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Spotlight on Kelsey Kallenberger - Pete Bakely
Posted: Sun, Mar 03 2013, 11:01 PM

"I just love Kansas City. I don't want to go anywhere else," Kelsey Kallenberger says to me, energy in her voice, a crooked smile on her lips. She is a petite, young strawberry blond but her vibrant personality makes her seem both bigger and older than she is.

Kelsey is the founder and owner of Play On…Productions, a theatre company dedicated to producing plays written by and using talent from the Kansas City area. Play On… has just reached its first anniversary.

"My favorite quotation is ‘If music be the food of love, play on' …from Shakespeare. And, to me, it means, keep performing, keep playing music, keep acting," she says.

Raised in Grain Valley, Kelsey caught the bug at an early age. Her parents were long-time season ticket holders and exposed her to the theatre almost from birth. She first saw A Christmas Carol at the KC Rep when she was three years old. The first time she went on stage was in The Music Man at Blue Springs Community Theater when she was only 12. "I fell in love," she remembers, "After that first time I knew that this was what I was destined to do. I found my niche." She continued to do summer musicals in Blue Springs, but never forgot that first show. She auditioned for A Christmas Carol four times before she was cast as a party guest and a lobby caroler when she was 15. "I was still being wrangled by our child wrangler. It was (local actress) Jennifer Mays." She did the show two more times.

After graduating from Grain Valley High School in 2010, her only choice for college was the theatre department at UMKC. Her experience at the KC Rep had given her a strong admiration for the graduate department in acting and she enrolled there in the fall of 2010. While a student, she was the only freshman cast in Neil Labute's The Shape of Things, directed by Ron Schaffer for the undergraduate theatre department. She played the supporting role of Jenny in an alternating cast. Her strong musical background also got her cast in the last musical done by the conservatory, Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along.

She was only at UMKC for one year, leaving after the 2011 spring semester. "It was the contacts that I made that made the experience worthwhile. The teachers Carla Noack and Ted Swetz, the graduate acting students, all of my contemporaries," she says, alluding to the wealth of talented actors going to school in the undergrad program at the time, like Danny Fleming, Matt Melson, Will Fritz, Rachael Nelson, Melissa Fennewald, Becca Scott, and many others who are now gracing stages in Kansas City and around the country.

She also met Kenna Hall, who was to become and still is her best friend, roommate, and artistic collaborator. "Kenna and I produced a bad musical at UMKC, Bad Romance. It was a showcase for the undergraduates. We sang, we danced. I ended up as music director and even directed several of the pieces."

Leaving UMKC at the end of summer of 2011, she and Kenna decided to try finding theatre jobs in Kansas City. The two women shared a tiny apartment while picking up any kind of work that they could. Kelsey quickly got a job as a crew member on The Pinter Project presented by Kansas City Actor's Theatre: first as an assistant to the costumer, then as backstage crew. "Kansas City Actor's Theatre was a wonderful experience," she says. Her experience there got her a job as assistant director to Mark Robbins on God of Carnage at the Unicorn.

She worked building sets and hauling equipment for Alex Perry, current owner of The Arts Asylum and a freelance set designer and builder working for local theatres like American Heartland Theatre and the Unicorn. She ended up doing a lot of climbing scaffolding and painting ceilings as she helped refurbish an old church into the current Art Asylum performance space. Her new connection to the Heartland got her an understudy job on The Marvelous Wonderettes. She also found time to appear in the stunt show Inspiration in the 2011 Kansas City Fringe Festival.

About a year and a half into her freelancing, Kelsey hit a dry spell. A bad experience at an unnamed theatre ("They made me cry more than once," she says. "That's not easy to do.") left her jobless and feeling burned out. She took two non-theatre jobs, one as a hostess at Applebee's, the second providing before and after school daycare for the Blue Springs School District. Still, she wasn't ready to give up.

In February of 2012, she decided to try to make one of her dreams come true. At her twentieth birthday party, held at a local restaurant, she ran into a local playwright and asked him if she could produce a play for him.

Now's the time for full disclosure: the playwright she approached was me. I'd met Kelsey the year she was a student at UMKC when she performed one of my short plays in her directing class. She had also read, unbeknownst to me, a copy of an unproduced script of mine called "Couple's Night". At that time, I had had one full length show produced (Jet Propulsion) and two short pieces ("Vicky's Desk" and "Button") and was looking for a way to create original theatre in Kansas City.

"I've always liked leadership. I was always good at it. Growing up, going to school, I was always put in charge," she says. "But now, I know when to ask for help. I want other people's opinions. It was a lesson hard learned."

Her years of experience gave her a working knowledge of most aspects of theatre. The contacts she had made and the friendships she had formed working at UMKC and in Kansas City theatre gave her resources to fill in the blanks. "I was tired of going on auditions where I knew I wasn't going to be cast. I wanted to back off of performing. So I decided to take a chance."

I did, too. Her determination and the assured way she presented herself made me think that she had the ability to pull off this very difficult task. I was unaware how old she was, though. At our third planning meeting, I made the writerly suggestion that we hold the next one in a bar. That's when she told me she wasn't of legal drinking age. She seemed much older than her actual age.

It was that first meeting which led to the formation of Play On… Production. "My original thought was to give me something to do. I could choose the script and director and even be cast in the shows. I wanted to get to the point where everyone knew who I was, where I would be asked to do productions." There is realization in her voice, "Now I know that I like giving other people opportunities. I like having actors come up to me and asking if there's a part for them, to let them know."

"I've been told and I know that Kansas City is a great place to do theatre, because it is growing so much. It's growing in actors and tech crews, but it's not necessarily growing in theatre companies. I love giving Kansas City actors what they want. Our mission statement says, ‘Giving Kansas City actors their demand, so they can do what they love'," she says with a tone of determination.

Play On … Productions has produced two shows since its formation: "Skillet Tag", produced for the 2012 Kansas City Fringe Fest and "Skillet Tag: The Remount" done at the Living Room in December. "I actually see them as two different plays. We had an almost completely different cast for the second, a new director, a reworked script, and full set and lighting, A whole different venue," she says. Both productions did well. The Fringe production was the seventh most watched show in the festival. The remount played regularly to full, laughing houses.

Coming up, there is a benefit show in March. The 2013 Fringe Festival will have my new play and a children's show written by Marcus Mull. Kelsey has plans for expanding the company. "There is no real company that casts children entirely in their shows. When we have a season, I want there to be at least one show entirely cast and crewed by children."

Play…On Productions is actively looking for scripts to create a full season: looking for both short and full length scripts which can developed into full scale productions. The only basic requirement is that the writer be from the Kansas City area.

Kelsey Kallenberger laughs at the lessons she's learned. "I thought I wanted to be a performer. I got into production to help my career as an actress. It turns out all along, I was a producer."

For general information, plus photos from "Skillet Tag", check out Play On … Production's Facebook page at www.facebook.com/PlayOnProductions. Pete Bakely is a Kansas City playwright and actor, currently completing his master's degree in playwriting from UMKC, and is currently the playwright in residence for Play On ... Productions.

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