Curtain Raiser

"If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis..."

So it's finally here. The first annual Kevin Kline Awards will be doled out on Monday, March 20, which means that — for the next few days, anyway — people might be thinking about not just the immediate who won what? but the larger, ongoing concern of theater itself. What do we need in this town? There's always room for improvement, right? With that in mind, we asked a dozen local artisans and attendees, dreamers and pragmatists alike, to complete the same statement:

"If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis..."

While no two respondents gave precisely the same reply, their collective wish list speaks to certain shared interests and themes: the need to develop young audiences and performance spaces, the importance of an informed audience, the need for a sense of community.

What would you change?

Philip Boehm (artistic director, Upstream Theatre): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, it would be that St. Louis would embrace theater with the same fervor as baseball, so that we could rattle off as many local actors as major leaguers. Cocktail parties would buzz with advice to the players. Fans would brave foul weather and backless bleachers with nary a complaint. Parents would jostle for prime seats at school shows. We would stand to cheer bold choices on stage, and nobody would assume we should let Chicago or New York dictate how to play or whom to hire. Ballot initiatives for playing spaces throughout the city! Dionysius Spirit Day! Hey — how 'bout them Thespians?

Dunsi Dai (scenic designer): St. Louis has an amazing number of active professional theaters. However, most of these theaters (except for a few well-financed venues) lack scene shops. Some do not even have a space to build their sets. The signs of lacking tech support have left their unpleasant marks on many local productions. I would like to see some midsize commercial scene shops that could serve the production needs of the medium- to small-size professional theaters. If even one or two commercial scene shops could serve the local theaters collectively (as they do in New York and Chicago), it would help to enhance the quality of many local professional productions.

Mary Edwards (producer, KWMU [90.7 FM]'sCityscape andSt. Louis on the Air): I believe that the theater community in St. Louis needs a benefactor to provide an umbrella of assistance for the smaller professional companies in addition to the resources already available. Even with the number of fine theaters in the area, there is still need for a midsize theater that could be shared by a number of companies who are performing in less-than-ideal spaces and worry about their continued access to a space. But beyond the theater, these same companies could use support services such as office space, marketing assistance, rehearsal and storage space and, ideally, access to low-interest loans to help a company through a rough spot and ensure its continued existence.

Sue Greenberg (company manager, the Muny; executive director, St. Louis Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, our actors, directors, designers, choreographers, playwrights — all the artists — would be making their living working in the theater.

Michelle Hand (actress): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, it would be to see the development of more permanent, viable performance spaces. A number of our mid-line professional companies have to plan their seasons without knowing where and when they will be able to rehearse and stage their productions. Hopes of providing actor training and community education can't be realized because rental costs are prohibitive. Even those fortunate enough to have an extended lease agreement with a facility often have to contend with scheduling limitations, poor technical resources and even a lack of heat and air-conditioning. The rich and diverse theatrical community that resides here in St. Louis warrants a choice of affordable and available theaters to call home.

Joe Hanrahan (co-founder, the Midnight Company): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, it would be that theater of, not in, St. Louis would be celebrated more.

I'll clarify. Our community strongly supports the arts in St. Louis (artists passing through town) but doesn't recognize or support half enough the arts of St. Louis (artists living and creating here), doesn't recognize that the arts of a city are that city's pulse and lifeblood.

The only way to have a truly vibrant, thriving theater scene (and city) is to literally treasure our own artists and companies. The local media needs to realize that its attention is critical. In return for the support of the community that subsidizes them, influentials like the Rep should do all they can for local groups. Audiences will follow and join in the celebration.

Linda Kennedy (actress): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis.... This challenge immediately brought to mind children, and the lack of opportunity for young people to both attend and perform in productions for and about them. I would love to see a production that included teens from the city and county showing how talented and diverse our youth are. This would also offer a chance to develop young playwrights and designers, as well as providing opportunities in PR/marketing, sales and administration — all of which would encourage youngsters to develop their reading, math and social skills. Best of all it would increase the pool of young actors available to appear in the area's mainstage productions.

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