Big Boost In Attendance For Heart Of America Shakespeare Festival's 'Hamlet'

Jul 6, 2017

Back in William Shakespeare's day, outdoor theaters like the Globe in London could accommodate about 3,000 people. More than 400 years later in Kansas City, crowds in June and July hauled blankets and lawn chairs to pack into Southmoreland Park for the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival's production of Hamlet

According to Festival officials, this season's three-week run of Hamlet brought in record attendance, with an overall audience of more than 28,000 — and one Saturday night crowd topping 3,000. Last year's Twelfth Night, an audience favorite accompanied by live music, reached nearly 21,000. 

One reason for the uptick in numbers? Actor Nathan Darrow, known for House of Cards and Gotham, returned to his hometown to play the lead role of Hamlet. 

Heart of America Shakespeare regulars, like Bruce Roach (Claudius, left), Jan Rogge (Gertrude), and Robert Gibby Brand (Polonius), returned for this year's production of 'Hamlet.'
Credit Brian Collins

"Having Nathan was an incredible bonus, amongst this great company of really talented — some familiar and some new — Shakespeare actors. People who knew how to tell the story," said executive artistic director Sidonie Garrett.

And then there was the weather — where the potential for rain and lightning is always an issue for outdoor performances in Kansas City. 

"We didn't actually rain out a single performance completely," said Garrett. "We did lose a couple at intermission, but we didn't lose them before the show."

For now, said Garrett, there are no plans to expand the venue to accommodate a growing audience. Instead, she recommends theater-goers attend earlier in the run, when attendance is lighter, and often, the weather is cooler. 

"Southmoreland Park is a perfect bowl," she said. "The back [stone] wall is such a great receptor of sound rolling up the hill toward it, and then it bounces it all right back to the audience.

"We're kind of in a perfect performance space for Shakespeare." 

The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival started with an ambition of providing free annual outdoor performances of Shakespeare. This year marked the festival's 25th anniversary. But a familiar face to audiences year after year was noticeably absent from each night's Hamlet.

Festival founder Marilyn Strauss suffered a stroke in April, and, during the run of the show, she was still in recovery. On July 2, the final performance of Hamlet, Strauss was able to attend for the first time. 

"She loves to come out and greet people," said Garrett. "Just knowing we had larger crowds than usual, I think, was probably really frustrating for her." 

In honor of Strauss, a stretch of Oak Street near Southmoreland Park, between Emanuel Cleaver Boulevard and 45th Street, is expected to soon be renamed The Marilyn R. Strauss Way. 

Laura Spencer is an arts reporter at KCUR 89.3. You can reach her on Twitter @lauraspencer.