The Show Must GO

It's the best of times and the worst of times for St. Louis theater companies

Miller doesn't think he'll run into further trouble at the Ivory.

"All of our shows are open to the general public. We've never restricted admission," he says. "We get tons of high school and college kids."

Miller also believes press accounts of the brouhaha were misleading.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis went to court to block his company's curtain-raiser, Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, at the spanking-new Ivory Theatre. But New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller sees smoother sailing ahead.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis went to court to block his company's curtain-raiser, Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, at the spanking-new Ivory Theatre. But New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller sees smoother sailing ahead.

"Part of the misunderstanding was this idea that the archdiocese approved of our show and therefore we were able to go on. I don't think the monsignor would have liked our show, but he also didn't think it violated [the deed restriction]," Miller says. "If they see these songs about threesomes and STDs and musical orgasms and it doesn't freak them out, then I think we're pretty safe."

Though Miller is sanguine about his prospects at the Ivory, leaders of two other companies that will be in residence there — the NonProphet Theater Company and Hydeware Theatre — aren't nearly so optimistic.

"If you're going to pick three theaters to put into your theater, all three of us [New Line, Hydeware and NonProphet] are not exactly straightforward," says NonProphet artistic director Robert Mitchell. "We're not the Muny. We're all kind of edgy."

For years it has been something of a miracle that small companies like Hydeware and NonProphet have managed to mount a show at all. Working on shoestring budgets — Mitchell estimates that his company has roughly $1,500 in the till at the beginning of each season — NonProphet and its ilk try to defray costs by producing plays that do not call for elaborate sets, need few props and feature small casts.

Further complicating matters is the fact that for years St. Louis has had a dearth of usable spaces.

"That's one of the biggest problems facing a lot of companies these days," says NonProphet managing director Tyson Blanquart. "They have trouble finding space — that makes a lot of them very nomadic."

Not only must these smaller companies jockey for space, but they're also left with the unenviable task of informing audiences where their next show will be.

"People like to go to the same place to see the same theater company," says Ember Hyde, of Hydeware Theater. "When you're jumping around from space to space, people don't know where to go, and over a period of time that hurts you. The audience base doesn't grow."

But after years of having only a few spaces available, St. Louis is experiencing a mini-boom. The Ivory opened in late September. Stray Dog Theatre has found a permanent home at the Tower Grove Abbey on Tennessee Avenue east of Tower Grove Park. The long-vacant Woolworth building in Grand Center is slated to house a cabaret and a black box that will be available to local companies, and the fledgling St. Louis Actors' Studio recently opened its doors in the Gaslight Theater on Boyle Avenue in the Central West End.

Many people in the St. Louis theater community point to the Kevin Kline Awards as the primary impetus for the boomlet. Not only have the awards prompted a lot of former community theaters to begin paying their actors small stipends, but they've also raised awareness among the theatergoing population.

"For us the real value of the Kevin Kline Awards is the posters in the lobbies," says Miller, pointing to a placard in the Ivory's lobby that lists every show currently being staged in town. "Everybody is cross-promoting everybody."

So it is that on a recent Tuesday afternoon, William Roth dusts off his shirt as he emerges from the construction zone that three days hence will host the inaugural performance of the St. Louis Actors' Studio.

Today, opening night seems a long way off. The floor is still being painted black. Seating has yet to be installed. Though the stage is built, the adjoining restaurant and bar — which are slated to open on December 8, to coincide with the opening of Actors' Studio's second show — remains a raw space of exposed beams and two-by-fours.

Roth is a twenty-year veteran of the St. Louis stage. Like his partners, Milton Zoth and David Wassilak, he has worked with several companies around town. When presented with the opportunity of having their own space, the partners jumped.

"We want to create a home where professional artists can work and be paid," says Roth, gazing down at the stage from the balcony. "Most of the theater in St. Louis is performed by actors who are paid nothing. For the most part they're working all day, rehearsing all night and, if they're lucky, at the end of the show they'll get 100 bucks. We're trying to get to the point where whether you're union or not, you'll get a union wage."

This is only one of the partners' ambitions. Aside from a working restaurant and bar, they are planning for each season's plays to have a theme. (This year's: the family dynamic, including A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee, which opened the season; and Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss.)

Roth's also talking about bringing in speakers and films that will address the theme in other ways.

"Anything we can think of that looks at what we're trying to dissect in as many ways as possible," he explains. "We're going to have a weekly improv/storytelling session around the season's theme. We're going to examine it as best we can, hoping that some kind of interesting plot line will come out of it so we can produce that for the sixth slot for each season. Not only will that give us an original piece, it also allows actors to hone their skills."

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