Sep. 12, 1930 Denbo Washington County Pennsylvania, USA
Apr. 14, 1992 Kansas City Jackson County Missouri, USA
- from Kansas City Star newspaper, by theatre critic, Robert Trussell James Assad, founder and artistic director of the American Heartland Theatre, died Tuesday at St. Luke's Hospital. Assad, who was also a founding member of Missouri Repretory Theatre, had directed and performed in scores of stage productions in Kansas City since the 1960's. His acting credits included the title roles in "Hamlet," "Enrico IV," and "The Dresser" and a small part in the film "In Cold Blood." He co-directed Missouri Rep's monumental 8 1/2 hour production of "The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby" in 1983 and staged the first production of "A Christmas Carol" for the Rep in 1981. The show became an annual event, and Assad directed it for four consecutive years. Among his other directing credits for the Rep in the 1970's and 80's are "Six Characters in Search of an Aurthor," "Much Ado About Nothing," "Hamlet," "Talley's Folly," and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf." Assad also was a resitdent director at Tiffany's Attic and Waldo Astoria dinner playhouses in the early and mid-1980's. Among the shows he staged at those theatres were "Chapter Two," "Charley's Aunt," "Six Rooms River View," and "Wally's Cafe." In 1987 the American Heartland Theatre opened at Crown Center with Assad as artistic director. Assad and a group of investors owned the theatre compnay, which sought to strike a balance between serious drama and lighthearted comedies and musicals. Assad staged several productions at the Heartland, including :Ah! Wilderness," "Godspell," "Lotto Fever!" and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof." Assad, 61, was a native of Brownsville, PA. He came to Kansas City in the 1960's and fell in love with the town. He once said that he had intended to leave the theatre, but he changed his mind after he took a night course at the University of Missouri-Kansas City from Patricia McIlrath, who later founded Missouri Rep. "It was like a rebirth," Assad said. "It got me going all over again. For me, theater has to have a quality to it; it has to be meaningful. It is very mush like a religion to me. It requires the same dedication, the same devotion and the same commitment. If that satisfaction of the soul isn't there, then what does it matter?" Assad, who in 1967 studied briefly at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, was also a teacher of acting and directing at UMKC, Avila College and Park College. Missouri Rep's current artistic director, George Keathley, who directed Assad in "The Dresser" in 1983, said, "What a loss to the theatre in general, but what a particular loss to the Rep. He was truly a fine actor. "The Dresser" was a memorable experience for me. Jim was an inseparable part of the history of the theatre in Kansas City." McIlrath said Assad's greatest strengths as a director were "his passion, his love of people, his commitment to true creation . . . he was called to the theatre." McIlrath also called Assad "one of the very best actors I have ever worked with anywhere." As a performer, he demonstrated "an absolute commitment to the play, to the purpose, to the concept that through him revelation will come to the audience," McIlrath said. She vividly recalled a 1964 production of "Hamlet," in which she directed him in the title role. "He played on of the most moving Hamlets I have ever seen," she said. "He mane an incredible contribution to the building of professional theatre in Kansas City, that is sure. He was a remarkable man." Dennis Hennessy, a co-founder of Tiffany's Attic and the Waldo Astoria, said he had known Assad since they were graduate students together at UMKC. "Jim as totally consumed with the theatre. He had an extreme passion for it, more than anybody I think I've ever met. Every time he did a job for us, it was always 100 per cent. That's what I always respected about him." Hennessy said he considered Assad a true theatre person, more so than most of his colleagues and contemporaries. "He was very comfortable and seemed to be at ease and at peace with himself when he was working in the theatre," Hennessy said. "It was a very natural environment for him. He really was like one of those old-time English actors who lived in the theatre. He was the theatre. That was Jim Assad." Assad is to buried in Brownsville, PA. Officials of the American Heartland Theatre said a memorial service would be held at the theatre, although details had not been announced by midday Wednesday. Assad leaves his mother, Rene Assad, of Grindstone, PA; and three sisters, Cheryl Kezmarsky, Grindstone; Joy Volpe, New Salem, PA; and Shirley Clere, El Paso, TX.