Black Box Theater in Johnson County Arts and Heritage Center attracting smaller community theatre and arts groups

Black Box Theater is attracting many smaller theatre companies and arts groups, like Spinning Tree Theatre. Photo credit J. Robert Schraeder / Spinning Tree Theatre

With Johnson County’s recent completion of a $22 million investment to establish the Arts and Heritage Center in Overland Park, the county has seen an influx of smaller theatre companies tapping into the resources and smaller audience space of the Black Box Theater.

Located inside the Arts and Heritage Center at 8788 Metcalf Ave, the Black Box Theater serves as a space that small theatre companies can rent for their productions.

“There really is not another space like our BlackBox space here inside Johnson County that’s readily available for smaller groups,” said Tim Bair, producing artistic director for Theatre in the Park, the outdoor theatre operated by Johnson County Park and Recreation District. “There’s some other bigger theatres, like at the Johnson County Community College; they have a lovely space. The White Theatre has a lovely space too. But from a BlackBox standpoint, there just really wasn’t anything else available.”

The Black Box Theater can seat about 300 people at capacity. The space is also designed to be flexible for each user’s needs, Bair said. At 60 x 60 feet, it looks like a dark blue cube with a tension grid about 14 feet overhead where all of the equipment is located. The audiences can be seated on one side or on three sides, depending on what the experience a user is creating.

Tim Bair
Tim Bair, manager of the JCPRD fine and performing arts department and the producing artistic director for Theatre in the Park. Photo courtesy of Tim Bair

“I think the coolest thing about the Black Box itself is that it’s completely flexible,” Bair said. “It has no permanent seating, it has no permanent risers. And seriously: lights, sound, everything can go anywhere in the sky that you like. It really gives you an opportunity to be creative with space and the way that you want to present stuff.”

Besides the Black Box Theater, the Arts and Heritage Center also has two rehearsal halls and a dance studio available to rent. Plus, the center has a scenic workshop for companies building scenery, as well as a green room with two dressing rooms.

More than half a dozen community theatre companies and performing groups in the Kansas City metro area have recently leased some of the spaces. These have included The Culture House, Prior Productions, The Barn Players, Worlds of Fun, Plaza Lighting Ceremony, and KC A Cappella Group.

“We are excited about the wonderful ways the Black Box Theater has been activated as a cultural hub,” said Susan Mong, superintendent of culture for Johnson County Park and Recreation District.

Andrew and Michael Grayman-Parkhurst. Photo credit Julie Denesha

The most recent company to join the slew of local theatre groups utilizing the Black Box is Spinning Tree Theatre, a nonprofit arts organization based in Kansas City, Missouri. Spinning Tree just recently wrapped up its second show at the Black Box Theater, “Caroline, or Change.”

Michael Grayman-Parkhurst, co-founder of Spinning Tree Theatre with his husband, Andrew Grayman-Parkhurst, said they are celebrating their ninth season in existence. Productions during previous seasons were mostly in Midtown in recent years. But after Bair invited them to visit the space, they “fell in love” with it — “comfortable seating, excellent lighting, wonderful sound,” to name a few features.

“Everything is brand new and easy to access,” Michael Grayman-Parkhurst added.

A big draw for Spinning Tree to the space were the reasonable prices to access the “state-of-the-art” space and equipment. And ample parking in a highly visible and well known location — as the former King Louie bowling alley — were advantages too.

“We are going to be there next season, and we’re going to be booking the season after,” Grayman-Parkhurst said. “We’re hoping to be there for quite a while. We don’t really want to move around. We would love to stay there. They have been wonderful.”

Bair said he believes the Arts and Heritage Center is being used as they intended, and he hopes it continues to grow in popularity.

“It really does give a venue and an opportunity for smaller groups to come in,” Bair said. “And honestly, we’re very affordable. And honestly, rehearsal spaces and dance studios aren’t plentiful around our area, or frankly anywhere in the city, that you could just walk up to the front desk and say, ‘Is the dance studio being used? I’m choreographing a show and I just need a space with some mirrors.’

“It’s really opened up that kind of world to people too, to utilize the space. You want to get together and dance? You want to belly dance? Great, twenty bucks.”