Spaced Out

Local theater companies conduct an ongoing search for places to ply their craft

Performance space: basement, living room, garage, storefront, tavern, loft, city park, auditorium. Essentially, it is difficult to imagine what couldn't be used as performance space. Drive around the city of St. Louis, and one thing you'll notice is that it's got plenty of unutilized space. If you're looking for void, you've come to the right town.

Yet the perpetual lament among performing artists is that there is no space, or very little space, in which to practice their craft. "The biggest problem has been finding space," says Mark D. Vaughan of Characters & Company. "The big dilemma is that there is no space, or very few spaces," says Dan Wassilak of Midnight Productions. Joan Lipkin of That Uppity Theatre Company has found the primary issue for the performing arts in St. Louis to be real estate.

Sure, St. Louis is nothing but empty storefronts, Wassilak contends, "but you've got to do something with them. You can't just open the door and let people in." For example, when Wassilak and his Midnight creative partner, Joe Hanrahan, presented Dracula in the Lemp Brewery last fall, "We had to bring in lighting equipment, bring in sound equipment, bring in chairs. That's not something that's easy for us to do. We don't have a lot of resources. We budget so much for shows, and we hope we make it back on box office, because we don't have any other funding."

"The great thing about having the cinema is, we can expand," says Characters & Company artistic director Mark D. Vaughan.
Jennifer Silverberg
"The great thing about having the cinema is, we can expand," says Characters & Company artistic director Mark D. Vaughan.

Except for a lucky few, those active in the performing arts in St. Louis hold day jobs and rush home to tend to children and pets, then set off to rehearsal. "Are you going to get into the line of converting a space, or are you going to do theater?" is the question Wassilak poses as the local artist's dilemma.

Small-to-midsize theater and dance companies become nomadic tribes without a single home. The recently departed New Theatre performed in venues all over the city, as did the short-lived Actors Renaissance Theatre, whose founders, Nic and Lori Kessler, just moved to Florida. Off the Cuff Productions began in the city, moved to West County in 1995 and returned to the city last year, performing at St. Louis University. Off the Cuff's Scott Sears concurs with Wassilak's assertion that it takes more than an "up by the bootstraps" mentality for a nonprofit company to convert a building into a theater. "We're looking at a building right now, and we're talking about the environmental issues, handicapped accessibility. All of a sudden you run up a list and you go, "I don't have a budget for that.' But those are all things you need to serve the public."

The particular audience a company attracts determines performance-space prerequisites as well. "You could find a neat space downtown," Sears readily admits, "but if you don't have parking or proximity to restaurants in a district that makes you feel safe -- we have a lot of clientele that just is not going to come. They came to the university because it was well lit, but you had to drag them out."

But then, if you have to drag them out, there may be larger issues for St. Louis performers to consider than comfortable seating and secure parking. The discussion of a need for space is usually conducted by the performing-arts groups themselves. As long as this discussion has been going on -- and it seems as if it has always been going on -- there has yet to be heard a groundswell of concern from theatergoers. People are saddened by the loss of Muny 1st Stage and The New Theatre, are distressed by the controversy at the St. Marcus (where the church congregation that's supplied a home to That Uppity Theatre Company, the AC/DC Series, New Line Theatre and CJ Productions is now reassessing its commitment to the "cutting edge"), but who, exactly, is expressing an undying need for a cozy black box in which to see the latest David Mamet or Christopher Durang or to witness Karen Finley's excesses?

A little over a year ago, a band of consultants hired by St. Louis 2004 breezed through and directed people's attention to the Medinah Temple in Grand Center, an ideal place (to those who don't have to raise the money) for an 1,800-2,000-seat auditorium. Grand Center Inc., the Midtown facilitator, owns the Medinah and remains more than willing to let somebody else develop it (and then take the credit). Joan Briccetti of Metro Theater Company joined in discussions about the Medinah with other performing-arts organizations and recently, with Gash/Voigt Dance Theatre, submitted a grant proposal for a feasibility study to a local foundation (she chooses not to say which one), which turned the proposal down in December.

In the meantime, Gash/Voigt has been to Greece and Turkey as part of a cultural exchange and choreographic collaboration. Metro has been at work on its new production, Iceman. "We had to take care of these little production things," says Briccetti. "You know, the heart of our work."

Even at the time of their initial discussions, the Medinah (with an estimated $2.5 million renovation cost) seemed too grandiose a project for even the pluckiest arts alliance. Was that really the kind of space those companies need -- or, more critically, that St. Louis needs?

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