Shawnee Magazine Spring/Summer 2024

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MAGAZINE 2024 spring/summer also in this issue Music Theatre KC Alumni Return Willow Tree Supports Does Just That Seven Stories Bookstore Offers More





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Dear Readers,

Since Mother Nature appears to be having trouble heralding the arrival of spring, it might make sense to have a plan B in place to deal with temperature extremes this spring and summer.

As you turn these pages, you’ll note several places to visit where being inside is an advantage. Take the Johnson County Museum (page 17), where 50,000 visitors have explored the history of the county and the country during the more than 55 years of museum memories.

Seven Stories bookstore has an interesting history (page 12). Started by Halley Vincent, 14, two years ago, the bookstore offers a diverse and everchanging selection of books and gifts.

Not to be missed, Music Theatre of Kansas City (page 8) is a training ground for Broadway-bound actors as well as a local outlet for skilled professionals. A wonderful season awaits those eager to witness the magic of a live stage production.

Of course, Shawnee’s helping nature comes through when Smarter Consulting (page 20) is in the discussion. The local firm offers tech support via virtual channels to companies around the country.

And Willow Tree Support (page 26) helps adults with special needs find “meaningful engagement” in their lives. The organization also partners with other groups, such as St. James Academy, to promote the idea that every person is valuable and has something to contribute.

If it’s an outdoor activity you seek this spring, why not check out the season at Theatre in the Park? The outdoor amphitheater accommodates up to 4,000 theater patrons; this season, the shows focus on strong women, both characters and directors. For more, turn to page 22.

So no matter what Mother Nature throws at us, we always have plenty to see and do in Shawnee!

Happy spring!

Editor Jean Teller Designer/Art Director Alex Tatro Copy Editor Leslie Clugston Andres Account Executive Angie Taylor Contributing Photographers Kevin Anderson Katie Lewis Sarah Reeves Nicole Scheier Bill Stephens Contributing Writers Jill Dutton Jackie Hostetler Beth Kornegay Bob Luder Bill Stephens Kari Williams Publisher Bill Uhler Director Bob Cucciniello Shawnee Magazine is a publication of Sunflower Publishing, a division of Ogden Publications. (888) 497-8668 Follow us on twitter @shawneemag FIND US ON facebook On the cover Cast member Jasmine Lowe in the spotlight for Shout! The Mod Musical at Theatre in the Park. Photo courtesy Theatre in the Park/Nicole Scheier Photography, SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 2024 spring/summer also in this issue FOR THEATRE IN THE PARK
Anica Milberger REALTOR®, ABR®, PSA 816.719.3300 Whether Buying Or Selling, I Am Here To Help You Local • Reliable • Experienced • Fulltime Agent Your Library card is your coupon to savings! Before you spend, save time and money researching expert opinions and advice with resources from Johnson County Library. Stop in or visit online today! No purchase necessary. No expiration. No late fees. Valid at all 14 locations.

Departments Features


Musical theater group offers training for acting students and performances for the public.




Halley Vincent, with help from her mother, Alisha, opened Seven Stories bookstore at age 12. Two years later, she’s still the youngest bookseller in the US.


Once located in Shawnee, the Johnson County Museum moved to a larger location in Overland Park in 2017.


Smarter Consulting offers a range of tech support services for any type of company.


Excitement builds for the summer season at Theatre in the Park.


Willow Tree Supports delivers decade of service to Shawnee community.

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Setting the Stage

Musical theater group offers training for acting students and performances for the public.

In 1991, when Cary Danielson Pandzik moved to Overland Park, she founded Music Theatre for Young People of Kansas City. She had founded a similar group, Music Theatre for Young People, in 1984 in Wichita; that organization is now part of Music Theatre Wichita. The local entity was rebranded as Music Theatre Kansas City in 2014 and has been providing musical theater in the Kansas City area for more than 30 years.

Now located in Shawnee, MTKC’s mission is to celebrate the collaborative art form of musical theater through preparatory training and professional performances. The group emphasizes the importance of live music in an inclusive environment honoring both individuality and community.

Shawnee’s B&B Theatre, at 16301 Midland Drive, converted one of its movie auditoriums into a live-theater space six years ago to accommodate MTKC performances. Auditorium No. 7, now called B&B Live, provides the space for MTKC productions and is located just to the right of the concession stand in the main lobby.

Students and Professionals

MTKC is divided into two parts: One part focuses on student performances and the other, known as MTKC Pro, consists of adult professional performers. Student shows run one or two weekends while professional shows run over the course of two or three weekends.

