Last week, playwright/director/producer Joan Lipkin was being honored in the state Capitol rotunda with the 2000 Missouri Arts Award in the presence of Gov. Mel Carnahan and his wife; state representatives such as William Clay; her father and sister; and some 400 artists and arts advocates who had made the trek to Jefferson City for a day of grassroots lobbying for the arts. Lipkin is the youngest of the six to receive the award -- which recognizes significant longtime achievement -- this year. Printmaker and recently retired Webster University professor Leon Hicks was the other St. Louisan to receive the award.
"We asked them not to have Corpus Christi, and they went ahead and had it anyway," claims church-board president Al Ura as one of the reasons for the closing of the St. Marcus Theatre.
Lipkin stood out not just because she was the youngest honoree. In a time when state recognition, and funding, for the arts shies from the controversial, Lipkin's attention to the marginalized in society -- the disabled, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians -- was specifically cited by Bill Levi, a member of the Missouri Arts Council who presented the awards. Not exactly winning subject matter in the age of "compassionate conservatism" (a new way of saying "benign neglect"), yet here was Lipkin being honored for making and presenting art that goes outside the mainstream, the constituency art that claims and politics -- at best -- ignores. It was a remarkable moment.
Then, not even a week later, Lipkin learned that the St. Marcus Theatre, where so much of the work for which she was recognized began and prospered -- including her own plays, which have gone on to be produced internationally, and the popular AC/DC Series -- was closed to her. By a majority vote on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 13, the congregation of St. Marcus Church voted to shut down the theater at the conclusion of the current season. With the end of New Line Theatre's production of Hair on June 24, the St. Marcus Theatre again becomes a church basement.
"I am devastated by this recent turn of events," says Lipkin, reached by phone the day after the decision. "The loss of the St. Marcus Theatre has enormous repercussion for local artists, financially pressed small and midsize companies, and for work that challenges mainstream aesthetics and freedom of expression."
Scott Miller, whose New Line Theatre also found a home at the St. Marcus, producing innovative stagings of American musicals, says, "It's a tremendous shame. That was the place where audiences and companies knew they could go and do unusual stuff, risky stuff. It sucks that there's not a place like that now."
The St. Marcus Theatre has attracted controversy since its inception, as the brainchild of pastor Dickson Beall, with a focus on gay and lesbian themes. But until this last year, says Lipkin, "we haven't had substantial issues with the congregation around programming." Then came a series of theatrical events that raised concerns within and without the St. Marcus Church congregation: New Line's Players, featuring a group of gay male characters unveiling their feelings and their naked bodies; Scott Miller's Head Games, which partly lampooned his own production of Players ("Gratuitous nudity making fun of gratuitous nudity," the director/playwright explains); Chris Jackson's South Beach, a grotesque, salacious musical romp inspired by the murder of Gianni Versace; and Corpus Christi, the Terrence McNally play depicting a gay savior and his gay disciples, onstage in time for Christmas.
Last fall, in response to an anonymous letter that came with press clippings featuring underlined selections, the United Church of Christ's Church and Ministry Committee met with Beall and members of the St. Marcus congregation for a "periodic review" to discuss the theater. Assessments of that meeting by the participants ranged from "tense" to "a good discussion." Ultimately, the committee advised that there be better monitoring of scripts in the future.
That monitoring process was not to come to pass, however; events at St. Marcus Church turned chaotic in the last month-and-a-half. According to Julie George-Carlson, a performer and soon-to-be producer, Beall called her on Friday, Jan. 7, asking her to come give a presentation to the congregation because they were looking to replace Jackson, who had been the theater's manager. George-Carlson gave her presentation on Sunday. That night, she and her husband were invited to Beall's apartment, where, George-Carlson says, "he had champagne and said, "Congratulations, you're the new managing artistic director. They voted you in.'"
It was a short-lived appointment, however. The next Sunday, the church-board president, Al Ura, rose from the congregation and called for Beall's resignation. Ura, president for 23 years, explains: "He didn't have no time for the church. I asked him to come down to the church two or three days a week, and he said, "I can do more work at my apartment.' So that was it." Along with the call for Beall's resignation, Ura announced a meeting of the congregation the next week to further discuss the theater.
On Sunday, Jan. 23, George-Carlson, Miller and Jackson were present for the congregational meeting, only to discover that Beall had announced his resignation at the close of his service. What followed was a tumultuous church-board meeting, with part of the congregation arguing that the vote to oust Jackson and hire George-Carlson was legitimate and others saying it wasn't.