Spaced Out

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

"I personally think we now should reassess the situation," says Briccetti. "There's a very, very fine space at the new Missouri History Museum. We're going to perform there in April. We need to reassess the landscape again."

For that landscape has changed (and is changing) since St. Louis 2004 dangled the Medinah in front of people's eyes. The History Museum's auditorium will hold close to 350 and will be home to Historyonics and companies presenting plays with the appropriate historical themes. Washington University's housing and studio complex on Washington Avenue will contain a small performance space suitable for guerrilla-art activities. The new building for the Forum for Contemporary Art will include a performance space, appropriate for anywhere from 50-250 seats. Architect Brad Cloepfil describes the space as "a sort of open black box ... but it's open both to the galleries, somewhat to the street and to the courtyard. The idea is that we can bring in temporary seating in whatever configuration you want, like a good black box, but the presence of the art and whatever's happening in the courtyard and your sense of the street make you feel you're among the activity of the Forum."

Cloepfil held discussions with representatives from various art groups, including That Uppity Theatre Company, the New Music Circle, Jazz at the Bistro, Dance St. Louis and the Webster Film Series. From those conversations, Cloepfil then conceived his design from the idea of "the street happenings of the '60s, so it had that element of almost being incidental: Here's a great volume -- let's do some music or some dance."

"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.

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Betsy Millard, the Forum's director, says that, like the galleries, the performance space will be curated. "We're not "the home of ...'" she emphasizes. "We want to do collaborations. We could do a series, but we don't want to give the space over for six months." One prospective collaboration would be with Jazz at the Bistro, offering a venue for a brand of "outside" jazz that may not appeal to the usual Bistro clientele.

Don't expect to see My Fair Lady in the Forum, though, "unless it's a really weird My Fair Lady," Millard laughs. Dance St. Louis has already suggested a dancer who "just needed a place to bring two tons of sand," says Millard. "Fine -- we can do that kind of thing."

For the My Fair Lady kind of thing, Characters & Company is in the midst of renovating the Kirkwood Cinema. Characters & Company is a non-Equity theater group that includes "truly multigenerational" casts, with as many as 150 families regularly involved in the company's shows throughout a season, according to artistic director Vaughan.

When the Kirkwood came up for sale, "We thought we'd better jump on this," says Vaughan. Characters & Company can be included in the list of theater nomads, having performed over the years at a variety of venues -- including CBC High School, the Kirkwood Community Center, the New City School, the Jewish Community Center, the Kirkwood Amphitheatre and the Chesterfield Community Center -- while rehearsing in churches and friends' basements.

"We did everything we could to get the money. There have been lots of donations," says Vaughan, the kind of donations that come from families who want a safe place for their kids to perform wholesome theater, to the tune of $1.15 million.

A core group of some 30-50 volunteers is working on taking out the wall that separated the twin cinemas and building a temporary stage as well -- a permanent stage sits behind the old screens but will take another half-million dollars to bring up to code. Until those donations roll in, with the temporary stage the new theater will seat 330. "The great thing about having the cinema is, we can expand," says Vaughan. There are plans for Characters & Company to offer summer workshops, theater camps, Saturday-morning children's theater to begin in mid-April, "hotdog matinees" and collaborations with city and county schools. The performances in the new theater will begin with Annie and its sequel, Annie Warbucks, in repertory March 3-12.

Characters & Company also plans to rent the space for about 24 weeks per year. After the stage is built, Vaughan will show the facility to prospective companies.

But can The Old Neighborhood, Waiting for Godot or, for that matter, fag/hag play in Kirkwood? Metro Theater Company's Briccetti admits, "We have to be more creative" in regard to performance space in the city. Could an alliance of performing-arts groups band together to create a modest facility in the city, perhaps tagging onto development on Washington Avenue? If the need is so great, there's no use in waiting for the elusive philanthropist or for the perpetual Kiel Opera imbroglio to be resolved.

Performance space can be infinitely defined, and the more inventive the definitions, the further performance moves into unimagined territory, where no one thinks about parking.

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