Artistic director Julie Danielson says the organization performs an array of shows each year that features performers of all ages, including the four professional shows and six student productions that were part of the 2023–2024 season.

“Musical theater spans over a century of writers, so we have big decisions to make each year when we plan our season. One of the primary features of our productions is our signature onstage orchestra. We always feature live local musicians, including both professionals and students,” Danielson says.

The Julie Tree Fund was started in 2009 to help ensure the tradition of live orchestra music continues. Named in honor of Danielson, the fund’s latest production was Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, which featured an all-female onstage orchestra.

SHAWNEE MAGAZINE | 8 Local business
Julie Danielson, artistic director for Musical Theatre Kansas City, stands in the B&B Live auditorium.

A special production of Soundstage: The Hollywood Musical Project is scheduled for June 14–16. This original production was written and directed by Roy Lightner and Julie Danielson and will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the B&B Theatre chain, which began in 1924 when Elmer Bills Sr. bought a theater in Salisbury, Missouri. B&B is now the sixth-largest theater chain in North America, operating nearly 500 screens at more than 50 locations in 13 states.

Training Future Stars

MTKC offers a training program with auditions held in March. This year’s program saw more than 120 students from nearly 60 schools auditioning for the summer term. Students pay tuition, but scholarships are available and can be applied for during the application process. The tuition covers training fees, materials and activities.

The theater program also hosts a one-week summer camp, called appropriately “Waiting in the Wings.” The camp takes place in early June and will culminate this year

Kansas City social media accounts include MTKCOfficial on Facebook, Instagram, and Tik Tok.

Upcoming Performances:

• Rocky, April 12–28

• Soundstage: The Hollywood Musical Project, June 14–16

• Seussical The Musical, June 28–30 and July 5–7

• Children of Eden, July 19–21 and July 26–28

• Merrily We Roll Along, September

• Sugarplum, December

Information about Music Theatre

Kansas City can be found on the website, | SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 9

with two performances of The Adventures of Charlie Brown. All campers take part in the performance, and auditions are held for casting assignments only. Registration is now open on the website, An additional gala event will take place in August with cast members performing a production number from each of the season’s shows.

Many of the MTKC graduating students continue their education majoring in music or theater and pursuing acting as a career. Notable performers who started at MTKC include Bebe Wood, who recently starred as Gretchen in the new Mean Girls movie; Justin Cooley, who is currently starring on Broadway in Kimberly Akimbo and was nominated for a Tony Award; Brian Sears, who is currently performing in his eighth Broadway show, Merrily We Roll Along; and Kalen Allen, an international cultural influencer and former host of the Ellen show.

In addition, Drew Starlin was the first MTKC alumnus to perform on Broadway. He was part of the original cast of Footloose and will be returning to Kansas City to play the title role in Rocky with MTKC Pro. More than 30 alumni of the MTKC program have performed on Broadway, in television shows, and on other professional performing platforms.

“We bring people in from all over the Kansas City metropolitan area and beyond, both as performers and audience members. MTKC Pro is one of the three professional theaters on the Kansas side of the metro, and we’re proud to bring such high-quality productions to Johnson County,” Julie says.

Tickets for upcoming performances are sold at the B&B Theatre box office as well as through MTKC’s website.

Top: During a rehearsal, Drew Starlin looks over the book for his lead role in Rocky at Music Theatre Kansas City in Shawnee; below, the entrance to MTKC.

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Shawnee’s Young Entrepreneur

Halley Vincent, with help from her mother, Alisha, opened Seven Stories bookstore at age 12. Two years later, she’s still the youngest bookseller in the US.

It started with a school bake sale. Nothing out of the ordinary, unless you take into consideration that the visionary behind the fundraiser was 8-year-old Halley Vincent. Still, Halley couldn’t imagine at the time that the bake sale would eventually lead her to open a bookstore at age 12.

“Sometimes people assume that I just woke up and said, ‘I want to have a bookstore.’ But it started when I was 8 years old, and I wanted to hold a bake sale. When I came home with all the money I had earned from selling all of our baked goods—and there was quite a bit because I’d sold out of everything—my mom asked me who I was going to donate it to. I love animals, so I decided to donate it to the pet shelter where we had gotten our dog from at the time, Great Plains SPCA.”

