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Metro Theater Company celebrates new home and new opportunities in Grand Center

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 12, 2012 - After a two-year building search, the Metro Theater Company is settling into its new home in Grand Center.

The building, at 3311 Washington Ave., was an automobile showroom in the 1920s and was most recently used by a granite manufacturer. According to Carol North, artistic director for Metro Theater Company, the building was fairly run-down when the group found it.

She recalls climbing over slabs of granite that filled pitch-dark rooms. However, the company saw potential in the building’s large open rooms and high ceilings – the perfect setting for building sets and hosting rehearsals – so they worked out a deal.

At 7,000-square-feet, the new building more than doubles Metro Theater’s workspace, providing adequate room for a full rehearsal space as well as a number of offices, a conference room and a common area.

“We insisted that we were not going to segregate our staff and administrative operations from the program space,” said North, pointing out that many theaters tend to keep their departments separate.

After a major build-out that cost $269,000, according to a press release from the company, the group finally moved from University City on Sept. 1. Despite the expenses of leasing and revamping the building, Metro Theater was able to make the move without relying on bank loans.

“We were fortunate to (have) made it through the last four years of recession and craziness in the black every year, and we did it without tapping our cash reserve,” said Matthew Neufeld, managing director at Metro.

In and rehearsing

The interior of the new building a complete turnaround from its original state – new windows let in an abundance of natural light; an empty, dank and dark room now has set pieces and a homemade stage. A brand new second floor is home to offices dedicated to education and program planning. However, North said a lot of work remains to be done in the building before everyone is completely settled.

“We knew it was going to take us a year to really settle, because our commitments to [the] program come first … it’s still very much a work in progress,” said North.

The members of Metro Theater Company certainly didn’t waste any time getting down to work. Two weeks after moving into the new building, they were already rehearsing for their touring production “Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle.” Part of Metro Theater’s mission is to take live theater into such community settings as schools, churches, libraries, detention centers and hospitals.

On top of touring, Metro Theater also commissions professional playwrights and actors to create main stage productions. The newest show is "Jackie and Me,” which will premier in January at Washington University’s Edison Theater.

“We love working with [Edison Theater], and the community has responded really well to the opportunity to go to Edison Theater and see our work,” said North. (More on that production below.)

Reaching out

However, putting together professional performances is only one part of the mission of Metro Theater Company. The company also places great emphasis on bringing arts and drama into schools, to help better engage students.

Members of Metro Theater work in classrooms, partnering with a teacher and using drama to enhance the curriculum. According to North, adding drama in the classroom brings in a more kinesthetic approach to learning that is often unintentionally ignored. Classroom performances and exercises are an opportunity to present ideas of science, social studies or literature in a way that is tangible, visual and different from simply reading a textbook or listening to a lecture.

“When you bring drama into the mix, it provides motivation so that reluctant learners have a pathway in – a pathway to understanding, a pathway into decoding, a pathway to express what they know in another modality,” said North.

She also explained that drama can provide a safe setting to tackle tough issues that many students may face in their daily lives, and she hopes that addressing issues through Metro Theater’s classroom programs can help to foster more inclusive communities.

With a plethora of programs and a growing number of community partners, Metro Theater members are glad to finally have a new, larger space to accommodate their outreach goals.

“We’re a real active player in the community, and this is the first time we could ever convene any of [our partners] here, to invite them to our home,” said Neufeld.

North said that though the company is in its 40th season of performing, this is the first year it will be centered in an arts hub: Grand Center. North expressed excitement about the ability to more easily work with other arts groups in the neighborhood.

“We have partnerships with a number of entities around [Grand Center], but there’s a different kind of energy when you’re down the street,” said North.

North hopes Metro Theater’s new home provides even more opportunities for the group to share its passion for the arts with St. Louis community members.

Emphasizing Metro Theater’s ultimate mission, she said, “Somewhere along the line, a lot of folks get the notion that they aren’t really creative and they kind of give up on that, but I think that’s a spirit in everybody that needs to be nurtured lifelong … we [at Metro Theater] think everyone is creative, we just need to keep feeding that spirit.

'Jackie and Me' to honor 'game changers'

This season, Metro Theater Company will present Steven Dietz's "Jackie and Me," based on the novel by Dan Gutman. The audience will follow a boy who travels back in time to 1947 when Jackie Robinson signed to play with the Brooklyn Dodgers, breaking the color barrier that once existed in major league baseball.

The show centers around themes of courage, dignity, racial relations and social justice, and honors Robinson as a true game changer.

Mathching the theme of the show, Metro Theater Company will honor community game changers. According to a press release, those chosen will be "individuals who have had a 'game-changing' impact on her or his  community, or our community as a whole."

Local artist Cbabi Bayoc, who has gained recognition for his  "365 Days With Dad" project, will be honored as a community game changer at the Sunday, Jan. 20, 2 p.m. performance of "Jackie and Me." The program book will feature a page dedicated to Bayoc, with his photograph, a description of what makes him a game changer and a list of his sponsors.

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