Rep Rising

But Scrooge-like contributors could bring the curtain down

But Kennedy Center president Kaiser referred to the need for both "resources and audiences." Audience-building is another immediate problem the Black Rep must confront. The company may play to a more diverse audience than any other theater in town, but its total numbers should be higher. Himes concedes that it's tough to fill the seats when you're unable to budget for significant newspaper or media advertising.

If, by magic, the Black Rep's budget were to be doubled as Kaiser proposed, how would that additional money be spent? Board president Denham doesn't hesitate: "I would want to increase visibility. Too many people still don't know that one of the most successful African-American theater companies in the country is right here in St. Louis. People need to know that 65,000 kids come to the theater and see our works every year, most of them students who have never seen a play before. In addition to the shows being darned entertaining, this is incredibly important work that benefits the entire community."

Ultimately, an arts organization succeeds -- or fails -- not on contributions and grants from corporations, foundations or government, but rather by the commitment of its patrons. At the Kennedy Center, Kaiser has raised 70 percent of his current $47 million budget from 30,000 individual donors. The critical step of transforming a theatergoer into a patron still needs to be addressed at the Black Rep.

Black Rep producing director Ron Himes
Black Rep producing director Ron Himes

As the company takes a deep breath before revving up for next season, it finds itself at a strategic crossroads. If it continues to revive the same plays over and over, the creativity of its core company is likely to stagnate. Yet because too many empty seats still need to be filled, there continues to be a market for yet another revival of Fences. What's a producing director to do?

Himes' bold response has been to forsake the tried and true. He has announced an ambitious five-play schedule for 2005. With the exception of Macbeth, which is rarely a crowd pleaser, all of the plays will be new to St. Louis.

Gone is the traditional August Wilson revival opener; gone is the traditional musical closer. In recent seasons Bubbling Brown Sugar, Damn Yankees! and Raisin have been among the Black Rep's most popular offerings. Instead, next May the Black Rep will close its season with the area premiere of Yellowman by Dael Orlandersmith, a two-character drama. This finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize has garnered enraptured reviews wherever it's played, but melodic it's not.

It may well be that the Black Rep needs this kind of uncompromising season in order to rejuvenate its own creative juices. And it may be that Himes needs to pull off this kind of schedule in order to persuade the corporate community that the Black Rep is worthy of its support. But the schedule is also a high-stakes gamble. Will audiences respond? The answer should be yes, if the productions are solid. But the answer could also be no, if prospective viewers don't know the plays are happening.

Next season promises to be rife with drama, both on and off the stage.

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