George Keathley, former artistic director of Missouri Repertory Theatre, dies at 85

George Keathley, a former artistic director of the theater company now known as Kansas City Repertory Theatre, died Sunday in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 85.

Keathley, only the second artistic director in Missouri Repertory Theatre’s history, succeeded founder Patricia McIlrath in 1985 and retired in 2000.

Before joining the Rep, Keathley had a long and varied directing career that including running a successful commercial theater in Chicago and directing television soap operas in New York. He was a five-time winner of the Jefferson Award, which is bestowed annually on Chicago theater artists.

Keathley was one of six siblings who grew up in Miami when it was a relatively small town. He served in the Army in World War II and while stationed in San Francisco discovered his love of theater when he saw “Othello” with Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer.

He later attended the New School for Social Research in New York on the GI Bill and studied directing under Lee Strasberg, founder of the Actors Studio.

Keathley started his own theater in Miami, where he directed the first production of Tennessee Williams’ “Sweet Bird of Youth.”

“The entire theater community loved him dearly,” said Ron Schaeffer, who was the Rep’s production manager during Keathley’s tenure. “He was a very kind and giving person and a very good director. He didn’t tell actors what to do. He asked them a lot of questions and led them to do what he wanted them to do.”

Actor Gary Holcombe, who estimated he performed in at least 50 productions directed by Keathley, said Keathley’s best quality was his trust in his actors.

“We didn’t always agree with each other but the man would never not listen to my input,” Holcombe said. “He was just a lovely man.”

Among the notable productions staged by Keathley at the Rep were “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which he produced in collaboration with the Kansas City Symphony; “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” a play with music about jazz singer Billie Holiday; and “The Deputy,” an epic Holocaust drama.