Halley, now 14, feels the steps from a bake sale at age 8, to reading to animals at the shelter, to a tiny library and to a mobile bookstore led her at long-last to a physical store where many of her passions—books, animals, diversity, philanthropy—meld together in a community space.

“I was a shy kid, but I liked fundraising,” Halley says. “So I held another bake sale. And another. Every time I did another fundraiser, it just got bigger and better. After a while, I created Paws Up KC, a nonprofit organization.”

Through Paws Up KC, Halley raises funds for pet shelters and literacy organizations. Her main fundraising vehicle, after the bake sales, is a free community bookmobile. In 2023, Halley says she donated 800 books at 52 events. She can be found at Moonlight Markets and every Saturday at the Shawnee Famers Market, directly across the street from her bookstore, Seven Stories.

During the pandemic, and unable to do fundraising or work at the shelter in person, she opened a tiny free library in front of her home. When her supply of donated books grew to more than the tiny library—and her garage—could contain, Halley converted a riding lawn mower into a traveling library and started riding around her neighborhood donating books to anyone interested.

article by Jill Dutton photos by Katie Lewis
SHAWNEE MAGAZINE | 12 Local business
In her bookstore, Seven Stories, Halley Vincent holds a photo of her traveling library from a few years ago. She donated books to everyone in her neighborhood.

Seven Stories

“I don’t know that I’d necessarily say (I had) a specific idea for a bookstore. Instead, everything just fell into place to get here. Everything truly just happened, one step at a time, and here I am,” Halley says.

Their first physical bookstore opened because of Alisha’s desire to find an artist’s studio for herself. In 2022, they transformed a small, irregularly shaped space behind the current Mother Clucker! location into an artist’s studio and bookstore.

“We worked together to create a cozy and inviting space,” Alisha says. “We featured seven books on a natural ledge each month, creating the ‘Seven Stories’ moniker for the space.”

In 2023, the store moved to its current home on Johnson Drive. With such a small space, Halley says it’s important to hand-select books she finds of interest and to ask customers their reading preferences.

A Diverse Selection

The book selection is often as simple as Halley choosing topics she finds interesting. She also special orders books based on requests and uses customer feedback to help her tailor book purchases. Being the only bookseller in the

An avid reader, Halley has established a welcoming atmosphere for book lovers of all ages at her shop, Seven Stories. She specializes in diverse children’s and young adult titles and keeps the stock rotating so there’s something new each time anyone visits. | SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 13

area, Halley has tapped into a nostalgia market: those who enjoy perusing a bookstore, holding a book in their hands, and speaking with a bookseller in person.

“Every 30 days, Halley will evaluate what is selling, and what is still sitting on the shelves, and order new items based on her inventory. That means that each month there’s a 35% flip of what’s in stock so there’s always something new for return visitors,” Alisha says.

While the book selections are as diverse as the authors Halley features, she says she specializes in one topic: diverse children’s books.

“We also carry Mandarin- and Spanish-language books, which is not common in most bookstores,” Halley says.

Forty percent of the store is dedicated to nonfiction titles, and local author events are popular at Seven Stories.

In addition to the books, visitors find local artwork as well as local honey, women’s safety devices, glassware, and other items that Halley thinks will interest customers. The store has a handicapped-accessible bathroom with a baby-changing table.

With so much media coverage, Halley says she has visitors who come from as far as Wichita, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Nebraska to purchase books. One customer even brought a news clipping for Halley to sign.

Tiny Shop, Big Heart

Where did this gift for philanthropy, community involvement, and a love of books come from? Most likely, she inherited a bit of creativity and vision from her artist mother.

When she was younger, Halley began painting rocks to leave in spots for others to find. She liked the creative aspect of painting, but even more so the thought of bringing unexpected joy to others.

That gift for bringing joy continues, and Halley says her mission is rooted in a natural ability for sales, and a love of community, philanthropy, and helping others.

“It’s important for me to make sure my community feels represented,” Halley says.

Alisha says of her daughter’s mature vision at such a young age: “I’m not surprised by the direction that Halley has taken at such a young age, and many people who knew her even as young as 2 or 3 often come into the store and say the same. It feels like she was born to do this, and naturally, as her mom, I want to help facilitate her doing more of what she loves and what she’s good at.

“It’s a magical thing to be able to step back and see your kid at any age doing the thing that they were maybe meant to do. And while I understand she’s doing these things at a younger age than most of us, I also really value the fact that she’s not satisfied to just try the one thing. She’s always pushing the envelope and taking herself out of her comfort zone to make things bigger and better.”

