So here’s a question: What does a theater company do during a pandemic?
Some produce “virtual” shows. Others stage outdoor productions. One thing they don’t do is stage plays and musicals for full houses.
In the case of Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, artistic director and co-founder Karen Paisley decided it was an ideal time to renovate. When the company moved into the historic Warwick Theatre at 3927 Main St. in 2018, a whirlwind of initial work was required to prepare the space for productions. Paisley and co-founder (and former spouse) Bob Paisley brought with them the historic — and heavy — church pews from their previous home at 36th and Main — as handy a symbol as any of the company’s nomadic existence. Previous venues included a downtown warehouse and an old strip-mall building that once was a venue for a “Christian haunted house.”
The Warwick had been a movie house for decades and in the years before the Paisleys moved in had been used as a place of business by an upholsterer. It was not, however, ideally designed for live theater.
Work on the physical space was perpetual, Karen Paisley said, but a major push to dramatically revamp the theater’s interior was made possible by a generous gift from Innes and John Hale and the Hale Family Foundation.
“Now we’re able to make a bigger plan and accomplish more of it,” she said.
The interior is basically a big shoebox with balconies running the length of the space on either side. The balconies, supported by pillars, formed an overhang above the side of the space the Paisleys most often used for the stage. The vertical beams were mirrored on the opposite side of the room to support a second balcony overhanging the audience area. Sometimes a clever scenic design could mask the pillars onstage, but most of the time they were they there in plain view.
The next time audiences see a show there, the pillars will be gone. Each balcony will be more shallow, freeing up space above the stage.
“Our design opens up the room and leaves the balconies but in a more appropriate size,” she said. “They’ll be smaller . . . And instead of those columns there will be open space.”
In the works is a crossover to bridge the two balconies.
“From the beginning, the goal has been to make the whole room a practical theater space,” Paisley said.
Improvements to amenities include a fully functioning bar and an ADA restroom off the lobby. Also in the works is a catering kitchen on the east side of the building on the second floor. Paisley said she was able to get equipment at a discount by taking advantage of sales.
“We’ve continued to bend pennies backwards so far they can do backflips,” she said.
To be installed are double ovens, two dishwashers and a big microwave, among other items.
“If you were going to do a kitchen (TV) show, you could do it here,” she said. The kitchen will also support another key goal: For the MET to become an event space.
The first post-pandemic production will be one that was originally slated to run in March and April 2020 but was cut short by the city’s lockdown order: “Mother of the Maid” by Jane Anderson. The play, which depicts the relationship between Joan of Arc and her mother, is now tentatively planned for May as four live performances with a limited audience and a video-on-demand version. The scheduling, of course, depends on whether COVID-19 infections are rising or falling, and how much of the population has been vaccinated.
But Paisley said there was something distinctive about arts supporters in Kansas City.
“It’s going to take years for audiences to recover (nationwide),’’ she said. “But I don’t think Kansas City audiences are necessarily going to be as reticent. We’ve always been a let’s-go crowd. I think the arts community is going to rebound and our audiences are going to want to come back. If they’ve been vaccinated, I think audiences will return.”