Clio Logo
Kansas City Missouri Women's Heritage Trail
Item 20 of 26
This is a contributing entry for Kansas City Missouri Women's Heritage Trail and only appears as part of that tour.Learn More.

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre was founded in 1964 by Dr. Patricia McIlrath, who served as its Artistic Director, as well as the head of the University of Missouri-Kansas City's Theatre Department, until her retirement in 1985. Dr. McIlrath was a woman of great notoriety, who provided her expertise and passion to the KC Rep, offering a wonderful Theatre experience for those in the Kansas City area. A Kansas City native, Dr. McIlrath left the city for her education, yet returned for the majority of her career at UMKC. Nominated for multiple distinguished awards, as well as serving as a representative for multiple organizations, Dr. McIlrath demonstrated the importance of dedication, hard work, and perseverance. Her memory is alive within the Kansas City Repertory Theatre as well as the UMKC Theatre Department, and her contributions to the theatre scene in Kansas City remain important to this day.

The Kansas City Repertory Theatre was founded in 1964 by Dr. Patricia McIlrath, who served as its Artistic Director, as well as the head of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Theatre Department, until her retirement in 1985. Dr. McIlrath greatly contributed to the growth of both the professional theatre scene, as well as the academic theatre program at UMKC, in the Kansas City area. Her exceptional background proved to be beneficial to her work in Kansas City. She graduated from Grinnell College with a Bachelor of Arts in History and chose to broaden her scope for her graduate career. She received a Master of Arts in Speech and Theatre from Northwestern, and completed her education with a Ph.D. in Theatre and English from Stanford University in 1951. With such amazing academic credentials, Dr. McIlrath moved into her professional career with ease. In 1954, she joined the faculty at UMKC and worked her way up to becoming the head of the theatre department. While this alone is an accomplishment in and of itself, Dr. McIlrath continued to prove her prowess through additional achievements. 

One such achievement was the founding of the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, also referred to as the Missouri Repertory Theatre, in 1964. Prior to its creation, the professional theatre scene in Kansas City was not one of merit. Additionally, Dr. McIlrath used this Theatre as an opportunity to combine professional theatre with academic theatre. She realized, after entering the field outside of academia, professional development was crucial to truly prepare students for entering theatre careers. Thus, the Rep, as many refer to the Theatre, served as an opportunity for students to gain hands-on experience with professionals. This was an innovative practice that Dr. McIlrath capitalized on throughout her career. While providing a way for theatre students to gain exposure to professionals, Dr. McIlrath also expanded the professional theatre scene in areas around the Kansas City metro as director of the Missouri Vanguard Theatre, a traveling unit associated with the Rep. 

The Rep was relocated to the Helen F. Spencer Theatre on the UMKC campus in 1979. This move provided a permanent space for the KC Rep and allowed for further collaboration between it and the Theatre Department at UMKC. Dr. McIlrath introduced additional programs in order to further assist her students in their pursuit of careers in the theatre field. One such program was an artist-in-residence, which brought in a different theatre professional each year to serve as a resource and mentor for students. Residents were not only professionals from the United States, with Dr. McIlrath extending her reach to China and Russia to bring in professionals. One such artist-in-residence was Ying Ruocheng, a highly sought-after actor in China, for the 1982-83 academic year. Other additions to the Rep included visiting directors, including Academy Award winner John Houseman, among other top professionals. Dr. McIlrath’s ability to enhance both the Repertory Theatre and the Theatre Department to national recognition displayed her passion and determination to better the theatre field for prospective students and professionals. In Dr. McIlrath’s own words:

“The nurturing my proteges received at the Rep has resulted in their founding nine more professional theatres. And I’m very proud of that. I think that the more theatre you have, the better.”5

Dr. McIlrath served as member of many different organizations, including on the board of the American Theatre Association, the board of the National Theatre Conference, and on the board of the National Endowment of the Arts. She also received three honorary doctorates of humane letters, one from Grinnell College, one from Park College, and one from William Jewel College. She was beloved by her colleagues and students, proven by multiple correspondence and letters found in the Kansas City Repertory Theater Collection in the LaBudde Special Collections at UMKC. Her contributions shaped both the professional and academic theatre spheres in Kansas City. As Dr. McIlrath said herself:

“The interaction of the professional and non-professional and the semi-professional and the university in Kansas City is, I think, greater than anyplace I’ve ever known.”5

Overall, her contributions to theatre within Kansas City, as well as her lasting impression on others throughout her life, have made her an excellent role model for those who want to follow in her footsteps. 

  1. Einig, Anne Christine. Londre, Felicia. Dr. Patricia McIlrath: founder and artistic director of the Missouri Repertory Theatre. 2000. 
  2. Felicia Londre to Wesley J. Dale, February 23, 1981, Kansas City Repertory Theater Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City, MS-233, Box 52, Folder 15. 
  3. Kindall, James. Our Lady of the Rep. Star: The Weekly Magazine. February 17th 1985. 9 - 17. 
  4. Lapham, Jim. The Woman behind Missouri Repertory Theatre. Kansas City Star. June 9th 1974. 
  5. McIlrath, Patricia. An Atmosphere of Genius. Forum. January 1st 1989. 8 - 11. 
  6. Million Legg, Charlotte. "Missouri Repertory Theatre on the move." UMKC Bulletin (Kansas City) . Spring 1979 ed, 1-7. 
  7. Proctor, Mary. Her top production is theater. Missouri Life. January 1st 1983. 27 - 29. 
  8. Who We Are, Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Accessed September 29th 2021.