Seven Stories

11109 Johnson Drive Shawnee, KS 66203

Closed Mondays. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday

10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday.

The store is open later on Thursdays to accommodate local authors for book signing events:


Paws Up KC

Great Plains Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Pet Adoption Center

5424 Antioch Drive

Merriam, KS 66202


11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, by appointment only from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday and Tuesday

Admissions & Lost Pets

5428 Antioch Drive

Merriam, KS 66202


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Preserving History

Once located in Shawnee, the Johnson County Museum moved to a larger location in Overland Park in 2017.

The Johnson County Museum, located at 8788 Metcalf in Overland Park, shares the history of Johnson County with its 50,000 visitors annually while focusing on how Johnson County impacts the nation.

The museum is more than 55 years old and has been at its present location since 2017. The upstairs was a King Louie bowling alley and the downstairs was an ice skating rink, according to Andrew R. Gustafson, the curator of interpretation for the museum.

“One of the themes of our museum is explaining how Johnson County became a place after suburbanization,” Gustafson says. “People no longer drove into Kansas City

to work every day, but in the ’60s and ’70s, Johnson County became a place in its own right. Families moved here to work. Interestingly we have found that just as many people drive into Kansas City to work as drive from Kansas City to work in Overland Park. Johnson County is a place to work, live and play.”

One of the featured exhibits is the “all-electric house,” which used to be located in Shawnee before being moved to the lower level of the museum. It was built in 1954 in the Prairie Village neighborhood. Five different families lived in it from 1954 until 1994. It evokes nostalgia for the baby boomers who grew up in similar homes.

article and photos by | SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 17 Local business
Bill Stephens

Another featured display focuses on the Olathe Naval Air Station and includes a pilot’s uniform and other memorabilia. The uniform on display belonged to a naval aviator who was stationed there for several decades.

An informative permanent exhibit details the border skirmishes between Kansas and Missouri in the years leading up to the Civil War. Fighting raged along the Kansas and Missouri border between 1854 and 1859. The fate of slavery in the Kansas territory was the predominant cause of the fighting and led to the term “bleeding Kansas.”

Developing Johnson County

The railroad played a role in developing Johnson County. One of the interesting exhibits in that section of the museum is a “cannonball safe,” which is round, weighs 4500 pounds, and was designed to resist dynamite or other attempts to force it open. External blasts were supposed to ricochet off it, but it has never been tested.

“In May 1951, officials from Johnson County placed a time capsule within the cornerstone of the new Johnson County Courthouse,” Gustafson says. “Nearly seven decades later, during the demolition of the courthouse, the time capsule was rediscovered, revealing a fully intact, handmade copper box. Inside this meticulously sealed container lay a trove of documents, carefully selected, wrapped and preserved by government officials, awaiting the eyes of future generations. The 176 items in it were wrapped in aluminum foil and sealed with beeswax.

“Documents and photographs were the main contents along with a newspaper and photographs taken at the time of the capsule ceremony, developed and added to the box. Even an audiotape was found that contained snippets from the cornerstone and time capsule-laying ceremony on May 7, 1951. It also included a speech from then-Kansas adjutant general Joe Nickells. The documents included a list of the 189 county employees.” Now there are 3,900 county employees.

The time capsule exhibit ended early in May. June 1 is the opening date for the next exhibit, which features 1960s women’s fashions in collaboration with the fashion and merchandising department at Johnson County Community College and its historic clothing collection. The exhibit will explore how changes during the decades played out in women’s clothing.

Johnson County Museum

Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center

788 Metcalf Ave. Overland Park, KS 66212


Open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

Monday through Saturday

Closed Sunday and holidays

Andrew R. Gustafson is the curator of interpretation for the Johnson County Museum.

For the Kids

KidScape is an area designed to give youngsters a handson experience. A make-believe school room, theater, diner and hospital allow children to use their imagination. A city market contains a cash register, tomatoes, onions, cucumbers and other items that would be found at such a market. The youngsters can play with the items by themselves or with new friends. Parents are welcome to rest on the seats and cushions provided while their children explore. Approximately 20,000 children visited KidScape last year.

The Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center houses the museum. Other portions of the building include Black Box Theater, multipurpose rehearsal studios, a makers space for creating artwork and other items, an arts studio and a dance studio. All fall under the auspices of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District.

Most public areas are wheelchair accessible. Courtesy wheelchairs are available at no charge on a first-come firstserved basis. Wheelchair-accessible restrooms are available on both floors. An elevator provides access to both levels of the building. Trained service animals are welcome.

