A shift in the arts and entertainment world is allowing Kansas City creatives to step into roles they’ve long deserved, Elaina Paige Thomas said, looking back on a performance career — and new opportunities — that reflect childhood dreams dancing toward reality.
“It has been a journey and I never imagined being here this quickly, but God said it was in His will, so I’ve just continued to follow His path,” said Thomas, an elite-trained dancer and founder of The Next Paige Agency, which launched in January.
The new business is Kansas City’s first, Black-owned talent management agency, she said, and features a rapidly scaling, 11-person operation that aims to help artists of various mediums pursue their dreams by providing opportunities, resources, and training.
The agency already has signed more than 40 models, voiceover artists, comedians, dancers, and actors. A grand opening for its new physical space is slated for mid-July on Troost Avenue, she said, thanks in large part to a $50,000 grant in April from Kansas City GIFT (Generating Income For Tomorrow) — the largest chunk of funding yet doled out by the nonprofit organization.
“I’m so grateful and humble for the experience and for someone to believe in the same vision and see the hard work and see the benefit that this can have on the community,” Thomas said. “It really helped us, as a small business, create jobs for creatives and keep this arts industry moving.”
Click here to learn more about GIFT and its mission to create access to capital for Black-owned businesses.
The talent pipeline showcased by the agency is but a small sampling of the representation Kansas City could have in the larger entertainment industry if it can build and sustain its own entertainment ecosystem, she added.
“This is about [creating] a whole new industry in Kansas City. A lot of times people go to St. Louis or they go to Chicago — and they stop right there,” she continued, explaining ways the world of entertainment (much like tech) has evolved beyond the coasts, bringing with it major opportunities for Midwest cities.
Gaining goal credentials
“Dreams are real — and they do come true,” Thomas said, echoing a sentiment traced back to the day her grandmother, “Mimi,” slipped her a gift that left her jaw dropped.
“When I was in third grade, I wrote down three goals. [Mimi] framed it and gave it to me at my college graduation,” she said.
“No. 1 was to become a professional dancer; No. 2 was to work with Debbie Allen; and No. 3 was to start my own agency or studio.”
Thomas achieved the first two goals on her list almost immediately — including meeting the famed actress, dancer and choreographer — as a student and graduate of Columbia College in Chicago. There she found a massive network, eager to connect her with opportunities to achieve her biggest dreams.
“[Allen] put a piece of work on us at Columbia, and we went to eat on our lunch break — she loves her mac and cheese and cornbread — and I told her, ‘I dreamed of this day,’ and she said, ‘You did, darling? Well keep on dreaming. Those dreams do come true,’” Thomas recalled.
The two took a picture and went their separate ways, later reconnecting as Thomas’ career took off.
“My life has just been full circle. … My first gig was with Beyonce for her debut tour around the world. After that, I did movies for IMAX Theatres, worked with legendary directors like [Allen] and Drea Kelley,” she said.
That route recently led Thomas back home to Kansas City, offering her the chance to teach a masterclass with Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey, and priming her for an entrepreneurial bow that’s recently allowed her to cross item No. 3 off her list.
“When I got back here, I was like, ‘OK. Something has to change,’” she recalled, noting local creatives and entertainers need more and equitable access to resources and networks than have historically been made available in the metro.
Working alongside former Kansas City Chiefs players Tamba Hali and Dwayne Bowe, both of whom dabbled in the arts, Thomas started to identify ways she could involve her extensive network of industry insiders in Kansas City’s arts community.
“I fell in love with it and I grew [into helping] artists here in Kansas City gain credentials for their resumes. I became a pillar for validating dreams here in Kansas City.”
Dreams on the fast track
Such momentum pushed Thomas to found Elaina Paige Productions in 2019.
“We were able to travel to Atlanta, L.A., New York, putting on productions and working for different artists and such. Then when 2020 hit, we were in Washington D.C. at the Liberian Entertainment Awards with Tamba Hali and the world stopped,” she said, detailing weeks of uncertainty that followed and ways the pandemic crippled the entertainment industry.
“I sat there and looked at myself and I called my mother and father — who are very supportive of me — and told my husband, ‘It’s time,’ and they’re like, ‘It’s time for what?’ And I [told them] I was going to launch my own agency — during a pandemic.”
After completing the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation-backed FastTrac Program, Thomas formally launched The Next Paige Agency early this year.
Click here to learn more about the Kauffman FastTrac Program.
“I would have to say that this has been the fastest growth that I ever experienced with a company. Seeing how excited the city is for something new and exciting right here in our hometown, Kansas City, Missouri, has been so [rewarding]. And it’s all purpose driven.”
Look to KC
That purpose? More eyes on Kansas City talent, for one.
“Oklahoma just passed a major production bill and now a lot of movies are [expected to be] produced there. I had a great meeting with Visit KC and they’re on board [with working toward something similar.] Everyone is growing toward having the same mission,” Thomas said.
“We can house movie productions right here in Kansas City. They won’t go to Chicago to make a [series] about Kansas City like ‘Fargo’ — they can do it right here in Kansas City, Missouri, with Kansas City talent.”
Thomas believes the metro is missing out on serious opportunities when it comes to the arts, choosing instead — and understandably, she added — to celebrate sports.
“We have the Chiefs that are doing awesome; we have the Royals, both have won [championships.] But the arts are lacking and I want to change that,” she said. “My hope is [to create] a more supportive, diverse [arts] community with less competition.”
And the local talent pool is already showing promise, Thomas said.
“Home is where the heart is, and the talent here in Kansas City is equally as talented as the talent in LA,” she declared, adding she tells artists who want to move to New York or California that doing so is nothing more than a change of scenery.
“It’s just a different market of the same type of people that all go to the same place to find stardom. I did the same thing — and dreams do come true. You just have to be a believer and motivate yourself because the talent is right here. It is right in front of your eyes. You don’t need to look anywhere else.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that seeks to build inclusive prosperity through a prepared workforce and entrepreneur-focused economic development. The Foundation works to change conditions, address root causes, and break down systemic barriers so that all people – regardless of race, gender, or geography – have the opportunity to achieve economic stability, mobility, and prosperity.