Theatre is an art that allows us to tell the stories of our world, real or imagined. When you put theatre in an outdoor setting with sparkling stars and moonlight, that’s when something magical happens.
The Theatre in the Park (TTIP) is celebrating its 50th summer outdoor season with a blockbuster lineup of family-friendly entertainment: “Annie,” “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” “The Music Man,” “Matilda” and “The Wizard of Oz.” All the world is a stage at TTIP.
From its beginnings in 1970 at Antioch Park to its current home in the middle of Shawnee Mission Park, TTIP has brought joy to hundreds of thousands of people both on the stage and off. That’s what the founders of Johnson County Park & Recreation District’s (JCPRD) theatrical facility and its program had in mind. TTIP’s mission is “to enhance the quality of life in our community by providing a variety of entertainment programs through public and private partnerships.” Today, TTIP continues that mission as one of the largest outdoor community theaters in the country.
“While JCPRD has many popular programs, parks, and facilities throughout Johnson County, Theatre in the Park is truly a jewel in our park system,” says Susan Mong, JCPRD’s superintendent of culture. “We continue to invest in this jewel to ensure a wonderful experience by all who attend. Where else is there an opportunity to enjoy a high-quality theater performance in such a relaxing and gorgeous park setting?”
Mong says that over the last 50 summers, more than 1.5 million people have enjoyed a TTIP production under the stars.
“It is definitely a memorable experience for our audience, and an even more meaningful experience for actors, musicians, and crew members as they gain valuable experience in theater production,” Mong says.
Among those involved from the very beginning is Larry Sneegas. He came on board as a technical director and later as producer for 15 seasons.
“I remember when there was no electricity, and I got the park to provide electrical power, and I borrowed lighting instruments and music stands from high schools,” Sneegas recalls.
Sneegas’ family also participated, including his wife, Marvie, who often served as an accompanist or vocal director on many shows. His daughters, Elisa and Allison, and son, Brendan, grew up at TTIP and all appeared in shows over the years. Allison even met her future husband one summer at a cast party--Dave Borberg, a drummer in the pit orchestra. Now a member of Actor’s Equity, Allison continues to perform professionally throughout the Kansas City area.
“Some of my fondest memories include playing the role of Lt. Shrank in ‘West Side Story’ when Alison played the part of Maria. I also enjoyed playing the role of Horace in ‘Hello Dolly’ with Dodie Brown,” Sneegas says.
Numerous performers had their theatrical beginnings on the TTIP stage, and quite a few have gone on to perform across the country and around the world professionally, including the Broadway stage. Currently, TTIP alum Nancy Opel is performing in “Wicked” while Ryan Worsing is appearing in “The Cher Show.” Many others who did not go on to professional careers in the arts enjoyed their journey with TTIP for the joy of the friendships that last a lifetime.
TTIP Producing Artistic Director Tim Bair came back to the theatre in 2010 after a successful journey as a performer, choreographer, director and producer around the world. Bair’s first show on the TTIP stage was “Applause” in 1984. He served as a performer and choreographer in numerous productions before leaving town to pursue his theatrical dreams.
“I’d been away from Kansas City for many years, and my sister happened to see the job posting for executive producer and called me saying, ‘You should apply! It would be so nice to have you back home again,’” Bair said. “I did and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Support for TTIP comes from the community. According to Mong, approximately 47 percent of TTIP’s revenues in 2018 came from property taxes paid to the Johnson County Park & Recreation District.
“The remaining 53 percent came from all-important gate receipts, sponsorships, and concession sales,” Mong says.
Over the years, improvements have been made at the TTIP complex including improved bathrooms, air-conditioned dressing rooms, improved concessions and a new pavilion for rental use. The biggest “addition” came in 2017 with the opening of the Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center in the former King Louie Ice Chateau.
“It had been the dream of many folks that we could produce year-round, providing opportunities for creative staff and actors not just in the summer months, but we needed a space,” Bair says. “The Arts & Heritage Center is a dream come true! It really gives us the opportunity to produce shows that wouldn’t be appropriate for our outdoor stage."
“My dream is that every person in the metro area associates TTIP with terrific theatre, and we are the go-to option when people decide to do something fun,” Bair says. “Five decades later, we are going strong, and look forward to the day when we get to celebrate our 100th Season.”
The Theatre in the Park Timeline
1970: Jess Rose starts the Johnson County theatre program in Antioch Park. He was inspired by outdoor theatre in parks on the Kansas City, Missouri side that were disbanded following neighbors’ complaints. No dressing rooms, and minimal infrastructure. First season included the hit, “Mame.”
1973: After only two seasons, the stage was moved to an area in Shawnee Mission Park near the small lake where the program thrived, and the crowds continued to grow. The nature nightlife kept performers’ company with one bullfrog known for his regular “ribbit” during most Act II performances.
1980-present: The large complex moved north away from the water and included a bigger stage, an orchestra pit, upgraded dressing rooms, public restrooms, a set construction shop, a technical bunker, concession stand and a permanent box office.
1984: First four-show season featuring “Li'l Abner,” “Applause,” “Grease,” and
“On Borrowed Time.”
2003: Consistently produced five-show summer seasons.
2010: A beautiful outdoor picnic pavilion was constructed on the TTIP grounds.
2013: Co-productions with the Jewish Community Center began for a few seasons, starting with “Hairspray.” Productions ran indoors at The J then came outdoors to the park stage.
2014: New air-conditioned dressing rooms were built to accommodate the ever-growing casts of the yearly outdoor musical theatre season.
2017: New indoor theatre space opens at Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center in renovated space of former King Louie Ice Chateau allowing for an expanded indoor season.
2019: Celebration of 50th summer season at TTIP.