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Looming budget cuts prompt action to protect UMKC theater

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- All the world's a stage, unless the show comes to a close.

The University of Missouri Kansas City is in the midst of a spending reduction of $20 to 30 million, and performing arts educators fear their future will be threatened. Theater enthusiasts from across the metro came together on Sunday night at UMKC's Olson Performing Arts Center to show their support.

"I think about not only the quantity of people who have come from here, but the quality," one of a bevy of speakers said from the Spencer Theatre's stage said during a lively rally in support of the school's theater programs.

UMKC's performance lives up to billing. A news release from the university says theater is the top-ranked of all the university's nationally-ranked tracts of study. UMKC Chancellor, Leo Morton, told reporters he's faced with some hard choices, as he's required to cut millions from the university's operating budget during the next few years.

"We're committed to preserving theater, not just for the university but for the Kansas City community," Morton said on Sunday night.

The university's public relations department says four faculty positions within the school's theater department face elimination. If those cuts take place, they would go into effect for the coming school year, which begins in August.

"We have great people here. Great faculty. Great staff. Great study body, but when you're faced with the kinds of cuts we're faced with, you have to stand up and make some difficult decisions," Morton continued.

The stage at the Spencer Theatre has launched performing arts careers great and small, as students grow into professionals. A roll call of UMKC's graduates includes Jeff Church, director at Kansas City's popular Coterie Theatre, a popular stage production group geared toward young audiences.

"UMKC Theatre is distinguished by its co-production and groundbreaking arrangements with professional theaters in the city, and using this city's theater assets to partner in a way that's both unique and wonderful," Church said.

On the national scene, Nick Gehlfuss is known to TV viewers of the NBC show "Chicago Med," but he says he learned his craft from instructors at UMKC who pushed him to seek his dreams and gain a master's degree.

"UMKC taught me one of the keys to success -- a strong, consistent work ethic. My teachers taught me how to be comfortable working outside my comfort zone. You cannot expect progress to progress if you are consistently praised and living what you already know," Gehlfuss said.

Morton says 80-90 percent of the university's investment is in its people. He says the school is reviewing every program, and areas where the budget might be shaved.