Theatre Professor Blazed Kansas City’s Path to National Acclaim

Dr. Patricia A. McIlrath to be inducted into Starr Women’s Hall of Fame

The Starr Women’s Hall of Fame is dedicated to recognizing extraordinary Kansas City women, preserving the history of their accomplishments and inspiring women everywhere. Dr. Patricia A. McIlrath (1917-1999) is one of the outstanding women in the 2019 class of honorees.

McIlrath was a longtime chair of the Department of Theatre at UMKC, founder of the Missouri Repertory Theatre (now KC Rep) and progenitor of Kansas City’s status as one of the top five professional theatre cities in the U.S.

McIlrath graduated from Paseo High School during the Great Depression and was one of few in her class who was able to go on to college. She acquired several degrees, including a Ph.D. from Stanford, before joining the University of Kansas City (now UMKC) as director of University Theatres in 1954.

During her time at UMKC, she opened auditioning to the community and directed racially-integrated productions. She accomplished many things: writing scholarly articles, serving on national and local boards, directing academic and off-Broadway productions, and creating the Summer Repertory Theatre, which became the fully professional Missouri Repertory Theatre in 1966 (now the Kansas City Repertory Theatre).

“The founding of the Missouri Rep served as the impetus for the revival of professional theatre in the Kansas City metro. Following in its wake, numerous other professional theatre companies established in the city since the 1970s have found lasting success,” said Eric Rosen, Ph.D., former artistic director, Kansas City Repertory Theatre.  

“She built and fueled a creative engine that continues to help theatre prosper in Kansas City.”

McIlrath, fondly known as Dr. Mac, led the way (two years ahead of Yale Repertory Theatre, for example) in integrating professional theatre training into the college curriculum with her creation of an organic relationship between the UMKC theatre department and the regional professional company she founded. She also created a touring arm, Missouri Vanguard Theatre, to take professional productions to underserved communities throughout Missouri.

“Her leadership was the fundamental factor in making Kansas City a thriving theatrical center where professional artists could live and work outside of New York City,” said Felicia Londré, Ph.D., Curator’s Professor of Theatre, UMKC. “The fact that Kansas City has a dozen Equity theatres can be directly traced to Dr. Mac’s work, an effort of many years of personal door-to-door to build community support for a theatre scene that had been virtually barren since the 1920s.”

McIlrath welcomed women into positions of responsibility and showed by example that a woman could run a major arts organization. She mentored many of Kansas City’s theatre professionals and the majority of theatre companies in the area trace their roots back to Dr. Mac at UMKC. 

She was nominated for the Starr Women’s Hall of Fame by many Kansas City theatre leaders, including Sidonie Garret, Heart of America Shakespeare Festival; Angela Gieras, Kansas City Repertory Theatre; Cynthia Levin, Unicorn Theatre; Joette Pelster, The Coterie; and Heidi Van, The Fishtank. Together, they expressed their appreciation for her pioneering vision.

“She built and fueled a creative engine that continues to help theatre prosper in Kansas City. Dr. Mac was a pioneer who established herself as a capable, passionate and fair leader in a time when most business leaders were men. She elevated how women were viewed in the community and in the national theatre landscape. We stand on the shoulders of this trailblazing woman. Thanks to her determination and selfless leadership, since 1964, generations of Kansas Citians have been able to see the best theatre in the country created right here in this community.”

About the Starr Women’s Hall of Fame

The Starr Women’s Hall of Fame is dedicated to recognizing extraordinary Kansas City women and preserving the history of their accomplishments. These women are social reformers, volunteers, philanthropists, civic leaders, activists and educators. They are neighborhood leaders and grassroots organizers, from yesterday and today, both famous and unsung. They are movers and shakers whose tireless commitment to community has made Kansas City a better place to live.

The Hall of Fame honors their legacies by sharing their stories to encourage and inspire women everywhere. A permanent display honoring these women is open to the public on the third floor of the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

The Hall of Fame is named in honor of Martha Jane Phillips Starr, a legendary activist and philanthropist who blazed a trail for family issues and women’s rights. The Hall of Fame is made possible through the Starr Education Committee, Martha Jane Starr’s family and the Starr Field of Interest Fund through the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.

Published: Mar 12, 2019

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