Darren Sextro’s “In Theory” series discusses various theater topics with artists who are living and breathing the work.
Who Wants to be a Producer? with Damron Russel Armstrong
“All of them kept reiterating, ‘Never Be Afraid to Ask for MONEY.’”
Kansas City native Damron Russel Armstrong is a most familiar face on local stages, plus he has acted steadily in other parts of the country. You probably saw him recently at the Unicorn Theatre in PRISCILLA QUEEN OF THE DESERT, HOW TO — USE A KNIFE or THE BROTHERS SIZE. Or at Kansas City Actors Theatre in THE ISLAND. But he pursued a dream a couple of years ago when he founded The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City. His new theater company has produced a strong lineup of recent shows like THE AFRICAN COMPANY PRESENTS RICHARD III, DREAMGIRLS, FIVE GUYS NAMED MOE, STICK FLY, and A SOLDIER’S PLAY. But what does it mean to be an actor who becomes an artistic director and producer?
Before you founded The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City, had you ever been in the position of having to fundraise for the arts?
Only as a participant, for example a performer, lending my talents on behalf of raising funds for an entity like the Coterie, Unicorn, Fishtank, or Living Room. And volunteering for AIDS Walk Kansas City.
What was the turning point that inspired you to start your own theater company?
The death of Trayvon Martin. How the media turn the senseless death of a young man into a case of poor fashion choices: Be afraid of young men in hoodies. This made me stand back and take a look at how African Americans are portrayed in the mass media. My discovery, by overwhelming majority, was negative imagery, the worst of a race and no spotlight on the contributions made by African Americans. When you don’t know the contributions of a group of people, you cannot appreciate their worth.
And this inspired you to tell the stories of African Americans?
When engaging students, I ask them who invented the lightbulb. Resounding response: Thomas Edison. And then I mention the name Lewis Latimer, and a deafening silence falls over the room. He was an African American who invented the filament that makes a lightbulb last longer than a day. It’s an example of information, contributions that are not being disseminated through the media or in the classroom.
An even better example is the movie “Hidden Figures,” with its focus on three African-American lady engineers who are responsible for getting us into space, yet their names are not mentioned alongside John Glenn and Neil Armstrong.
That is the inspiration for The Black Repertory Theatre of Kansas City.
In the brief time that the Black Rep has been in existence, have you been able to achieve some of your initial artistic goals?
I feel that BRTKC is right on target. Our goal of producing local shows that have never seen the light of day in Kansas City has been reached. Our goal of building a bridge, for the formerly disenfranchised to find their way to the stage, has been built. We’ve even seen the awareness of theaters around town holding up a mirror to the community they serve and producing for a wider audience.
The amount of past material never produced locally coupled with new material popping up daily will ensure our ability to have an endless supply of stories to tell.
I recently wrote a fundraising letter and basically admitted that, years ago when I first served on an arts board, I was kind of terrified to ask people for money. What has that journey been like for you?
Luckily from the beginning I had people in my corner whose backgrounds were in asking and giving. People like Alexandria Washington, who is now at the Unicorn Theatre, and Lisa Cordes at Mid America Arts Alliance, and arts supporter Laura Hall. All of them kept reiterating, “Never Be Afraid to Ask for MONEY.”
I’ve believed in this project as it was forming in my head and knew it would take funding well beyond my purse strings to take it from a thought to a thriving company. What can you give today?
Now that you are an arts administrator, how do you balance the artistic decisions that you make with the commercial impact of those decisions? For example, do you find that your programming is influenced by ticket sales or funding potential?
Programming is always done with a sense of telling a really good story that will have a connection with your audience. The “balancing act” is the job. In our case, when you’re introducing what are essentially new works, you have to believe that what you market will whet the appetite of your audiences. Most will not know the titles. Before BRTKC, these stories didn’t have a home. So it is our hope that the old adage will prove itself true: IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME.
Finding the stories that will touch the hearts of audiences and bring in the bucks can be accomplished with the vast repertoire of material that has, as of yet, been untouched. Those plays and musicals that will pique the interest of the savvy theatre-goer as well as the first-timer…that is how I approach choosing shows for the season.
Has this changed you as an actor when working for another theater?
I think I now have the understanding that things such as talkbacks and sneak peeks are all a part of building a personal connection with the audience. And helping other theater companies to become vested in fundraising and outreach. Now it’s my job to pass on that knowledge, not just as part of my fledgling company.