This is the third part of a three part interview with former Producing Director of Music Theatre Wichita (MTWichita), Wayne Bryan.
What’s your take on Century II?
When it was built in the late 1960s, Century II was an amazingly forward-thinking building, and without it, MTWichita could never have been launched and developed as we have been. Because of its many shops, offices, and open areas, a company like ours was able to rehearse and perform in the building, while also building our own sets, props, and costumes. Century II provided a complete nucleus of opportunities for young people. I don’t know of any other facility in the country that was designed to be so versatile.
The building served its community extremely well for decades, but in recent years, its shortcomings have begun to limit the kind of events which can take place. The round structure, which is iconic but not completely practical, has become somewhat untenable as touring productions have grown, with the building’s lack of loading docks being a particular challenge. And as for adapting the building and adding onto it, a circular shape is particularly difficult to expand. There’s no way to build onto it or open it out, without destroying its basic design.
As the building’s infrastructure has aged, replacement parts for it are no longer available. Whenever some part of the basic machinery breaks down, which is happening with increasing frequency, the city has to find a company who is willing to specially design and manufacture a new piece to fit into this very unique building. Internet and WiFi are also very challenging because of its cement bunker-like construction. I really wish that we could have gotten a new performing arts center built before I departed, because I really think Wichita deserves it.
In addition to MTWichita, our city has an excellent Symphony and several other fine performing groups, and I believe MTWichita can hold its head up with any place in the country, in terms of its cultural life. With a new performing arts center, Wichita could be a center of innovation and entrepreneurship again. Larger, more impressive touring shows could be accommodated without being cut down or diminished, in order to get into the hall. So, I am deeply sorry the new performing arts center has not yet happened. So far, there hasn’t seemed to be a big enough appetite for it.
Why do people like Music theater?
There’s a lot of escapism to musicals. I think people enjoy putting their world on hold for a couple of hours and going into a different place or time. I also think people who like spectacle appreciate musicals because of the large number of sets and elaborate costumes. It can be thrilling to see all that fabric move in front of you, and to recognize that loving hands and creative designers made it possible.
I am convinced that anyone with a creative streak, and anyone who appreciates genuine craftsmanship, can enjoy musicals simply for their successful coordination of hundreds of moving parts, combining to achieve one cohesive entertainment. The sheer effort and massive collaboration has to be impressive.
I also think many people enjoy hearing rich melodies and beloved songs, sometimes associated with their youth. Music can bring back memories of dating, or of happy family outings in childhood. It can transport us back to times that may seem simpler or happier.
In my case, musical theatre has offered intellectual stimulation, both as an audience member and as a creator. If you can help create a successful production, it means you and your colleagues were able to achieve a melding of minds and a blending of talents. That kind of artistic collaboration can be transformative and very fulfilling.
Why do you think people don’t like music theater?
It’s particularly satisfying to introduce good theatre to people who think they’re not going to enjoy it, and then change their thinking completely by giving them the time of their lives.
I think some people will say they find it too unrealistic to have characters bursting into song.
And some folks will stay away from musicals because they have only seen them in amateur or high school productions, which may not have put these shows into their best light.
As values change, especially in such areas as gender roles and social politics, some of the older repertoire can seem suspiciously outdated. But when older classics are directed and performed with intelligence and insight, they often can offer deep resonance, and great windows into human behavior.
What is the state of the arts in Wichita today?
I think part of the reason that Wichita has such a rich cultural life can be traced to its geography. Without mountains to ski, or beaches to surf, Wichita settlers realized quickly that they would have to create their own culture and entertainment.
As a result, we have wonderful arts. I mentioned our terrific Symphony, and our Art Museum is world-class. For musical theatre entertainment, I do think MTWichita is exemplary, both in what it achieves for educating young people, and also for creating first-rate musical shows to entertain its audiences.
Why do celebs like to come to Wichita?
Actors always want to do good work, and I think MTWichita has a strong reputation for quality productions and fine treatment of artists. Also, a show at MTWichita does not require a long commitment. Broadway performers sometimes take vacations from their long-running shows to come here and do a role they always wanted to do.
But as to why these actors come to Wichita, I believe it has to do with feeling that this is a place where artists are respected and appreciated. Where an actor can do work among other people who are earnest and dedicated to creating something special. Nobody is blasé, nobody is just “phoning it in,” everyone really wants to make it the best it can be. And achieving artistry while working on such a tight time schedule can be exhilarating. In addition, our audiences are extremely smart and demonstrative.
What surprises celebs the most about Wichita?
I always enjoy seeing newcomers from the east coast arrive in Wichita, not knowing what to expect from a midwestern town in a very “red” state. Invariably they are shocked and delighted to find a city as sophisticated as Wichita. Our city boasts a number of very fine restaurants, as well as a clean downtown enriched with sculptures and artistic lighting. This is often a great contrast to the graffiti-damaged cities they are arriving from.
I think the people of Wichita are genuinely open-hearted and approachable, happy to meet people from out of town and make them feel welcome. In fact, the people of Wichita are one of the city’s greatest riches, and certainly the main factor that kept me there for 35 years.
Our MTWichita Guild creates unique gift bags for each of our visiting artists, and our staff does our best to meet all the needs of our talented guests. I believe our visitors leave here with a great appreciation for the people and the city.
