New theater companies and performance spaces are increasingly popping up in Kansas City. So when the American Heartland Theatre announced it was closing its doors in August, it was a startling development, especially to an actor like Debra Bluford, who has spent a good deal of her acting life there.
Bluford has worked there consistently since it opened and currently stars in its penultimate production, Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage.
About an hour before a weeknight performance of the American Heartland Theatre's comedy, Bluford is feeling both sad and nostalgic. Since the Heartland opened in 1987, she has done seventeen shows there, becoming in that span an above-the-title performer audiences expect to see a couple times a year.
That relationship will end after this show, the next to last before the theater closes in August. She is asked to reflect on what the Heartland has meant for her career and what it's been like to work there.
"Well, the Heartland is such a unique theater in Kansas City because you have such a personal connection with the audience," she says. "Not only are they close in proximity but after the show, you get to talk with them - you get to talk and visit and you get to know people. You become friends with them. The Heartland is such a sacred place."
She's pressed to be more specific as to what its loss means to a working actor considering that it has been a place that’s employed so many actors and entertained so many thousands of people over the years.
When the Curtain Falls
"It’s a huge hole in our theater community," Bluford says. "When you come here to do a show, usually the contracts are seven to eight weeks, so that’s a good length of time to do a show: 400 people a night, usually eight times a week.
"So without that great contract to have, I’d say, I don’t know how to put it into words. It’s a huge loss. I’m truly speechless about it. And it almost seems surreal – like, okay, it’s not really going to happen. We’ll wait. When the shoe falls, then I’ll believe it. It’s a big hole in our ship."
In this, her final Heartland show, she plays an advice columnist with a blog, Miss Abigail, who is supported by her personal assistant, Paco, played by actor Gil Perez. He's asked what he recalls telling his fellow actors about booking this job, sharing the stage with only Bluford.
"Most everybody was, 'Wow, you're so lucky. You'll love it. It's going to be a great experience. Deb is so funny, such a hard worker, she's so smart.'
"And that's certainly been true," he says. "Deb's the kind of person you can do a show with and trust 100% they'll be right there. If anything goes wrong, I'm always going to be the first to assume it's me. It's never Deb."
Having done mostly comedies and musicals over the years, everywhere from the New Theatre to the Unicorn Theatre, Bluford acknowledges that her comfort and skill within those genres may have frozen her out of more dramatic roles.
"There’s that old adage that a clown is really a dramatic actor veiled with a smile," she says."So I think perhaps that directors and producers don’t consider me for dramatic roles.
"I would love to do Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? I wasn’t really considered for that but of course I didn’t call and make an attempt. I wasn’t approached with that, so yeah. I think maybe doing comedy, and musical comedy as well, a lot of people don’t consider me for darker roles. I would love to sink my teeth into something like that."
Though Debra Bluford says she's contemplating other possibilities, perhaps even separate from theater, she will play another title role in Musical Theater Heritage's production of Hello, Dolly! later this summer.
Miss Abigail's Guide to Dating, Mating and Marriage, through June 23, 2013, American Heartland Theatre at Crown Center, 2450 Grand Avenue, Kansas City, MO 816-842-9999.