THE BASEMENT TAPES

Visiting the people under the stairs at the St. Marcus Theatre

The St. Marcus Theatre -- which, it is important to remember, is housed in the basement of St. Marcus United Church of Christ -- is the brainchild of the church's pastor, the Rev. Dickson Beall, who a decade ago had a mild revelation "while driving down the road, thinking of the big basement we never used." St. Marcus, as Beall describes it, is in the "heart of the Benton Park and Lafayette Park." Ten years ago, Beall saw some demographics for the neighborhood, showing "an increasing homosexual population, and the largest proportion of people with AIDS in the city. I realized, that's our parish."

To serve that parish, Beall decided the basement space could become a theater focusing on -- although not exclusively -- gay and lesbian issues. His idea has evolved into a significant success. Even in a space that on its best evenings looks dingy, with a limited stage area that combines an oppressively low ceiling with cumbersome upstage walls and a floor that clunks with every actor's step, the St. Marcus has housed some of St. Louis' most daring and exciting work.

Joan Lipkin and That Uppity Theater Company, the Alternate Currents/Direct Currents (AC/DC) Series, Scott Miller's New Line Theatre and Chris Jackson's CJ Productions have made their homes at the St. Marcus. All of the plays Lipkin has authored over the years, many of which have received international acclaim, began at the St. Marcus. "They would not have happened if I didn't have affordable space," she says. "I had a life as a writer there."

A rehearsal of Corpus Christi at the St. Marcus Theatre, a play that, according to one critic, "relates to a little-known episode in the history of Texas when the state was occupied by ancient Rome."
Jennifer Silverberg
A rehearsal of Corpus Christi at the St. Marcus Theatre, a play that, according to one critic, "relates to a little-known episode in the history of Texas when the state was occupied by ancient Rome."

Such renowned, and regaled, performance artists as Tim Miller and Holly Hughes have played at the St. Marcus as part of the AC/DC Series. Scott Miller's work has grown over the years, especially his interpretations of Stephen Sondheim musicals, with critically acclaimed productions of Assassins and Passion discovering a life in the church basement that they didn't find on Broadway. Chris Jackson, unfortunately, is like the less talented Marx brother in this group, the nebbish passing as romantic lead.

The theater has provoked the usual controversies over the last decade. Beall received 12-page letters with quotations from Scripture when Tim Miller first came and bared all on the St. Marcus stage. Lipkin received telephoned bomb threats for one of her plays. "Any gay representation at all takes on mythic proportions in homophobic culture" is Lipkin's stock response to the stock controversies. During the first Tim Miller fracas, she says, she and Beall "began to develop strategies with the congregation on how to deal with controversy."

The St. Marcus Theatre, it seemed, would continue on its tempestuous, uncensored path with the occasional nude-queer blip on the conservative radar. Productions such as Steve Patterson's phenomenal Beauty, in which the performer enacted Jean Genet's vison of love found in degradation, would appear without much regard, except from those who left the theater stunned in a way that conventional theater rarely affects them.

"The St. Marcus has a built-in core audience that will come to something because it is a St. Marcus show," says Scott Miller, "and it is a terribly sophisticated audience." Only a few members of St. Marcus' small congregation see the plays, and when they do, they choose entertainments such as Into the Woods or Camelot. "I don't think the congregation has any idea what's going on in the theater," Miller says.

Does he ever take the people upstairs into consideration? "It's not a programming issue. I'd like it not to be. I don't want to not do a certain show because it might upset people. Assassins is about upsetting people."

But Miller and Lipkin and Jackson may have to consider the congregation whose church basement they use because of a recent "periodic review" of the St. Marcus called by the St. Louis Association of the United Church of Christ, the governing body of the UCC, the generally liberal denomination to which St. Marcus belongs. The Rev. Ivan Horn, a member of the UCC's Church and Ministry Committee and pastor of St. Martin United Church of Christ in Dittmer, Mo., sent a letter to Beall on Aug. 24 calling for the review by the committee of the UCC to discuss the theater. Two letters had arrived, anonymously, at the UCC's governing body, including photocopied clippings of reviews of past St. Marcus productions, all the way back to Hot Dish in 1994. The review that stands out in the stack, however, is Judith Newmark's Post-Dispatch review of last summer's South Beach, a Chris Jackson production that brought a musical rendering to the murder of Gianni Versace. Boldly underlined by the anonymous writer is Newmark's commentary:

"South Beach descends to levels of vulgarity so repellent that they send the rest of the show skidding off its tracks.

"Things happen on this stage that you never thought you would see in a theater, and perhaps never wanted to. Personally, I could have lived without scenes of simulated sex, of dismembered bodies, of people in bondage gear. Yes, there really are clothes as outrageous as these, but you usually don't have to be in the room with them."

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