Gustafson, a native of New York, has been with the museum for seven years. He works with the collections team, education team and administrators to choose which stories to tell.

50 Years and Counting

The Johnson County Museum began as an allvolunteer organization in 1967 with the mission of collecting, preserving and sharing the history of Johnson County. Originally located in the two-room 1927 Greenwood School in Shawnee, the facility expanded over the years into a 20,000-square-foot museum before moving to its current home in 2017.

Along with the move, the museum celebrated its 50th year in its new home. The museum has been recognized many times for excellence in exhibitions, programming and publications by national, regional and state organizations. The Johnson County Museum also operates the Lanesfield Historical Site in Edgerton, Kansas.

The facility came under the management of Johnson County Park and Recreation District in 2016. The Museum Advisory Council, appointed by the Johnson County Commission, oversees the museum’s collection program while a separate not-for-profit foundation raises private funds to support museum initiatives. A professional staff of 10 oversee day-to-day museum operations with the support of more than 50 community volunteers. | SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 19
The museum’s KidScape is filled with fascinating items designed to stimulate the imagination and give youngsters a hands-on experience.

Tech Partners

Smarter Consulting offers a range of tech support services for any type of company.

It’s the heart of conference season, so pinning down Sharon Weaver to discuss the company she created seven years ago is a bit of a challenge. One day she’s on a cruise ship running a community meetup, a couple days later she’s jetting off to Seattle to speak at a major tech conference. The one day in between, she hunkers down in her Orlando, Florida, rental home catching up on business with her company, Smarter Consulting.

“I speak at conferences around the world,” says Weaver, remarkably alert and energetic given her unrelenting schedule. “It’s usually a six-week conference season starting at the end of February. It breaks during the summer, then usually starts up again in the fall. I also do podcasts.”

Even with the hectic travel and speaking schedule, Weaver devotes the bulk of her time and attention to Smarter Consulting, a team of specialists with more than 30 years of experience who help companies with software application development, improve and make more efficient business processes and operations, and content management. The company prides itself in excelling in planning, designing, and implementing Microsoft 365 solutions for businesses throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area and nationwide.

while working in a retail pharmacy. But, already married with children, she realized that career path wasn’t going to pay the bills. So, she enrolled in a new program centered around interactive media at Johnson County Community College.

She was off and running on a new career path. “(In the class) they told us about something called the internet,” Weaver says. “Before long, I was making web pages, doing PowerPoint presentations.”

She discovered being an IT contractor allowed her the flexibility to also be a mother and wife. She worked in corporate positions for about 10 years, including three and a half years at Black & Veatch, and sharpened her skills in organizing content and information distribution. She, however, missed the flexibility and personal growth she had enjoyed as an independent consultant and left in 2014 to form KC Tech Group with her husband, Jonathan. “That’s where I learned a lot about running a business,” she says.

When Jonathan Weaver decided he would rather work for another company than work for himself, Sharon Weaver started Smarter Consulting in 2017. She hired her first employee in 2020 and now has six full-time employees and a handful of contractors.


Open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday Smarter Consulting

“I’m a trainer at heart,” Weaver says. “People call me because they want to improve their technology and speed up their business processes. What we do is allow technology to serve (companies) and build processes around that technology.

“We partner with the best in the world. We have credentials with Microsoft. We can assemble a team at a moment’s notice.”

Weaver almost didn’t get into technology at all. She started in pre-med and earned an undergraduate degree in developmental psychology at the University of Kansas

What makes her team unique, Weaver says, is that many of her employees began at Smarter Consulting without much, if any, background in tech.

“I came to the company with a retail management background,” says Angela Jones, a Shawnee resident who joined the company four years ago and now is chief operations officer. “I’ve been exposed to all different kinds of technologies, and it’s been great helping businesses solve problems.”

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SHAWNEE MAGAZINE | 20 Local resume

A Variety of Services

Smarter Consulting offers clients a plethora of services.

• Strategy and planning – identifying priorities and executing a clear, strategic roadmap, taking defined steps to reach goals.

• Productivity – as a Microsoft partner, helping organizations get the most of Microsoft 365 applications.

• User training and adoption – mixing productivity tips and education to ensure employees know the best way to work with applications.

• Governance – assessing a company’s environment and creating strategies to manage who has access to what and when.

• Migration – helping companies move data to the cloud, or vice versa.

