Every Monday through Friday, Kristen Altoro wakes up at 7. She takes a shower, eats her cereal, and gets ready for her full-time job as a bank teller. From 8:30 in the morning to 5 p.m., 40 hours a week, Altoro is a reserved, quiet co-worker at Valley View Bank at 95th Street and Metcalf Avenue in Overland Park.
But after the clock strikes 5, from February to November, Altoro heads to the Barn Players Theater in Mission, where she transforms from a buttoned-up money manager to a showstopper who was born to be in the spotlight.
“I feel like I kind of live two lives,” Altoro said. “I do regular teller duties, then I go to rehearsal and become this completely different person.”
Altoro is one of many local actors, along with directors, playwrights and production assistants, whose love of theater comes alive in community theaters around Johnson County. Altoro’s passion is ignited specifically on the Barn Players stage at 6219 Martway St. in Mission. The local theater has been entertaining Johnson County for 58 consecutive seasons, despite a low budget and few resources.
“Everything is volunteer,” said Vida Bikales, president of the Barn Players board of directors.
A nonprofit theater company, the Barn Players was founded in 1955 by Earl Altaire, a local interior designer who had a passion for theater. A large barn at the Woolf Farm was renovated into the company’s first location at 83rd Street and Mission Road.
After Altaire died in 1959, a group of original Barn Players formed what is now the nonprofit organization. The community theater moved several times since its original location on the Woolf Farm, from the grounds of the Glenwood Manor at 91st Street and Metcalf, to Johnson County Community College to its current location, a small structure purchased by Mainstreet Credit Union, which partnered with the nonprofit.
“It really has enabled us to do a very aggressive season,” Bikales said.
In the 10-month regular season, the Barn Players produce two plays and four musicals, along with a production each from the Barn Juniors and Barn Kids groups. The theater group also presents an annual “6x10 Play Festival,” which features six original plays, each 10 minutes long, written by local playwrights and performed by local actors.
“In what we do, you have everything from the fun, family-type music to serious plays and edgier shows,” Bikales said. “We try to mix our seasons so there’s something for everyone.”
The Barn Players have produced well-known plays such as “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “The Vagina Monologues” and “Rent.” This season, the nonprofit will showcase “9 to 5,” “Chess,” “Sordid Lives,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Spring Awakening” and “Drood.”
Bob Allen and his wife, Petra, have been involved with the Barn Players as actors for 10 years. After the couple moved to Kansas City in 1984, they began auditioning for the theater and have since become season ticket holders and active volunteers.
“Several years ago, I did ‘Urine Town,’ and it was a great show,” Bob said. “We had a great director, great musical director, a great cast. It was overwhelming for all of the cast because we would go out there and it would be so crowded, there were people in bean bags on the floor because they ran out of chairs.”
Since 2008, the amount of gifts, grants and contributions the Barn Players has received has continued to decline.
In 2011, the Barn Players operated on a little over $100,000 — a small price tag for a nonprofit that relies on donations, ticket sales and fundraisers, the standard for community theaters.
Most of the Barn Players’ expenses stem from production and administrative costs.
“In a good economy, the goal for a nonprofit is to have a third of the money through donations, a third through ticket sales and a third through grants,” board president Bikales said. “We have to rely more heavily on donations and ticket sales.”
Small stipends are given to directors, though others involved do it simply for their own benefit.
“We’re here to give community theater by the community and for the community,” Bikales said. “And to us that’s so much more than just the actor on the stage; it’s the people involved with building the sets, the playwrights, the actors, the musicians. There’s a wealth of talent that people in this community have and they just decided to earn a paycheck instead of pursuing other careers in theater or voice or music. They do it just for the love of the craft.”
A lack of space seems to be a constant challenge for the Barn Players, with a small backstage area and a green room that also serves as a board room and even sometimes a rehearsal area. But a small budget and lack of space seem to contribute to the tight-knit community those involved with the theater have formed.
“For me, since I’ve been retired, the fun of it has been getting to meet so many new people,” Bob Allen said. “All types of people in all walks of life; and as a performer, that’s the most fun.”
“The talent that the Barn draws, they want to work at the Barn because it’s a very congenial environment,” Petra Allen said. “It’s a real ensemble feel. There are no barriers with age. The Barn really does nurture that feeling of community.”
And for someone who has never seen a production before, that feeling of community is obvious in a first-time visit.
On a chilly Friday night in December, the parking lot at the Barn is almost full as people file in for the annual “6x10 Play Festival.” As the lights dim, about 70 audience members feast their eyes on the stage, which features two black rolling chairs and two actors in what resemble NASA spacesuits. In the play, “The Captain and Roberts Save the World,” the titular characters are the last two remaining humans alive after a comet hits the Earth, and they despise each other. It’s a comedy with some serious moments, but it’s not above flatulence jokes and crude humor. The other five plays also tackle serious subjects, from a girl who decides her own fate and others’ in “Sunday in the Park with Carla,” to a lighthearted play with talking race dogs in “To the Dogs.”
