Rep Rising

But Scrooge-like contributors could bring the curtain down

As the St. Louis Black Repertory Company concluded its 27th season two weeks ago, it found itself facing a deficit for the first time in four years -- which is actually an amazing feat. Many arts organizations live in a deficit as a matter of course. But for the past three years, the Black Rep has operated with a surplus while still managing to mount quality professional productions. Yet as the most recent season drew to a close, producing director Ron Himes announced that one unnamed local corporation had cut its funding from $40,000 to zilch.

Did the loss of that annual gift push the Black Rep into the red? "It certainly didn't help," Himes replies, while declining to name the Scrooge-like culprit. ("We hope they'll reconsider," he explains.)

If Himes has learned anything during his 27 years at the helm of the Black Rep, it's that money is relative. In 1976, when he founded the company with $36 while still a student at Washington University, $40,000 would have seemed a fortune. Today, as the Black Rep operates with an annual budget of $1.8 million, the temporary loss of $40,000, while disappointing, is not the end of the world.

"I'd be very happy to have an annual budget the size of the [Saint Louis] Symphony's deficit," Himes jokes about his Grand Center neighbor, whose financial woes are more extensive -- and more extensively chronicled -- than his own.

One might observe that too much money can be a curse. In recent years more high-profile, larger-budgeted African-American theater companies in Atlanta, New York, Oakland and Philadelphia have folded. By contrast, the Spartan-if-solvent Black Rep has survived by operating below the radar screen. Owing in part to the attrition of those other companies, the Black Rep now finds itself to be the largest professional African-American theater in the United States, which means that a stealth approach is no longer effective.

As the Black Rep rises in national stature, there's a new story that needs telling -- and it's possible that Himes is no longer the ideal person to tell it. Having spent the last 27 years rattling the same tin cup, he's "old news." So it was a welcome boost last March when Michael Kaiser, president of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., flew to St. Louis to highlight the Black Rep's national importance.

"It saddens me that the Black Rep, which is now one of the most robust black theater companies in America, has such a small operating budget," Kaiser chided area business leaders. "Its budget should be double or triple what it is. Instead you find a company like the Black Rep competing for resources and audiences with other local arts organizations that are much larger and better-supported."

Himes chooses his words carefully when he discusses corporate giving; he is, after all, still dependent on local corporations' largess. But a tone of frustration enters his voice when he says, "We know that corporations use the Black Rep as a selling tool when they enlist prospective employees to St. Louis, but then those same corporations don't step up to the plate when we need financial assistance."

"We are in competition for the local corporate dollar, no question about it," Debra Denham, president of the Black Rep's board of trustees, frankly acknowledges. "The amount of financial support that's given to a more high-profile arts organization versus the amount that's given to us is substantially different. But the expectations are the same."

But with which high-profile organizations does the Black Rep compete? Himes and Denham often allude to the Symphony, for they know that such comparisons are safely invalid. The Black Rep's real competitor for the corporate dollar is the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, which was already ten years old -- and ten years more entrenched in the community -- the day the Black Rep was founded. But now an even more insidious competition is developing between St. Louis' two longest-established professional companies, for the St. Louis Rep seems to be encroaching on the Black Rep's repertoire.

Next March the St. Louis Rep will close its main-stage season with Crowns, a new musical play by Regina Taylor (I'll Fly Away) that celebrates churchgoing African-American women. The show would seem to be a natural for the Black Rep, but the white-bread St. Louis Rep scooped up the rights. In announcing his 2004-2005 season in March, St. Louis Rep artistic director Steven Woolf acknowledged the turf theft when he told the Post-Dispatch that he and Himes "have already begun to discuss ways to cooperate on this production."

"That discussion didn't occur until after the Rep had already secured the rights," Himes clarifies. "Steve then called to tell me he had them and that maybe we could work together on it. I asked if he had a director. He said no, so I said, 'How about me?' There was a long silence on the phone. I've never heard from him again. That was the extent of our 'discussion.'"

Crowns is a glaring reminder that, although nationally the Black Rep is emerging as a valuable and necessary theater, locally it must resign itself to living in the shadow of the St. Louis Rep.

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.

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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