• Power platform development – streamline operations and boost productivity with custom apps tailored to meet specific needs.

“(Smarter Consulting was instrumental in) figuring out the best ways to integrate our Microsoft 365 platform, use all the tools and become more efficient,” says Lisa Fleming, chief executive officer at Rose Brooks, which provides shelter and support programs for people coping with domestic violence.

“It can be pretty daunting being a nonprofit without an IT department,” Fleming says. “Smarter Consulting was great at putting it in plain language, figuring out what was unique to our organization. They coordinated not only with our organization, but also with all our community partners.”

Smarter Consulting even has customers who are themselves tech companies and double as business partners.

“Their focus is on looking at footprints of where we have files stored,” says James Brouhard, director, consulting & modernization at FNTS (First National Technology Solutions), headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska. “They figure out where files should live and then figure out the best way to move them, such as off a physical file server to cloud-based platforms. They also help organize files in a modern fashion.

“They know the business conversations we should be having, not just the technology. Our (companies’) cultures match in terms of flexibility and adaptability.”

Ahead of the Curve

According to Weaver, Smarter Consulting pulled in about $800,000 in revenue last year. Almost all of that was paid back out to support employees and contractors and build and grow the company. In the world of technology, that growth typically comes at a rapid pace.

Weaver jokes that the subject of artificial intelligence (AI) already has become a drinking game as to when the first mention of AI will surface.

“We’re already automating as many processes as possible,” she says. “Now, AI can tell us how to automate those processes.

“The people’s expectations of technology are going to change the fabric of what we do. Now, even construction workers can access everything they need to do their jobs on their phones.

“It all comes down to how can you get more out of the time you have.”

When that time comes, Smarter Consulting is here to help. | SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 21
The cast of Shout! The Mod Musical, left to right: Anne Haines as Red, Whitney Armstrong as Green, Rachel Hendrickson as Orange, Jasmine Lowe as Yellow, and Leah Eggimann as Blue.

All The Park’s a Stage!

Excitement builds for the summer season at Theatre in the Park.

When thinking about the vast amenities of the Johnson County Park and Recreation District, one might consider traversing the beautiful terrain at Big Bull Creek Park in Edgerton or saddling up on the equestrian trails at Mill Creek Streamway Park in Olathe or enjoying the inclusive playground at Stilwell Community Park in Stilwell. All are excellent examples of the quintessential park experiences common in Johnson County. But what about the not-so-quintessential park experience? The dazzling. The dramatic. The passionate. In other words, Theatre in the Park.

Shawnee Mission Park, at West 79th Street and Renner Road in Shawnee, hosts one of the most exciting live theater experiences in the area. The park houses a large outdoor amphitheater that is used for five productions held throughout the summer. The theater holds as many as 4,000 patrons, but a typical show sees an average closer to 900 to 1,200 attendees. Stuffy formalities are left at the door when visiting Theatre in the Park; patrons are invited to bring blankets, lawn chairs, picnic baskets, and even frisbees to enjoy the show in casual comfort.

Guy Gardner is the associate artistic director for Theatre in the Park; he cites the ease and accessibility of the theater as one of its best assets.

“There are amphitheaters in park systems throughout the country, but Theatre in the Park is one of the few that caters to everyone, in terms of both the performers and the crowd that it draws,” says Gardner.

In the Park

The theater has been in operation within Shawnee Mission Park since June 1980, but outdoor musical theater was alive and well in Johnson County

even before then. Antioch Park was the original home to Theatre in the Park, opening its fledgling season in1970 on a humble stage made of board and brick. It quickly became evident that the community craved more, prompting the move to Shawnee Mission Park.

Since the first season in Shawnee Mission Park, there have been a number of additions and improvements, including upgraded dressing rooms, public restrooms, a set construction shop, a technical bunker, concession stand, a permanent box office and an outdoor picnic pavilion.

Even with all the upgrades and amenities, an affordable and accessible theater experience remains a top priority for Theatre in the Park.

Producing artistic director Tim Bair understands the importance of providing a welcoming environment for families on a budget.

“It’s affordable,” Bair says. “Families can afford admission for everyone. Bring your family! Bring your friends! It’s just a nice, welcoming place.”

