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.

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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?

"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."

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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