the local venues. King said not having a home has kind of hampered them a little bit over the years.
However, the Whim community has continued to grow. In 2019, they solidified their mission.
“We only do works by LGBTQ+ playwrights,” King said. “Previously, the bulk of the work that had been done, I put in several of my plays, and I’m a queer playwright and most of my plays are kind of through a queer lens. We had been largely a queer-focused company anyway, but we went ahead and made that official as of 2019.”
Whim’s productions create opportunities for representation of the LGBTQ+ community in Kansas City, and exposure for actors and writers.
“It’s really great for Kansas City audiences to get to see this,” King said. “It’s also been really fantastic for the actors that have been able to be involved in this. As I was reading through the bios that actors have submitted for this year’s program, several of them said that this was the first time that they had ever been able to play a queer character on stage.”
King said Whim is giving the visibility to the audiences so that the queer actor, the queer audiences, can come in and see their lives up on the stage and in stories written by their community members, and plays written by their community members. The plays are very diverse in the topics, so the audience gets to see other levels of representation, other ways of being queer, up on stage.
“And then additionally, you end up having straight audiences come in, as well, to see their friends and also to show allyship and just because they want to see theater,” King said. “I think it’s valuable for them, as well, because they see that there are a whole lot of different ways of being part of the LGBTQ community. We all look different, but there’s also some things that unite us, too. We’re definitely not a monolith and I think it’s really great for audiences, both queer and straight, to get to see all of that up on stage.”
Alphabet Soup’s cast is composed of both seasoned community theater actors and first-timers.
“I actually met Kevin at a discussion about the Kansas City community and diversity and stuff like that, and I just mentioned that I was a trans actor,” actor Janetta Leigh said. “It was kind of difficult for me because I didn’t fit into a lot of the roles, I didn’t fit into what people were looking for because a lot of acting calls, when you look at them, they’re very strict.”
King approached her afterward, handed her a card, and said, “Hey, I think we could work together.”
After Leigh got to know Kevin and his work, she was excited to participate. This is now her second Alphabet Soup production.
“I really appreciate the fact that Kevin doesn’t try to pigeonhole me,” Leigh said. “As he said, we all are different, we all have different ways of being queer, and he doesn’t try to pigeonhole me into a stereotype or anything like that, and so that’s why I’m here.”
Stephen Howard has done theater for over 20 years in various places, and has had the opportunity to play queer characters on stage before.
“But generally they were more – I don’t want to say stereotypical – they were more like what people expected to see out of that queer character, and doing this, to me, it shows them more as real people in real situations,” Howard said. “So yeah, I’m really excited for it, I’m in two this time. It’s great, I enjoy it.”
This will be Pamela Hall’s first Alphabet Soup performance, but she’s been attending the shows for years with her sister, traveling back and forth to Warrensburg.
“I haven’t done theater since high school, and so I felt like this, specifically Alphabet Soup, could draw me back into it,” Hall said. “It’s a more accurate portrayal of the LGBT community, and if there’s any show that I want to be a part of, it’s that one.
This is Hall’s first time playing a queer role, along with at least four other cast members. The large casts allow for actors to return, and for new actors to get involved.
“It’s surprising but not, it’s probably more not surprising, I think,” King said. “One of the things that – this is a first this year for this festival – all of the queer characters are played by people in the LGBTQ community. That’s always high on my list to put in queer actors for queer roles, but it doesn’t always happen. This is the first year that that has happened, and it’s really cool to be giving that opportunity to play very nuanced characters, and for them to be able to step into these roles and embody queer lives on stage.”
King is working as both a writer and director this season, and is also serving as the intimacy choreographer.
“When I’m a writer, my focus is primarily on building the story and building these characters,” King said. “A director’s job is to figure out how best to tell the story that we’re given and looking for themes in there. Really, in a way it’s choreography, just watching what the actors do. I love just kind of letting them read and watching them go to work, and then helping to kind of shape that a little bit with the words that we’re given.”
The mission of the playwright and the director are aligned in that they’re telling a story and building the story.
Whim Productions works to make sure everyone involved feels comfortable and safe while both rehearsing and performing.
“As the actors enter into the space for the first time, we go through and we do introductions, we offer people to give their pronouns, and that helps,” King said. “This way that helps people not be misgendered if that’s an issue.”
This year they instituted consent and boundary practices for the theatrical intimacy scenes.
“Basically, what that is is any scenes that involve kissing or anything more intensive of an experience, there’s a multi-step process that we go through to establish some ground rules and boundaries,” King said. “When we go through and establish the choreography, it’s all really broken down into into various specific beats, very specific actions… everything is very desexualized, and we just break it down into just these simple, small actions that we’re going to do and then that way it’s also very easily repeatable.”
Throughout the production, a stage manager is able to monitor the actors to make sure that they are staying within the established boundaries that were set at the start of the process.
Whim Production’s Alphabet Soup: Theater from Queer Voices creates opportuities for actors, playwrights and audiences in the LGBTQ+ community in the Kansas City area. The show will run Friday, Oct. 15 at 8 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 16 at 8 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 17 at 2 p.m., Monday, Oct. 18 at 8 p.m., Friday, Oct. 22 at 8 p.m., and Saturday, Oct. 23 at 8 p.m.
For the safety of the community, Whim Productions is requiring all patrons to show proof of vaccination at the venue. Currently, they anticipate requiring patrons to wear face coverings during the performance. Tickets are $20. Some plays contain adult themes and partial nudity, and each play is presented at every performance. For more information on specific plays or tickets, visit whimproductions.com.