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A fire ravaged Kansas City's Warwick Theatre, but cast and crew know the show must go on

On a makeshift stage, which is also prepared for church services, cast members of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre rehearse for "Joe Turner's Come and Gone."
Isabella Luu/KCUR 89.3
On a makeshift stage, which is also prepared for church service, cast members of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre rehearse for "Joe Turner's Come and Gone.

Just a month after a fire left the historic Warwick Theatre charred and out of commission, the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre will perform this week in a temporary space while the community rallies to help out.

Rehearsals for the play “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” ideally take place in a windowless room with carefully programmed lights casting spotlights on actors in the dimly lit space. But as the cast of the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre prepares for opening night, its scenes are bathed in sunlight.

“It is what it is. We’re still going to make it what we can,” said Terraye Watson, a supporting actor in the upcoming play. “They do say once you limit people, it makes you use different things to come out and do better stuff.”

An airy, luminous place of worship, like this sanctuary in a Westport church, is not a theater troupe’s typical venue of choice for a production of an emotionally wrenching August Wilson play. But when a multi-alarm fire leaves your home theater with smoke and water damage and charred debris, it gets the job done.

An accidentally sparked fire at The Warwick Theatre, 3927 Main St., in the early hours of Feb. 7 burned across three floors. The resident performance group, Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre (MET), was working toward a Feb. 23 opening night performance of “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” The show was supposed to run through March 10.

Now, despite losing half their run, the cast and crew are preparing for five performances at Westport Presbyterian Church, 201 Westport Road, March 7 through March 10.

Watson, who fell in love with the stage in high school and college and now acts professionally, said theater people are trained to adapt.

“Just the theater aspects, not all of them are going to be here. Just the spectacle of it, the lights, from the actual set pieces to the furniture to the props,” he said. “We’re still going to make it what we can. We’re just bodies and our sound, that we can do, which we think will make it that much more powerful.”

Shortly after the fire, the cast gathered to discuss if they wanted to go forward. Dominique Lorae, a supporting actress, said the decision was unanimous.

“As actors do, the show must go on,” said Lorae, who has been on the stage for eight years. “We had already had a lot of rehearsal time, we had already put in a lot of character work. So for us, we really wanted to see this come together. We really want our little family and community to present something that’s worthwhile of this time.”

Karen Paisley directs her cast as they prepare for opening night.
Isabella Luu/KCUR 89.3
Karen Paisley directs her cast as they prepare for opening night.

“Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” takes place in a three-story boarding house. A set’s staircases and various levels are essential for showing the close quarters and the eavesdropping that goes on among the characters. Construction on a multi-level set was about to begin at The Warwick before the fire. Now, the cast makes do by shifting the ‘upstairs’ to the left side of the church’s stage.

The Warwick also had seats on moveable platforms, which immersed the actors more fully in the audience and provided discreet entrances and exits. In the church, actors turn to more fully face the audience and enter scenes from side aisles.

The fire at the Warwick damaged public restrooms, dressing rooms, the kitchen, a rear lobby area, and the main staircase, as well as the air conditioning and electrical systems. The front lobby, loft, and theater space itself remain untouched, except for smoke damage.

Karen Paisley, producing artistic director and co-founder of the MET, said the organization’s top priorities are taking care of its people and ensuring that productions continue.

“It's also really important to be able to not cancel a show because that’s other people’s livelihoods,” Paisley said. “[We’re] trying desperately to make sure that we keep the show on stage so that one, the city has the story that we would’ve told, but also that everybody involved remains employed.”

For 17-year-old Geneva Bryant, “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” is her professional debut. She’s acted in six school productions and said that, as a young African American woman, she wanted to learn about Black history through playing her character, Zonia. The fire made her even more passionate about gaining this experience.

“It made me very determined. I am a determined person, I love challenges,” she said.

An accident the day before, a 'surreal' wake up call

The source of the fire was traced to a new employee unknowingly discarding a combustible stain or varnish in a basement trash receptacle on Feb. 6, Paisley said. The fire gained strength until a neighbor saw the flames and dialed emergency services in the early hours of Feb. 7. It was extinguished a few hours later.

Lorae, who had been up late for rehearsal the night before, said news of the fire was one of the first text messages she read that morning.

“It was just really shocking, and very surreal,” she said. “To see that text message from our group chat, it was like, we were there not a couple of hours ago. I went to sleep a couple hours ago, what do you mean that the theater caught on fire?”

Inside the Warwick Theater after a fire on Feb. 7, 2024.
Warwick Theater
A Feb. 7 fire caused extensive damage to the Warwick Theater.