The theater provides a warm atmosphere for patrons, and the performers are treated to a topnotch theater experience. Each season, almost 100 performers are cast across the five featured shows, and the audition process is nothing short of spectacular. Each spring, for one weekend and one weekend only, hopefuls within Johnson County and surrounding areas prepare a short audition piece, including a little song and a little dance. The production staff and choreography staff for all five shows are present for the audition. After a bit of back and forth among the teams, the callbacks are made. Within just a matter of days, all five shows are cast. And the caliber of performer is high, regardless of whether they are fresh off the plane from New York City or the guy next door.

article by Jackie photos courtesy Theatre in the Park/Nicole | SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 23

Careful Selection

“What makes Theatre in the Park special is the scale in which we perform and the quality of performer the show draws,” Gardner says. “In any one show there might be professional actors, a local lawyer, a stay-athome mom, and six high school students.”

As Theatre in the Park prepares for its upcoming summer season, Bair says they have been particularly mindful in their selections, of not only the cast but also the shows to be presented and the directors who will lead those shows.

“All the shows this summer have strong female characters. Likewise, all the shows have female directors,” Bair says. “When Guy and I realized this, we made a concerted effort to go down that path this season.” (For more, see “Summer of Strong Women” on page 25.)

Between directors, cast and crew, orchestra members, and the dozens of other roles involved in producing a successful show, there is no lack of talented and driven people working both in front of and behind the curtain.

In his full-time role as producer and artistic director, Bair is the person who selects shows, coordinates directors, and executes a cohesive vision for the theater. Bair started his journey with Theatre in the Park many years ago as a performer in the 1984 production of Applause. After living in New York City for 15 years and performing around the country, Bair returned to Theatre in the Park in 2010, and it has been his theatrical home ever since.

Gardner, who began in the full-time role of associate artistic director last year, also has a long history with Theatre in the Park. He performed in his first show with Theatre in the Park, Seussical the Musical, in 2005. Gardner spent time traveling the world with touring companies and cruise ships before returning to Theatre in the Park after 2020.

Other individuals who are critical not only to the execution of the productions but also to the day-to-day workings of Theatre in the Park include production manager Sarah Saugier, technical director David Powell and administrative assistant Rachel Rendina.

Among the most important people involved in the success of Theatre in the Park, are, of course, the patrons. Without an audience, there would be no show. The staff of Theatre in the Park and Johnson County Park and Recreation are quick to acknowledge and appreciate patrons’ presence.

Each year, loyal fans are treated to a thank you in the form of a free event called Fun Fest. It’s typically held shortly after the last show of the summer season and provides a range of activities for the whole family. The

event kicks off with a 5k run through Shawnee Mission Park, often with a few special guests along the path (think princesses!). The fun continues with games, local vendors, and live performances on stage. Even leashed pets are invited to join in the festivities. Each year, Fun Fest proves to be an amazing end to an amazing season.

As Theatre in the Park approaches its 55th season this summer, the organization is looking forward to welcoming more than 35,000 patrons through the gates, as well as dozens of actors, orchestra members, and crew members. In preparation for the start of the season, Bair and Gardner could not be more enthusiastic for all involved.

“To have such a lovely venue inside such a lovely park—it’s a real asset to the community of Shawnee,” Bair says.

Gardner adds, “We love what we do. We look forward to 55 more years!”

Audiences love the casual atmosphere at Theatre in the Park; the entire family has fun watching the performances as they sit in lawn chairs or on blankets, play frisbee, or picnic in the park.

Summer of the Strong Woman

The 2024 summer lineup at Theatre in the Park highlights bold female characters on stage and bold female directors behind the scenes:

Theatre in the Park Johnson County Arts & Heritage Center

8788 Metcalf Ave. Overland Parks, KS 66212



Bye Bye Birdie

Emily Vargo

Anastasia Barb Nichols

Anything Goes Amy Sander

Hello Dolly! Liz Ernst

Sister Act LB

May 31 to June 8

June 14 to June 22

June 28 to July 6

July 12 to July 20

July 26 to August 3 | SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 25

Growing Community

Willow Tree Supports delivers decade of service to Shawnee community.

For the past decade, Willow Tree Supports has infused the Shawnee community with the resources and support for adults with special needs.

Co-director Patty Long retired as a special education coordinator in 2013, and she knows the need for services post-high school—and that meaningful participation in activities helps those with special needs continue as lifelong learners.

“It made sense to look at a day service for adults with developmental disabilities, and in that type of business we needed a RN. And Connie (Morris) is my sister-in-law,” Long says of her co-director. “She was also at the point (of) looking for something different, so we started Willow Tree Supports.”

