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How it All Started

The dream for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival began in 1990 with a promise to my friend, famed N.Y. Shakespeare Festival founder Joseph Papp. “You’re a Kansas City native. There’s not a festival there. You made it in New York and on Broadway – now, give something back, something you personally create. You can't beat the feeling, kiddo. Do it now, make it the best, and keep it FREE!”

Moving from the glamour of a Broadway office, I came back home to Kansas City and begged for a tiny one-room office, broken down furniture and equipment, and one part-time assistant. First, a Shakespeare Club was formed, and then I held over 100 meetings with City fathers, City government, and agencies, and countless businesses and individuals. The hope and dream had to be sold!

Fortune smiled when R. Crosby Kemper III agreed to help form a board of directors and serve as president. Then, Kansas City Parks & Recreation Department, Neighborhood Development Department, The Kansas City Star newspaper, the City Council, and many corporations and foundations stepped up and said, “Yes, we will help support a free theater for Kansas City!”

Marvelous actor Kevin Kline came to donate a gala theater presentation to help fund our first play. Now, we could choose a play, hire a director, actors, designers, and technical experts. We could build a set, make costumes, tailor the park, garner hundreds of volunteers, and beg all kinds of services – advertising, on and on, toward the dream.

Miracle of miracles! In 1993, on a rainy June night in Southmoreland Park, the first Shakespeare outdoor festival was born. Thousands of people come – families, seniors, babies in arms, with blankets and picnic dinners. Together they experienced the glorious work of the world’s greatest playwright – and in casual and friendly surroundings.

As I watched all this, I sat transfixed by the beauty of a full moon, stars and breezes making the whole event magical. I exclaimed to friends, “It just doesn’t get any better than this!”

I was wrong. It did.

Through the following years, attendance tripled. The plays kept getting even better and we extended the season. We received great reviews and played to enthusiastic and grateful audiences. We organized camps for youngsters of all ages, presented pre-show entertainment, started an in-the-park lecture series, and began our sonnet and poster contests.

To our great civic pride, we became a destination event for families and fans from all over the country. We fought hard and begged even harder to keep it free for everyone, and donations made by generous patrons at the park entrance became more plentiful.

So, as we celebrate our 20th year, as I reflect on all of this, images and memories whirl around in my head, and the only words that come are: “Joe Papp, wherever you are, you would be proud of Kansas City and our festival – and in your favorite word – WOW!”

-Marilyn Strauss, founder