Q&A with new head of Metro Theater Company

Actress and playwright Mariah L. Richardson performs with Metro Theater Company in ‘Delilah’s Wish.’ Richardson wrote the play, which is being performed during two free shows, Oct. 16 and 17. Photo: Bryan Hunt

Renee Stovsky, Special to the Light

Begun in 1973, Metro Theater Company (nee Metro Theater Circus) is St. Louis’ third oldest professional theater company, behind The Muny and The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. Inspired by the intelligence and emotional wisdom of young people, its stated mission is “to create professional theater, foster inclusive community and nurture meaningful learning through the arts.”

Last December, Matt Neufeld, 28, joined the theater group as its new managing director. As the company kicks off its 2010-2011 season, The Jewish Light spoke to Neufeld about his background as well as his vision for expanding theater for young audiences.

Your background is an eclectic mix of acting, directing, teaching and arts management. What first drew you to the theater?

Coincidentally, it was a Metro Theater production of “Beowulf” that I saw when I was growing up in Kirkwood-maybe at Robinson Elementary School. The whole experience-set, acting, music, costumes-had a huge impact on me.

What is your professional experience?

I hold a BFA in drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. I also am a graduate of the Field’s Artist-Manager Partnerships Program.

When I first got out of college, I did a lot of fun, adventurous theater in closets of fifth floor walk-ups in New York City as well as some small indie films. I also helped to produce “The Howl Festival” in the East Village and had my own theater company, called “The Drawing Board Arts Project.” We created new works, revisited world masterpieces, staged readings and had closed workshops.

Before I came to Metro Theater Company, I spent three years as assistant to the managing director at Hartford Stage in Connecticut, which is very much like The Rep here. I helped to coordinate a capital campaign, organized its new work festival and developed an improvisational training program.

What led you back to St. Louis?

I like to joke that the Arch is really a magnet. One of the reasons I came home was to be closer to my family-my parents, Irwin and Peggy Neufeld, and my sister Jessica Haralampiev, who, ironically, now has moved to northern California. My fiancée, Fran Morales, has also just moved from Connecticut to St. Louis and is attending graduate school at Webster University.

The other reason, of course, was Metro Theater Company. Before I went to Hartford, I was looking for a position here and made a great connection with my predecessor, Katy Kaufman. We went out for coffee and a 45-minute chat and wound up talking for three hours about theater for young audiences and arts integration in the classroom. Unfortunately, there were no openings at the time, but we stayed in touch. The company posted this job in summer 2009 and conducted a national search, so I was very excited to be selected.

Describe Metro Theater Company’s upcoming season.

This year we are producing three plays-“Delilah’s Wish,” “Tomato Plant Girl” and “The Giver.”

“Delilah’s Wish,” by Mariah L. Richardson, is a touring production we premiered last year about an 8-year-old girl in old North St. Louis who spends a challenging year depending on people in her neighborhood while her mother is serving in the military in Iraq. It deals with issues like diversity, tolerance and acceptance, and is geared to grades 2 through 12.

“Tomato Plant Girl,” by Wesley Middleton, focuses on a bullying relationship between two characters, Bossy Best Friend and Little Girl, and how the rules change when an unusual girl-creature springs out of a vegetable garden. It teaches about peer pressure and self-esteem, and is written for elementary school-age kids.

“The Giver” is a stage adaptation, by Eric Coble, of Lois Lowry’s Newberry Medal Award book. It tells the story of 12-year-old Jonas, who lives in a community free of poverty, crime and war. When the Elders choose him to be Receiver of Memory, he uncovers the truth about his world, and life without color, music and love. We will be staging it at Edison Theatre January 6-23, and I think it will offer a rich opportunity for discussions about communication and history for tweens and teens.

What do you see as the company’s major strengths and challenges?

As a touring company for almost 40 years, we have received national and international recognition for our performances coast to coast as well as in countries like Japan, Italy and Taiwan. In St. Louis, we are well known in the theater community and with educators and parents of young students, but without a giant theater of our own on top of a hill, we don’t have much of a public presence.

In the last few years, we’ve made a strategic choice to focus on the more immediate region and grow our roots deeper. So, for example, with our production of “The Giver,” we are collaborating with everyone from Washington University and the St. Louis Art Museum to the St. Louis County Library, which will be bringing Lois Lowry to town as part of its lecture series in April. We are also reaching out to the community at large by offering events such as public readings of works in progress.

We are a small company with a $600,000 annual budget, so we must rely on public funding from the Missouri Arts Council, the Arts & Education Council, corporate and individual donors. At the same time, our size allows us to be flexible and grasp onto opportunities. The past few years have been a hard time for nonprofit theaters in general, and yet we’ve ended up with modest surpluses because of our ability to adapt quickly.

You seem extremely passionate about the work done by Metro Theater Company. Why?

Honestly, I think it has something to do with the values I learned as part of my Jewish education at Temple Israel. The underpinning of most of our work is social justice. I guess I connect the way we try to support humanity with one of the core values of Judaism – tikkum olam – repairing the world by performing mitzvot.

Metro Theater Company Metro Theater Company will be offering several free public events this month:

Oct. 11: Audiences are invited to a “New Works” night with playwright Jose Cruz Gonzales, who will be reading from “Super Cowgirl and Mighty Miracle,” a work in progress about a grandmother, a little girl and a dog who has an uncanny ability to be present when miracles occur. The event will take place from 7:30 to 9:30 p.m. at Centene Center for Arts And Education, 3547 Olive Street.

Oct. 12: A performance of “Tomato Plant Girl” will be presented at 6:30 p.m. at the Little Theatre at Clayton High School, #1 Mark Twain Circle.

Oct. 16 and 17: “Delilah’s Wish” will be on stage at 1 p.m. at the Old North St. Louis Restoration Group, 2700 N. 14th Street.

For more information, call (314) 997-6777 or visit www.metrotheatercompany.org.