Metro Theater Company at 50:
A St. Louis Institution Ahead of Its Time Representing Missouri to the World
by Joe Gfaller
In 1973, a theater artist and an educator came together to explore a wildly new idea: what would it mean to create theater for young people that was grounded in valuing and respecting young people in a whole new way? To create theater for young audiences at the same level of professionalism as what you would see on any great stage of the world? To develop stories for the stage that met young people where they were and helped them to grow and advance? To let theater become a tool for learning, not only about theater, but about themselves and the greater world?
Zaro Weil was studying theater at Webster University, and Lynn Rubright was teaching fourth, fifth, and sixth graders in the Kirkwood School District. Together, they would found a company that has stood the test of time. 50 years later, Metro Theater Company is now the 3rd oldest professional theater in the St. Louis region after the Muny and the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. And over those 50 years, that idea that they developed – first in the basement at New City School, later as one of the founding educational partners that developed COCA, and now as an anchor institution in Grand Center – has reached nearly 2.5 million young people, not just in St. Louis, but across the country and across the Atlantic and Pacific as well.
In the first years of MTC, the theater toured primarily to schools, weaving arts integrated curriculum from the productions being performed, so that a visit from MTC wasn’t just a show, but also an opportunity for young people to learn – and for teachers to see what arts integrated curriculum looked like in action. Then and now, MTC regularly developed world premieres of new work for young people in order to ensure that young people were receiving theater that met them where they were in thoughtful and creative ways. This led to a wildly inventive staging of Beowulf, which used active percussion work to create visceral experience for audiences, turning an ancient story into something young people could feel in their bones today. It also led to work that mined the challenges young people were facing and seeing in
the news each day, with productions like The Yellow Boat (which, in the early 90s, told the true story of a child who succumbed to HIV/AIDS after a blood transfusion) and Ghost (which, more recently brought to life Jason Reynold’s powerful YA novel about a boy escaping gun violence in his family and becoming a competitive runner).
Off the stage, MTC has crafted transformational experiences for young people as well. Starting in the early 2000s, in addition to touring, MTC began to produce mainstage productions both for the general public and for student field trips. Without being on the road for three or four months at a time bringing St. Louis theater to the rest of the country, it became possible to lay deeper roots in St. Louis and Missouri local school districts. As a result of a powerful mainstage production about the Holocaust, Hana’s Suitcase, MTC developed what has become the anchor curricular program Building Community Through Drama – a series of classroom residencies through which MTC teaching artists are able to deepen social and emotional learning by examining conflict in current events to understand difference and build empathy.
In the last ten years, MTC’s Say Something, Do Something conflict resolution and violence prevention program has used the tools of theater – improvisation, non-verbal communication, and character analysis – to help young people rehearse for life, preparing them to reframe conflict in their day-to-day lives into something productive. In partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, a recent study of the program showed that nearly 4 out of 5 students who participated in the program stated that SSDS made them more confident in their ability to help in situations where they see bullying, for instance, in action. In most years, MTC teaching artists can be found every day of the school year in classrooms working with young people or providing professional development opportunities for teachers.
As MTC begins its 50th season this year, it also launches an initiative which will deepen its impact and further its reach in powerful ways in the year to come. Through the Every Child Initiative, MTC is working to ensure that – between its 50th and 60th seasons – every child in the St. Louis region will receive at least one MTC program at least once during their childhood. To make this vision a reality, MTC seeks to partner with all districts in the St. Louis region and will be expanding its programming capacity in the years to come, aligned with an invigorated strategic plan.
In the short term, MTC is celebrating this current milestone with a series of events and programs, all tying together the arts, the humanities, and education for young people. The current season includes two world premieres: Bold, Brave, Curious! by St. Louis playwright and early MTC company member Mariah Richardson and Spells of the Sea a new musical adventure by Gwenny Govea about finding the strengths and the talents we didn’t know we had. Through November 6, MTC presents Seedfolks, adapted from the YA novel by Paul Fleischman at the Grandel Theater, and the season ends with the joyful celebration Go, Dog. Go! at The Big Top in Grand Center – a throw back to MTC’s original name as Metro Theater Circus. Plus, MTC hosts two special season fundraisers: Holiday Spirits in December and After Dark in April.
It has taken generations of leadership, dating back to Lynn and Zaro, and many generations of audiences, donors, and partners to sustain and grow Metro Theater Company to become the organization it is today, impacting the lives of countless young people each year. To learn more about MTC, its history, and its current and upcoming programs, visit www.metroplays.org.
Joe Gfaller, email@example.com
Joe Gfaller became Managing Director of Metro Theater Company in 2019. During his tenure, in partnership with Artistic Director Julia Flood, MTC has weathered the COVID pandemic, growing the global reach of its audiences through a streaming production model while also significantly increasing the volume of engaged donor households, helping to steer the company into its 6th decade. Prior to MTC, he served in marketing, community affairs, public relations, and development roles with Opera Theater of Saint Louis, the Alliance Theater, the American Repertory Theater, and 7 Stages. He has directed over two dozen professional productions, including a range of world and regional premieres, and also serves as adjunct faculty at Webster University. He graduated with honors from Harvard University.