A few years later, Willow Tree Supports’ coordinator Jill Groner joined the staff.

Located off K-7 at 23733 W. 83rd Terr., Willow Tree Supports currently serves about 70 people total with approximately 40 people taking part each day in its day service.

“It seemed like a real good fit for us to be in the area,” says Morris, a registered nurse. “We’ve been able to expand from half of the building to the entire building.”

Organic Growth

Its growth has come through word of mouth, according to Long.

“Individuals who do well here are the ones who like to stay busy and engaged and want to learn,” Long says. “As a former teacher, [I’m excited] that

photos by Sarah Reeves
Individuals at Willow Tree Supports also offer each other support and welcoming hugs. | SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 27

in schools many of our individuals weren’t ready to learn some things because they’re developmentally delayed. So now in their 30s, they’re wanting to understand more. They get it now.”

The organization, Long says, also offers supportive employment and helps people find jobs in the community. But she says “meaningful engagement” is the best description of what the organization does for its clients, whether educational, vocational or social. Topics can range from what to do if there’s a fire or tornado to dealing with grief and consent.

Large group activities—discussing the news or cheering on the Kansas City’s professional sports teams, for example—are offered to help participants learn skills needed to be in a social setting with lots of people.

Engagement also extends into other areas of the community, such as Willow Tree Supports’ longstanding relationship with St. James Academy. Katie Walters, director of community and a theology teacher at the academy, says a staff member recommended the organization be included in the academy’s annual Serve Day.

That included sending “houses” of 20–25 students, from freshmen to seniors, to organizations in the community, among them Willow Tree Supports.

“I just think it is so powerful for our young people,” Walters says.

A women’s faith-sharing group that Walters sponsors also partners with Willow Tree Supports. In both instances, Walters says Willow Tree Supports invites the students to bring a program or activity for the clients. Past lessons and activities have focused on friendship, encouragement and positive self-talk.

“We tell those students (that) really what matters most when you walk into this partnership is you are going to meet some awesome individuals,” Walters says.

Willow Tree Supports embodies the idea that every person is valuable “as a member of society” and can contribute to society, Walters says.

“You have something to offer and something to receive from your greater community, and I think Willow Tree models that for us,” she says. “I see our students learning the lesson of ‘It’s important that we all have similarities and that we all have differences.’ Some are more noticeable than others, but we also all have different strengths, and we all have different weaknesses.”

The women behind Willow Tree Supports, from left: co-director Patty Long, coordinator Jill Groner, and co-director Connie Morris.

Part of the Community

Willow Tree Supports is affiliated with Johnson County Developmental Support, which is connected to Medicaid with its mission that states people need to participate in the community. In some cases, this means four to five people will go to a business or residence and complete a service that they’re paid for, such as cleaning.

“We have individuals at Price-Chopper,” she says. “We go and support them as their job coach. … Many (are employed) in Shawnee because it’s close. We do support with job coaching throughout.”

Willow Tree Supports also has working relationships with the Shawnee Civic Centre, area high schools and the Shawnee Fire Department.

Deputy fire chief Corey Sands says he ran into an opportunity where he and some of the fire crews would put together informational packets to distribute.

“Their clients love to help and we love to help,” he says. “And really they help us protect our community. … We’ll send the fire crew up there to pick up the packs and hang out with the clients.”

Community Partners

• Down Syndrome Guild of Kansas City

• Johnson County Community Developmental Disabilities Organization

Willow Tree Supports

23733 W. 83rd Terr. Shawnee, KS 66227


Day Service Hours: 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

• Lakeview Village

• Meals on Wheels

• New Hope Food Pantry

• Special Olympics

• Sunrise Senior Living

• Starfish Project

• St. James Academy | SHAWNEE MAGAZINE 29
A morning break to get everyone moving (left) and a individual concentrates on a task (right).

• Five-Star CMS Rating

• Ranked #1 out of 112 Skilled Nursing Homes within a 25-mile radius by

• 96% Overall Satisfaction Rate by outside third-party surveying company

• In-Home Therapy Team

• Silver National Quality Award given by American Health Care Association

• PEAK: Promoting Excellent Alternatives In Kansas Level 7 Award out of 312 homes. 1 of 8 with this distinction

• Best In Class Food Service Award presented by Pinnacle Insights

• Better than State and National Average for Employee Retention

rehabilitation • long-term care • respite care • hospice care locally family owned & operated 10315 johnson drive, shawnee, ks 66203 • (913) 631-8200

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