By Priscilla Rodriguez | m/Oppenheim Media Writer
Across the U.S. it is no secret that a lack of arts education in public schools disproportionately affects students of low-income neighborhoods, causing many of them to never have the chance to experience performance arts, live theater throughout their youth.
One nonprofit in Kansas City however, the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre (MET), is working to bridge the gap in arts education by delivering high quality theatre programs to schools and diverse communities.
Through one of its programs called the Lighthouse Education Initiative, the MET has reached hundreds of students over the years, inspiring youth to “explore and own the authority of their own voices and begin to understand that what they have to say is of value,” explains Artistic Director and Founder, Karen Paisley.
In many cases, students are experiencing theatre through these projects for the first time in their lives, and the impact is profound and important for their personal growth.
“Students evolved. They went from being very quiet, silent kids, to laughing and creating together and were very quick to applaud one another and really insightful in their ability to offer constructive critique; that’s a really high level of thinking,” says Paisley of the students who have benefitted from programs in their schools.
Before founding the MET with her husband Bob, Paisley spent 12 years developing theatre programs for underserved communities in rural areas of North Carolina and Alabama, before landing in Kansas City.
“The years I spent teaching in those environments convinced me beyond the shadow of doubt that great plays and access to them, creativity, and the ability to have the opportunity to experience theater and make theatre is a fundamental birthright for all people,” she said.
Over the years, Paisley has shaped the MET to deliver incredible productions of contemporary classics such as “M Butterfly” or “Gem of the Ocean” through its Flagship Masterworks Series.
“We do a lot of work to make these great plays accessible and return them to the people through casting and by producing them innovatively,” she explains.
Part of what makes their plays so impactful for visitors is the intimate space of the theatre itself.
“You’re seeing actors that are among the best in our community doing some of the greatest roles that exist…and they are literally close enough to you that you can feel them breathing,” says Paisley.
“It’s an electrifying experience.”
Additionally, the productions are highly impactful because of the talented, diverse casts.
“This is about populating plays with people who are gifted and amazing performers and whose talent and humanity makes the performance extraordinary because it’s them,” says Paisley.
A local Kansas City actress Sherri Mosley says that she was impressed to find that unlike many other production companies, the MET “embraced casting minorities in plays that were not race specific,” and added their innovative work set the tone for other local theatre production companies to put forth a diversity of stories.
In addition to masterfully producing contemporary classics through its Flagship program, the MET contributes to the future of the arts through the Magellan Project, which focuses on developing new plays for new generations of talented theatre artists.
“This is not merely the theatre of old dead people,” says Paisley. “This is the theatre of everybody, all the time.”
The Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre is currently transitioning from its site on Main Street in Kansas City, moving to larger space in the 100-year-old Warwick Theatre – a historical site that Paisley says inspires a vision for the future of the MET as it continues to grow and share the world of the arts with the community of Kansas City, and at large.
“It’s a perfect metaphor for who we are, who we’ve been and who we could be.”