Goodbye and Thank You, Kitty Roberts

TEXAS TRILOGY: Kitty Roberts in “Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander.”

Actress Melanie Fry articulated what many in Tulsa’s theatre world felt about the recent passing of American Theatre Company’s Kitty Roberts. “We all thought Kitty was immortal,” Fry shared with me. “She changed our lives. All of us.”
Through my decades working at the Tulsa PAC, I witnessed the rise and demise of many theatre companies. The ones that endured, with few exceptions, experienced tumult and frequent leadership turnover. Running a theatre company takes guts without much glory, a stand-your-ground determination and laser-focused vision. Kitty had what it took, and then some. For 50 years she dedicated her life to American Theatre Company. Already a legend in Tulsa entertainment history, Kitty passed away after an extended illness on April 17, 2020.
“She was a strong advocate not only for ATC but the arts in general,” said longtime friend and ATC’s managing director, Richard Ellis.” She was always pushing the arts community as a whole.” He noted that Roberts’ love for and dedication to theatre also led her to assume active posts on the Oklahoma Arts Council Advisory Panel and the Tulsa Performing Arts Center Trust.
“Kitty created a professional-grade theatre company in a city that didn’t have one,” offered ATC general manager Laurie Carlson. “In doing so, she fostered amazingly talented people, brought friends together to create one of Tulsa’s enduring holiday traditions (“A Christmas Carol”) and promoted theatre and freedom of performance throughout the entire state of Oklahoma.”
ATC performer Becky Nebsitt Bones added, “She took a bunch of children, big and small, and helped cultivate them into performers and teachers. Kitty never pulled any punches when it came to respecting your craft.”
My own connection to Kitty and ATC goes back to my soon-to-be husband, Bill, in the 1970s. He told me then about the riveting theatre he’d seen at the Aaronson Auditorium. Living Arts Theatre was staging evocative new work: John Guare’s “The House of Blue Leaves” and Terrence McNally’s “Morning, Noon and Night.” I would later learn that Living Arts Theatre was the forerunner of ATC. Kitty Roberts was the founder.
“I pulled together a group of fellow University of Tulsa graduates to lead the company,” Kitty explained to me during our first interview for INTERMISSION Magazine in 1995. Those in the original group with her were Richard Ellis, Bob Odle, Jerry Pope and Marilyn Neal. Living Arts Theatre morphed into American Theatre in 1974.
“The purpose of ATC has always been the same,” Kitty said, “to make live professional theatre available to everyone; to educate and expose the youth of Oklahoma to the excitement, culture and power that is professional theatre.”
The first opportunity for many young people to be on stage at a venue like the PAC was to act in ATC’s annual “A Christmas Carol.” My son, Greg, a budding thespian, was one of the Cratchit children. Years later, when he was enrolled in New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, he came back home during the summer to perform in ATC’s “Hamlet” at Philbrook, and then, on Philbrook’s lawn, in the title role of “Romeo and Juliet.” Both Greg and his Juliet that year, Clea Alsip, benefited from the onstage experience afforded by ATC. They currently live in New York and work in theatre.
Marilyn Neal’s first association with Kitty was through Living Arts Theatre as Stage Manager for “The Boys in the Band” in 1970. “Kitty never gave up. She truly believed in the positive influence of theatre on a community. Her mission was to produce and present the finest theatre had to offer, even if it was not the popular choice,” said Neal.
A graduate from the University of Tulsa in Journalism and Theatre, Kitty also was recognized as a Tulsa radio newswoman. She became a female pioneer in the field of broadcast management as News and Operations Director for KMOD and KXXO Radio. Along with her day job, she pursued theatre, both in forging a theatre company and as an actor.
“I remember the zeal with which she would approach the roles she played onstage,” recalled Ellis. He noted her “striking” portrayal as Hedda in “Hedda Gabler,” her “wonderfully charming” Ms. Raccoon and her turn as Kitty Rodriguez in “The Joyce Martel Show.”
The last time I interviewed Kitty, in 2006, she reminded me that “Ms. Raccoon’s Profession,” was the very first play performed at the Tulsa PAC on the day the venue opened in 1977. She loved playing its title role, along with being Kitty Rodriguez in “Joyce Martel.” “They were both fanciful and on the lighter side and, therefore, just plain fun,” she said.
Longtime theatre lovers may remember that ATC performed for a time at the Brook Theatre in Brookside. The troupe’s presence there is credited for helping to develop the commercial success of the area. For the last several years, ATC has split performances between the Tulsa PAC and their Studio 308 in the East Village. Although the uncertainly presented by the continuing COVID crisis hangs like a heavy curtain over future theatre gatherings, ATC’s 2020-21 season includes “RUR,” Oct. 23-31; “A Christmas Carol,” Dec. 10-23; “The Humans,” Mar. 12-20; “An Enemy of the People,” Apr. 9-17; and “The Elephant Man,” May 21-29. Dates are subject to change.
Kitty’s words from our last interview seem especially relevant in view of our current global challenge. “When it works — when all the artistic and financial considerations are met and the connection is made, theatre is exhilarating. Storytelling is the oldest art form. Human beings will always feel the need to draw together around the campfire to tell their tales. Theatre lifts the spirt, cleanses the mind, energizes the body and elevates the soul. Live theatre, again, when it works, brings people together in a sense of community. It gives voice to their joys and their fears and their hopes. In the increasing isolation of modern society, live theatre lets people know they are not alone.”
We will miss you, Kitty.

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