Why are so many gay people in theater?
What an interesting question, Kevin. It certainly is a topic that has received a lot of discussion, both in theatrical and scientific circles. One theory has been advanced that there actually is a unique chromosome that appears in some gay people, which carries with it an inclination toward artistic fields of endeavor. Certainly the idea of a “gay gene” has been exploited on shows like “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” which somehow suggests that gay men naturally have better aesthetic abilities than others.
But I believe a more important factor in explaining the presence of so many talented gay and bisexual individuals in theatre is the very welcoming nature of theatrical companies. People whose lives are somehow different from “the norm” can often find acceptance and familial love from people in the arts. Artists tend to be less judgmental and more welcoming that personnel in other businesses might be, and many young artists credit their involvement in the arts for giving them a place to call home. You can be Black, White, Asian, Latino, gay, straight, bisexual, non-binary, or any other unique identity, and find that you are part of a loving family in the theatre.
It’s also very true that there are certain aspects of life in the theatre which are better suited to people who remain single. It’s not unusual for an actor to get a phone call that suddenly changes the trajectory of their life — a chance to go on tour, or work abroad, or on a cruise ship. If one is leading a traditional life, with a family to provide for, it’s very hard to make job decisions that serve your needs while ignoring theirs. In this way, the business somewhat favors artists who have not committed to the “normal” life of going to the office each day, and bringing home a dependable paycheck every week.
Show you wish you produced?
I’m a huge “Sweeney Todd” fan and would love the chance to delve into that material. But I never felt it was ideal for summertime entertainment. It’s about as dark as any show in the repertoire. I love it, but a lot of people have seen bad versions, and they think it’s just about people eating people. There’s so much more to it than that, but it still never seemed right for MTWichita.
And I would love to have done “A Little Night Music.” But it, too, is very sophisticated and complex. With any Sondheim show you always wonder if an audience seeking escapist entertainment will want to commit to listening that intently. There is so much complicated word play.
Show you would never do again?
If theater teaches you anything, it’s that you “never say never,” but I would go out on a limb and say that I would never plan a repeat production of “Destry Rides Again.” That was as rough an experience as any show we did during my 34 years. When I scheduled it back in 1995, it was a show that had intrigued me since childhood. I had really enjoyed the songs on the Broadway cast album, and I also loved the James Stewart-Marlene Dietrich film it was based on. I thought, “How can this go wrong?”
Well, lots of ways, as it turned out! When all was said and done, the show just didn’t have enough rewards for the amount of work that everybody had to put in on it. But you know, if someone said to me, “Hey, we’ve selected “Destry Rides Again” for the upcoming season at our theatre. Will you come direct it?,” I might think, “Yes, give me another chance at it, maybe we’ll crack the code this time!”
Besides Wichita, what are some other good regional theaters?
Every theater is in great flux right now, with many of them seeing changes in artistic leadership, and all of them struggling to build back their audiences to pre-pandemic levels.
Of course, I would feel very loyal to The Old Globe in San Diego.
The La Jolla Playhouse also does really good work. Although they do musicals, neither (Including Old Globe) is a music theater.
The Muny in St. Louis is undergoing big changes, but they hire a lot of people and have pleased audiences for over 100 years.
The Tuacahn Theatre in the middle of the mountains in Utah hires a great clutch of very good actors, directors, and choreographers, and they actually run three musicals in repertory! They will mount one show, and once it’s up and running, they will use many of the same people to mount a second show, and then a third show, rotating the shows from day to day.
The Lexington Theatre Company (The Lex) was started by two of our alumni, Lyndy and Jeromy Smith. They were both in our ensemble and they patterned their theater in Kentucky on MTWichita and they done really well, in a community that never had that kind of theater before.
Writer’s Note: Century II Jester
You may not realize it, but the Jester statue outside Century II has a unique story. The statue was gifted to Wichita by the DeVore brothers in honor of MTWichita’s 25th Anniversary.
According to Wayne, “The original designer Dorothy Koelling (a Music Theatre Guild member) handed my headshot to Victor Issa, who created the large version, and asked him to replicate my nose and “kind eyes.”
So I guess a part of me will be in Wichita as long as the Jester is.
You helped launch a lot of careers…
We did our part, but they had to be talented, and they had to be hard-working. We provided opportunities and guidance that they might not have gotten otherwise.
What do you want your legacy to be in Wichita?
It’s hard to do your job well if you’re primarily concerned about your legacy. I do believe you must try simply to be satisfied by doing the work, and not be worried about future rewards.
On the other hand, if you uphold consistently high standards and manage to stay in the game, and if you try to contribute meaningfully to your community, there is the chance that when you leave the picture, people may remember you fondly.
I do believe that during my time at MTWichita, I was able to take the very good organization that I inherited, and help it to survive and grow. I’m terribly proud of how many young people we have helped guide toward successful careers and fulfilling lives.
At any given moment, we have dozens of young alumni working on Broadway, on tours, and in television and films, including internationally-known artists like Kristin Chenoweth and Kelli O’Hara. Those young people are the real legacy, and they represent the area of achievement from which I derive the greatest satisfaction.
Check out It’s Wayne’s World
Check out Wayne’s World II: It’s Party Time