Urban Hero: Spotlight on Brian Williams, Folly Theater

The Downtown Council has recognized more than 100 small businesses and individuals as Urban Heroes, since the awards began in 2005. Each hero is passionate about making the urban community a more vibrant place to live, work, and play throughout the 22 adjacent neighborhoods and districts of greater Downtown KC. 

Today’s article is part of a series designed to showcase the most recent award winners from 2023, including Brian Williams. 

Brian Wiliams, left, with Pete Browne, past Folly Theater board chairman, at the annual Folly Garden Party. Proceeds from the annual gathering are earmarked to help preserve the historic theater, book internationally acclaimed artists for the Folly Jazz Series and Folly Americana Series, and much more.

Brian Williams, Director of Development, Folly Theater

Brian Williams believes in the energy of an active Downtown Kansas City. It is essential to building a vibrant city. 

“Downtown is the artistic hub,” he said. “A strong and vibrant downtown radiates outward to lift up the entire region. Just look at what busy and active performance halls bring to the district – nightlife for downtown residents and office workers, and cultural tourism destinations for visitors from the suburbs and beyond.”

Williams serves as development director for the Folly Theater, Kansas City’s only remaining 19th Century theater, and “a cultural gem” of Downtown KC. The Folly – like Brian himself – plays a crucial role in Kansas City’s cultural and arts renaissance, as well as in Downtown’s flourishing revitalization. 

In 2015, following 30 years as an attorney at some of Downtown KC’s leading law firms, Brian joined the nonprofit Folly Theater, complete with a shoe-string budget, in order to care for the 100+-year-old theater building. 

The following year, Brian led the establishment of the Metzler-Copaken Initiative which provides underwriting to small and midsize organizations to perform at the Folly, allowing them to expand and cultivate new audiences, promote diversity, and present new works.

More recently, Brian led the Folly’s efforts to raise over $10 million to complete two major upgrade/renovation projects and build an endowment fund, as well as a grant fund to make the Folly stage accessible to smaller and diverse artistic organizations.   

The Folly Theater was honored last summer with the League of Historic American Theaters’ 2023 Outstanding Historic Theater Award during the League’s national conference in Downtown KC. 

Folly Theater board members join Brian Williams at the annual Folly Garden Party held in his backyard. Guests include (back row) Fred Nelson, Steve Paddock, Rick Starks, and Mark Carlson; (middle) David Bock, Anna Bazan-Munguia, and John Wood; and (front) Brian Williams, Michael Gonzales, and executive director Rick Truman.

Williams is quick to credit Hoang-Anh Tran, Folly board president, for continuing to expand on the Folly Theater’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion programming initiative to “ensure that everyone feels represented by the artists on our stage and a sense of belonging in our theater.”

He pointed to the Folly’s 2024 calendar, which illustrates “milestone celebrations” and exciting new initiatives, including:

  • On April 14, the Folly will launch its first “Art for Art” auction, featuring artwork from over 75 local and regional artists on the Folly stage; 
  • On May 2 and 3, the Folly will present the world premiere of an exciting musical adaptation of the children’s book, My Shadow Is Pink. This work, commissioned by the Folly in 2023, will be performed by an ensemble of Heartland Men’s Chorus. The work is “timely, relevant, and conveys a critically-important message of affirmation, authenticity, self-esteem, diversity, and respect for self and others.”
  • On June 5, the Folly will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places – a designation which saved the theater from the wrecking ball and led to its acquisition by the Performing Arts Foundation of Kansas City.
  • On June 22, the Folly will launch its inaugural Folly Pride Concert featuring a very special non-binary television star and Tony award winner.  Full announcement and ticket information coming in late February!  

Brian also serves the Downtown community in volunteer leadership roles, including as a past member of the board of the Mid-America LGBT Chamber of Commerce.  He played a key role in establishing the Metzler Mentorship program (a program that develops connections and mentorships for young LGBT+ professionals in the KC area), and served as a mentor himself for three years.

“I’ve been involved as a volunteer with Kansas City’s arts community since I came to town nearly 40 years ago,” Williams said. “The performing arts in general, and the Folly Theater in particular, are critically important to the vibrancy of Downtown Kansas City.”

Click here to learn more about Brian Williams and his journey via the Downtown Council’s 2023 Urban Hero video profile.

The Downtown Council is currently reviewing nominations for the 2024 Urban Hero awards. Click here to learn more.