Since then, trespassers have burglarized the theater several times, breaking through boarded doors and cutting chains to steal the theater’s tools and other valuables.

With new hurdles surfacing each day, the road ahead for The Warwick is uncertain.

“There's so many expenses that you don't expect,” Paisley said. “Yes, of course it’s the rebuilding of the theater, but before we even get to that is, how do we get a chair? We have to go buy computers.”

The theater company is asking for donations, which will initially be used to pay actors and production costs, including renting a temporary space. Current funds on hand fall short of these needs.

The money will also be funneled towards paying for immediate cleanup and remediation steps for the theater. Professional cleaning services for the current phase cost $25,000 per day.

Paisley said that although the theater wants to return to normal operations as soon as possible it is crucial to rebuild methodically.

“As much as you want to kind of go ‘let’s leap ahead, let’s fix all right now, let’s do whatever the measure is,’ that's not the wisest thing to do,” Paisley said. “We have to be really smart, really astute, and recognize that this is not terrain we’ve ever stood on before.” 

Built in 1912 as one of many of Boller Brothers theaters in the colonial revival style, The Warwick had a storied history as a silent film house. A large sloping floor seated over 1,000 patrons and it was known for its lush velvet drapes that graced the stage, according to The Warwick website.

In 1927, a fire ravaged the building. Silent films were fading from the scene, so the Warwick was renovated and reopened as a more modern movie theater. It closed again in 1953.

Decades later, the space was stripped of its original decor, leveled, and used as a retail furniture store before the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre purchased it in 2015 and transformed it into a live stage theater. After so much time and effort on the restoration, Paisley said she wants to light the marquee again as soon as possible.

“Seeing it go dark after working so hard to bring it back to life after 50 years is a little hard, “ she said. “But I have no doubt that it’s going to light up again and then it’s going to be even better.

A costume collection destroyed, memories lost

The fire not only damaged the building but also took a toll on the extensive collection of handmade and vintage costumes, a key asset for the theater's productions. The collection took over 20 years to amass and included period pieces and costumes from the Lyric Opera.

Calling the collection an “intangible heritage,” Paisley said the craftsmanship and sentimental value of the costumes can be hard for insurance adjusters to measure. Each costume was valued from hundreds to thousands of dollars and the collection helped the theater save on production costs.

“It’s hard to look at things that you treasure and they’re just things,” Paisley said. “But for those of us who work in this industry, I look at them and I remember the people who wore them and the characters.”

The entire men’s costume collection is destroyed and Paisley estimates that only 5% of the women’s collection is salvageable. Rebuilding the collection will make future productions even more costly; renting costumes can cost $3,000-$10,000 for a show.

In the wake of the fire, several patrons have reached out asking to help, Paisley said. She said financial support and volunteer help with cleanups will be critical in the months ahead.

The theater company set up a “fire recovery fund” on its website. It also created a GoFundMe with a goal of $65,000 to assist with immediate relocation expenses, cleaning services, meeting the insurance deductible and other unexpected costs caused by the fire.

As of last week, the two funds had raised close to $25,000. Paisley estimates that immediate repairs and operational costs to keep the theater afloat for the next four months will amount to $120,000.

Total repairs are expected to exceed $1.2 million, with insurance covering a significant portion of the cost. Repairs to bring the theater up to current building codes will also cost extra and not be covered by insurance. Prior to the fire, the building was not required to meet modern building codes. Paisley said the theater will also need volunteers to help with the salvaging and recovery process.

Fire damage forced the show to relocate to a nearby church.
Isabella Luu/KCUR 89.3
Fire damage forced the show to relocate to a nearby church.

Raising the curtain on the Warwick once again will be a community project, Paisley said.

“This belongs to the whole community, it’s not just our building,” she said. “Bringing it back isn’t just so we can do plays here. It's bringing it back so there could be concerts here, there could be meetings, and people can come bring their children and their families here and have an incredible, one-of-a-kind experience that they'll talk about forever.”

Those looking to donate to the fund can visit warwickkc.org/fire-recovery-fund or their GoFundMe. Interested volunteers can follow the Metropolitan Ensemble TheatreFacebook page for more updates and opportunities to help out. Tickets for “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” can be purchased online or at the door.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the total amount for repairs. The story now reflects the correct amount.

Isabella is the spring 2024 intern for KCUR News. An Iowa native, she recently graduated from the University of Georgia, where she studied anthropology and environmental design and was part of the UGA Asian American Journalists Association. Email her at luui@kcur.org
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