Not long ago Karen Paisley and Bob Paisley, founders of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, invited a visitor to take a look at the company’s new acquisition — the old Warwick Theatre on Main Street at Westport Road.
The former movie house hasn’t been a proper theater of any kind since the 1950s and most recently was home to an upholstery business. You have to exercise your imagination to picture what the MET founders have in mind for the space. As Karen Paisley, the MET’s artistic director, led a tour through the building, she spoke of moving staircases, pushing balconies on either side of the central space back toward the walls and her desire to install an old-school vertical neon sign on the front of the building.
According to the Paisleys, they convinced the MET board that it was time for the 11-year-old company to take the next big step. The MET’s current location at 3614 Main St. has been the source of headaches for some time — a leaking roof and limited electrical power being the major concerns. It was time to acquire a space that would allow them to fulfill their artistic vision — or at least come a lot closer.
“It’s kind of like when the goldfish grows to the size of the bowl,” Bob Paisley said.
The Paisleys, both as a team and individually, have been expanding the parameters of the MET universe for several years. This season the MET is offering a subscription of six regular shows plus three additional productions in its “Play Plus” series. Bob Paisley’s independent company, Central Standard Theatre, which is closely affiliated with the MET, annually presents the Invasion — a minifestival of solo and two-actor shows performed by artists from Britain and elsewhere.
Their goal with the Warwick is “to turn this into a world-class arts center in the heart of the community,” Karen Paisley said. Meaning that when the MET isn’t producing its own shows, the space will be available to other small, nomadic theater companies and performance groups.
At this stage the Paisleys haven’t settled on a contractor to renovate the space and it’s unclear just when they will open for business at the new location. But they hope to have an open house this month. Once the transition is complete, the MET will be about a block from the Unicorn Theatre, effectively turning Main Street between Westport Road and 38th Street into a mini-theater district.
The MET’s plan to move into the Warwick is just one example of changes in the wind this year. In 2016 we will see new theater companies coming online and a healthy supply of new work.
▪ The Kansas City Black Repertory Theatre, whose founder, actor Damron Russel Armstrong, hopes the new company eventually can be compared favorably to the St. Louis Black Rep or the Penumbra Theatre in St. Paul — award winners dedicated to the work of African-American playwrights.
Armstrong said he’s working his way through the process of applying for 501(3)(c) tax-exemption status from the IRS and he hopes to stage the company’s inaugural production in June with the classic “A Raisin in the Sun.” The KC Black Rep will be another of the city’s nomadic theater troupes.
▪ The Kansas City Irish Theatre was founded by artistic director Katie Gilchrist, well known as an actress and director. The company is affiliated with the Kansas City Irish Center and most of the performances are expected to be in Drexel Hall, near Linwood Boulevard and Baltimore Avenue. Events firmly scheduled so far include Oliver Smith’s “She Stoops to Conquer,” in March; a reading of Sean O’Casey’s “The Plough and the Stars” on April 10 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rebellion in Dublin; and, on June 16, the annual Bloomsday reading from James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”
Gilchrist also plans a production of Brian Friel’s “Dancing in Lughnasa” in October and a staging of Martin McDonagh’s “A Behanding in Spokane” in December. She said actor Forrest Attaway was attached to the McDonagh play.
▪ Tradewind Arts is a pan-Asian collective organized by actress Andi Meyer. Theater artists associated with the collective include actor/playwright Vi Tran, actor/director Walter Coppage, lighting designer Victor En Yu Tan, and actresses Erika Crane Ricketts and Ay Vy Bui, among others.
The group’s mission, Meyer said, is “to illuminate and empower the Asian Pacific American voice through the arts.”
Meyer said the group planned three or four staged readings of new or recent work by Asian-American playwrights and possibly a workshop of Lauren Yee’s play “King of the Yees,” which was staged recently at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
“We are looking at First Fridays, and the Fishtank (Performance Studio) is an ideal location and venue for us,” Meyer said. “There’s a lot of work to be done to develop the Asian American and Pacific American audience. They tend to be very skeptical until everything is in place.”
▪ The Fishtank Performance Studio, 1750 Wyandotte St., might be a host venue for both Tradewind Arts and the Black Rep. Heidi Van, the Fishtank’s curator, has crafted a plan that would allow both groups to use Fishtank offices, rehearsal space and some performances, as well as provide access to the Fishtank’s mailing list and ticketing program.
Van’s relatively modest goal is to raise $15,000 each for the Black Rep and Tradewind residencies.
“The residency helps these companies get off the ground, raise capital and exposure, and allow diverse voices to contribute to the theatrical landscape of Kansas City,” Van said in a statement.
Van also is producing in collaboration with the One-Minute Play Festival in New York an event to showcase super-short plays by local writers Jan. 30-31 at City Stage in Union Station. The New York company partners with many small theaters across the country. This will be the first such festival in Kansas City. Van said she had submitted a list of 55 playwrights to the New York company.
In February she will direct the Fishtank’s annual collaboration with UMKC Theatre, this one based on female characters from Greek mythology.
And in March, Fishtank will present the first professional local production of “Gun Play” by Frank Higgins. The Kansas City-based playwright wrote the play in the 1990s. It depicts voices on both sides of the gun debate and has been produced professionally in New York and elsewhere, but never in Kansas City.
▪ Marissa Wolf, the Rep’s director of new works, will make her Kansas City debut with company’s first production of 2016, “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The show is one of two traditional pieces slated for the spring. The other is the stalwart musical “The Fantasticks,” which Jerry Genochio will direct.
Wolf was hired in 2014. She left her job as artistic director of Crowded Fire Theatre in San Francisco to come to Kansas City. Wolf said she was initially cool to the idea of staging “Anne Frank,” a naturalistic classic of post-World War II theater. But then she warmed to the task.
With the Syrian refugee crisis in the news daily, Wolf said the Holocaust drama should resonate with audiences.
“We’ll be looking at the quiet choreography of day-to-day life with the stakes of genocide looming outside the window at all times,” she said.
A major chunk of the Rep’s spring schedule will be dedicated to new work, beginning with the world premiere of D. Tucker Smith’s “The Roof of the World,” a romantic spy thriller set in colonial India. The February show will be staged by artistic director Eric Rosen.
Then comes the Rep’s first New Works Festival, organized by Wolf. In April, she will direct two plays in repertory — “Fire in Dreamland” by Rinne Groff and “Lot’s Wife” by Rosen. “Dreamland” is described as a coming-of-age story about a relationship between a contemporary young woman and a film maker. Rosen’s play focuses on a young playwright whose latest script becomes a sort of play within a play.
▪ The Unicorn Theatre offers a spring lineup of plays new to Kansas City audiences, including the world premiere of “How to Steal a Picasso” by William Missouri Downs, and the “rolling” world premiere of “The Ghosts of Lote Bravo” by Hilary Bettis.
▪ And, in the entertainment for entertainment’s sake department, the spring and summer will offer musicals, many of them appearing in Kansas City for the first time — “Newsies” and “Kinky Boots” at Music Hall; “A Night With Janis Joplin” at the Kauffman Center; “Matilda the Musical,” “The Bridges of Madison County,” “If/Then” and “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” at Starlight Theatre.