An intermission breaks after the first three plays, and that community feeling that the actors talk about seemed evident even in the audience. Parents, friends and significant others greeted each other with familiarity, and chatter between groups took the place of the dialogue of the actors who have since left the stage.
“There are plenty of people who don’t have a family as tight-knit at home, and they come to the Barn to have that sense,” Altoro said. “I think that’s really important to have in the community.”
That sense of community extends to the Barn Juniors program for students age 12 to 18. Earlier this month, the cast of 15 showcased “All Shook Up,” a musical act that takes place in the summer of 1955 and features popular songs by Elvis Presley.
In the show’s second weekend of the performance, the students prepared in the small green room of the Barn, a multi-purpose room with little space and at this time, a lot of noise.
There are shoes, backpacks, water bottles, hairspray cans and clothes strewn about the floor, the tables, the chairs, and any counter space available. Tonight the students in Barn Junior have brought gifts for another member of the cast, a secret Santa-type gift exchange that takes place over three show days and features another cast member’s favorite color, favorite musical and favorite candy and drink.
“It’s a way to get to know each other and add some fun to it,” Josh Bruce, a former Barn Junior member who has since graduated and now helps as a production assistant for the show.
The students come from various school districts, from Olathe to Blue Valley and Shawnee Mission. Some knew each other beforehand; others are newcomers who were introduced to the program by a friend.
“Theater is one of those things where a group of people who didn’t know each other two months before, when a new person comes in, they say, ‘Oh, these people have known each other for two years,’ ” said Rebekah Grieb, the stage manager for “All Shook Up.”
Grieb was introduced to the Barn Players in 2008 through Eric Magnus, the Barn’s artistic director who was Grieb’s junior high drama teacher.
“Whoever’s in the bathroom needs to hurry up!” a cast member shouts, though the voice is barely loud enough to be heard over the chaos that 15 teenagers bring. No two cast members are doing the same thing at the moment; some are singing, some are dancing, others primping and adjusting their costumes as show time draws near.
“I think we should do the whole show in Spanish tonight,” a cast member jokes.
At some point, a can of Silly String surfaces and makes its way to the floor, as a cast member scurries to pick it up before it’s noticed. “Check this out,” a Barn Junior member says, as he whirls around in a rolling chair, spinning in circles in his jailhouse rock costume.
The students auditioned for roles in “All Shook Up” in October and have since rehearsed for five days a week, three hours each day to perfect their parts. It’s easy to see how the group of 15 have grown so close and comfortable with each other, enough to change freely, sing loudly and act openly.
At some point, amid the chaos, the side door opens and the show’s director, Jason Coats, arrives. Coats, who is also the Barn Players’ educational director for Barn Junior and Barn Kids, has worked with the Barn for seven years. By day, he is the director of theater at Westridge Middle School in the Shawnee Mission School District.
“One of the things I like about the Barn Players as a whole is it’s so central in the metro,” Coats said “…It helps create a lot of diversity. It helps keep things fresh.”
As the education director for both kid programs, Coats is able to see some students grow from kindergartners in “101 Dalmatians” to leads in Barn Junior productions.
“I don’t want 50 kids on stage; then you’re marching ants around,” he said. “I like the fact that I can see the kids come out with additional skills than when they started.
“They come from different schools, different backgrounds, and they can learn from each other,” Coats said. “There’s a lot of collaboration involved.”
“Ten ’til places!” Grieb, the stage manager, shouts at 7:15. The students gather in a circle around the board table to do a “shakeout,” their arms and legs alternately shaking as a group to quick counts. Then they link their arms together and count in unison, “1, 2, 3, break a leg!” and untwist from their formation.
It’s 7:27, three minutes until show time, as the cast of 15 turn their high energy into focused stares and take their places, trailing one by one out of the green room and toward the back of the stage.
Theater-loving teens have the luxury of choices — school plays and community theater. For most adults, community theater like the Barn Players is their only stage outlet.
Altoro’s involvement with the Barn Players, which began in 2010, started with the Internet.
“I Googled ‘community theater in Kansas City,’ ” she said. “I went and auditioned for them, and they were just extremely welcoming and polite. Once I did one show, I did seven shows back to back.”
She has performed in musicals and plays and has made her way on stages of other community theaters, including the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City and the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre.
Altoro has her own dreams of moving to bigger cities to pursue a career in music and acting, maybe even Broadway. But at the moment, there are bills to pay and a job to fulfill. For now, Altoro’s true passion comes alive on local stages, where the setting is small but the family big.
“I always call the stage my second home,” Altoro said. “If I could live up there, I would. It’s more the lights and the energy from other people; it’s an indescribable feeling.
“I was in ‘Rent’ at the Barn and we were singing ‘Seasons of Love’ and it confirmed to me that this is what I was meant to do.”
To reach Melissa Schupmann, call 816-234-4367 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.