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In Good Company

UMKC Theatre builds upon half century of success

As UMKC Theatre celebrates its 54th anniversary on Jan. 25, the UMKC community reflects on its continuing tradition of success.

Emmy award-winning alumnus and Walt Disney World head of design -- Doug Enderle -- will visit UMKC to talk about UMKC Theatre founder Dr. Patricia A. McIlrath’s trailblazing spirit. He’ll talk about how McIlrath faced the challenge of opening the Missouri Repertory Theatre (renamed Kansas City Repertory Theatre in 2004) in a city that had not supported a resident professional theater since the 1920s.

In addition to overcoming these obstacles, McIlrath became the first recipient of the Career Achievement Award in Education of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education. Under McIlrath's leadership, international professional artists visited campus, Broadway actress Robin Humphrey became a faculty member in 1967 and UMKC offered the first Master of Fine Arts degree in Theatre in the state of Missouri.

While UMKC Theatre remembers these historic highlights, the following three alumni talk about how their UMKC Theatre educations influence their careers each day.

Dave Ulrich

As a blue-collar local who worked in construction during the summers, Dave Ulrich did not plan to pursue a theater degree when he enrolled at UMKC in 1990. But after discovering UMKC Theatre, Ulrich reconsidered his options.

"I always had a knack for writing and I was dripping with creative thoughts, but I had never viewed using my creativity to find a viable career path," Ulrich said. "However, it didn't take long for a newfound love of theater, remarkable professors and fellow students to forever change the way I see the world."

Because the UMKC Theatre curriculum requires students to take several general education courses, Ulrich said his curiosity about all things increased. The emphasis on a well-rounded education also prepared Ulrich for a career in acting, writing and advertising.

Along with preparing Ulrich for the real world, UMKC Theatre provided him with warm college memories. He treasures memories of playing backstage poker with fellow UMKC actors and crew, sneaking into an unlocked piano room for impromptu music, walking to Kin Lin Chinese Restaurant and memorizing scripts at Winstead's.

"I actually lived in a house with a handful of other theater folks right across from Haag Hall – where a parking lot now stands," Ulrich said. "I'd cross the street with slippers and a mug of coffee to go to French class. The campus was bubbling with energy because the school and the city were one. I always appreciated that and I still think of it fondly."

After studying theater at UMKC, Ulrich lived in Prague, Czech Republic for three years. While Ulrich survived by teaching English at a Berlitz Language Center and at elementary and junior high schools, he spent most of his time acting in two theater companies -- Misery Loves Company and Black Box Theater. He also appeared in American films, such as "The Beautician and the Beast" and "Hell Mountain," as well as Danielle Steele’s "The Ring" – a television mini-series.

As an actor, Ulrich said he’s proudest of his appearance as Bobby Brahms in "Love! Valor! Compassion!" at the New Theatre in St. Louis. He also fondly remembers his appearance in "The Memorandum" at Divadlo v Celetne in Prague.

As a playwright, he's especially proud of his second full-length play "The Passionates" -- "…where a charming ringmaster parades a freak show of passionate people and their disturbing monologues." The play generated so much enthusiasm that it landed Ulrich a partnership with a literary agency. His plays have been performed in Kansas City, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Fort Collins, Colo. and Prague.

Today, Ulrich works as a creative supervisor and senior copywriter for a Los Angeles advertising agency. He's written copy for radio and television commercials, TV shorts for the Disney Channel, a magazine comic, a television pilot and a children's book series that he plans to pitch in 2009.

Though he's moved among the creative disciplines, Ulrich said he benefits from his UMKC Theatre education on a daily basis.

"The most wonderful thing about theater is that it doesn't end when you step off stage or outside rehearsal. Everything becomes relevant to your studies of the human condition," Ulrich said. "Art and life are married, so your mind will always be churning underneath the world in front of you while you still smile, laugh and live in supposed normalcy. Even though I rarely write for the theater today, my UMKC Theatre education has made me who I am and colors everything I create in all other venues."

Mateusz Lewczenko

In an effort to easily improve his grade-point-average at Philadelphia-based Temple University, Mateusz Lewczenko took his first theater class in 1998. In addition to improving his grade-point average, that class helped Lewczenko discover his interest in acting.

"To my great surprise, the class was nothing like I expected," Lewczenko said. "It was challenging and rewarding, and for the first time in college I could see myself doing something for the rest of my life. So I pursued it with full effort and kept getting cast and kept auditioning and got into grad school at UMKC Theatre."

In 2006, Lewczenko graduated from UMKC with a Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting. Instead of moving to the coasts like most of his UMKC classmates, Lewczenko decided to remain in Kansas City. In Kansas City, he met his wife, Kristi, who now serves as marketing director for UMKC Theatre.

Today, Lewczenko acts in local productions and serves as a freelance coach and director at Kansas City, Mo.-based Actor Training Studio. He has taught at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Coterie Theatre, Starlight Theatre at area high schools and as an adjunct faculty member at UMKC. Lewczenko said teaching theater at all levels has been much more rewarding than he expected.

His main piece of advice to theater students?

"The same advice I got -- 'If you can see yourself doing something else, then go do that. To be in the theater means to struggle. If you have to question your need to be in the theater, then it probably isn't for you,'" Lewczenko said.

Another highlight in Lewczenko's career was acting the part of Stanley Kowalski in "A Streetcar Named Desire" with the Kansas City, Mo.-based Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre. He also has appeared in shows at the Unicorn Theatre, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Coterie Theatre and Kansas City Repertory Theatre.

Tom Smith

After receiving a Bachelor's degree in Dramatic Arts from Walla Walla, Wash.-based Whitman College in 1991, Tom Smith decided to pursue a higher degree in theater.

"I was looking around for a school that would give me a lot of practical hands-on application and one with a connection to professional theater," Smith said.

Those criteria led him to UMKC Theatre. When he received his Master of Fine Arts degree in Directing from UMKC in 1994, Smith embarked on a freelance directing career. For approximately five years, he directed at theaters across the country -- including Theater Schmeater in Seattle and the Wichita Center for the Arts in Wichita, Kan.

Smith also served as a resident director for the Creede, Colo.-based Creede Repertory Theatre and wrote several nationally and internationally-published plays, including "Drinking Habits," "Dangerous" and "Aunt Raini".

His work has earned him several awards, including the 2004 Robert J. Pickering Award for Excellence in Playwriting, the 2004 Association for Theatre in Higher Education PlayWorks Award, the Orlin R. Corey Outstanding Regional Playwright Award, the Richard Odlin Award, a Seattle Times' Footlights Award, the Doña Ana Arts Council Newcomer's Award. Smith also is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America.

In addition to propelling his directing career, Smith said UMKC inspired his career in academia. Today, he serves as an associate professor and head of the Department of Theatre Arts at New Mexico State University (NMSU). At NMSU, Smith teaches directing, playwriting, acting and improvisation.

And when a UMKC resume reaches his desk, Smith takes a second look. He recently hired a UMKC Theatre alumna to work as a guest actor at NMSU.

Posted: January 12, 2009

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"The most wonderful thing about theater is that it doesn't end when you step off stage or outside rehearsal. Everything becomes relevant to your studies of the human condition."

Dave Ulrich
2001 UMKC Bachelor of Arts in Theatre alumnus