Safe and Sorry

Dennis Brown has a question about the Rep's Off-Ramp series: Why?

The much-heralded, much-promoted Off-Ramp series — a new satellite program wherein the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis presents "challenging, exciting" plays at the Grandel Theatre in midtown, far from the Rep's home base in Webster Groves — has now concluded its second three-play season. Of the five dramas and one musical that have been staged thus far, Urinetown was as good as St. Louis theater gets; others were not. That's the way it is with theater; no complaint there.

But at the end of these first two seasons, I do have one lingering question about Off-Ramp:

Edgy, schmedgy: The Pillowman was one  of four 
ballyhooed shows from the Big Apple.
Jerry Naunheim Jr
Edgy, schmedgy: The Pillowman was one of four ballyhooed shows from the Big Apple.

Why?

Why does this program even exist? Why does the Rep — which already operates on the area's most impressive stage — feel that it must abandon the complex where it has functioned for 40 years in order to create "challenging, exciting" theater? Why is so much effort being exerted to develop a "new" Rep audience at what is clearly the expense of the current mainstage audience? Why are longtime Rep patrons being penalized for their very fidelity? How would you feel if you'd been subscribing to the Rep for years, only to be told that if you want to see the exciting stuff, you now have to go to midtown?

In order to put the Off-Ramp venture into perspective, it's prudent to review the original statement of intent. On March 8, 2005, the Rep announced a "bold" expansion of programming that was to build on — and this is straight from the official press release — "four decades of uncompromising success." But isn't it precisely because the Rep has so severely compromised the artistic ambitions of its recent mainstage seasons that Off-Ramp had to be created?

"We're not moving plays from the other series out of our home at the Loretto-Hilton Center," Rep artistic director Steven Woolf stated in the release. "But the addition of Off-Ramp will allow us to produce work that might not fit in our other spaces." In fact, over the past two years Rep play selection has become a theatrical Chinese menu. Instead of Column A and Column B, we have the Rep's three stages. Let's put Take Me Out (with a cast of eleven) at the intimate Grandel and mount the one-character drama I Am My Own Wife on the larger mainstage. Makes perfect sense, right? You don't want to see an (abridged) comedy on the mainstage? Fine, you can see one in the studio. Did you like Kenneth Lonergan's Lobby Hero in the studio? Now you can see Lonergan's This Is Our Youth at the Grandel. It's not that we want to "typecast" a stage, but we also don't want to see it lose its sense of identity.

Was Urinetown more effective in the 467-seat Grandel than it would have been on the 763-seat Browning mainstage? Yes, perhaps it was; Urinetown certainly benefited from the Grandel's warm charm; most plays do benefit from intimacy. But if intimacy alone is the Rep's new gold standard, then perhaps they should consider vacating the Loretto-Hilton altogether. Better to turn it over to someone who would return the space to the boldness for which it was originally designed.

Forget all that early talk about how "edgy" Off-Ramp was going to be. At the end of its first two seasons, it is little more than a way station for offerings from the Big Apple. Four of its six plays (Bug, The Pillowman, Take Me Out, Urinetown) were much-ballyhooed New York shows that between them amassed nearly 2,000 Broadway and off-Broadway performances. Where is the daring in that?

Clearly Off-Ramp is intended to appeal to a new, younger audience. Saint Louis University is only three blocks from the Grandel and offers a potential student pool from which to draw. But have Rep staffers failed to notice that the Loretto-Hilton Center is already sitting on the Webster University campus? There are students galore — if the Rep would only reach out to them, which it does not. The Rep seems to be more concerned with busing in high school students for added matinee performances than in reaching out to the college students who are already there. The Rep is happy to hire Webster students as ushers and bartenders. But two seasons ago the theater restricted its student ticket policy. It used to be that a student ID would entitle one to purchase two tickets at an appealing discount; now it's cut back to one. That's a curious way to encourage theatergoing, especially when seats are sitting empty.

On those occasions when bold theater does find its way to a Rep stage, word of mouth spreads the news across the campus, and the students respond. Metamorphoses in 2003 was a case in point. So too a year later was Robert Jason Brown's two-character musical, The Last Five Years. According to Kate Baldwin, who played the female lead, the Webster students "treated us like rock stars. They'd come to see it over and over."

The lesson is clear: If you want young audiences to support your theater, stage something they want to see. From this standpoint alone Off-Ramp can be viewed not so much as "an investment in the future," as was suggested in the initial announcement, but rather as a repudiation of the past, a tacit acknowledgement of the continuing timidity that too often has plagued the Rep throughout its four decade-history.

Why such caution when it comes to selecting plays? Here's one reason: The stakes are high. Next time you're at the Rep, open your playbill to the "Theatre Staff" page. There are nearly 100 names; surely that entails a sizable payroll. The Rep has grown from a theater into a bureaucracy. How does any company meet a large payroll? Not by taking risks. So the Rep has settled into a safe establishment mentality that serves up comfy shows that it has persuaded itself the mainstage subscribers want — prune theater — and then everyone on staff privately moans and groans about how old the audience has grown. When Woolf stated in the March 2005 press release that he wanted to explore "challenging, exciting work" at the Grandel, it was a confirmation that challenging, exciting work is no longer a priority for the mainstage.

And don't think that mainstage audiences aren't aware of that. Consider this conversation that I overheard last March when two women sitting next to me at Witness for the Prosecution discovered renewal forms in their playbills.

Woman One: "Are we subscribing next year?"

Woman Two: "No!"

Woman One: "Why not?"

Woman Two: "We never come."

Woman One: "We're here now."

Woman Two: "But we never stay."

Woman One: "I'm saying right now I think we should stay to the end of this one." [pause] "Unless it's not good."

Audiences of all ages know when something's not good. Vital theater offers the potential of transcending age. But the Rep isn't selling vital theater today, at least not on its mainstage. Nor does it help that the mainstage season is hampered by a long-running relationship with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park. The notion of sharing productions does not extend to "share and share alike." Last season, for instance, Cincinnati sent us a lame staging of Stephen Sondheim's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forumwhile their version of Sondheim's Company went straight to Broadway. Talk about getting the short end of the treble clef.

Any theater that becomes too dependent on a subscription audience runs the risk of allowing the tail to wag the dog, because no theater repertory can be all things to all people. But you also shouldn't pander to viewers simply because they're older. Just because someone walks with a cane doesn't mean his mind is mush. I refuse to believe that subscribers to the Rep mainstage would not have enjoyed the irreverent Urinetown at least as much, if not infinitely more, than the postage-stamp revue Musical of Musicals: The Musical. And I continue to believe that most mainstage subscribers would prefer bold productions over museum theater. But so long as Off-Ramp continues to siphon off anything remotely interesting, we'll never know.

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