The Show Must GO

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

Across town, the scene is significantly more serene as Stray Dog Theatre's artistic director Gary Bell saunters into the Tower Grove Abbey. Wearing Bermuda shorts, a T-shirt and sandals and eating from a bowl of Corn Flakes, Bell pulls out a key and enters the handsome brick church from the side.

Inside, the space looks like it's one part theater and one part church. Where the altar once stood, Bell's company has constructed a stage. Rows of pews still fill the room, but to the rear stands lighting scaffolding.

"The relationship between churches and theaters goes back forever," notes Bell, now sitting cross-legged in one of the pews. "But our situation is very unique."

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.

Unlike many theater companies, which rely on churches to grant them use of their space, the Tower Grove Abbey and Stray Dog Theatre are equal partners in the space.

"We were working out of Clayton High School when the folks from this church came knocking on our door. They actually wanted to sell us the church," Bell says. "We're a theater company, but we also do a lot of arts-education outreach programs. So my partner said, 'Your outreach is very similar to ours: children, the neighborhood. If you really need assistance, why don't you rent it to us for 99 years, Monday through Saturday, and you can keep Sunday.'

"So we signed this unique agreement."

Founded in 2003, Stray Dog Theatre has bounced around from location to location, performing in vacant dance studios, at Washington University and, most recently, at Clayton High. All that changed last September, when Stray Dog premiered its inaugural show, Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, at Tower Grove Abbey.

And while Stray Dog will be the principal company in residence, Bell seems ready to share.

"This is sort of a reverse relationship between theaters and churches," he says. "When all this was happening with Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, I called Scott, and I told him if things didn't work out with the Ivory, he should just come here."

The skirmish between the archdiocese and New Line Theatre appears to have passed without incident. But that's not to say the matter is settled.

"A deed restriction can affect a property forever," says local property attorney Stephen Novack. That said, Novack explains that some deed restrictions can become unenforceable over time. "In general there are a number of doctrines that can be used to attack them, although any attack's effectiveness can only be determined on a case-by-case basis."

While the skirmish at the Ivory is unique because of the deed restriction, battles between the church and theaters are not without precedent.

In the late 1990s, St. Marcus United Church of Christ in Benton Park opened its doors to many theater companies. Many of the groups mounted provocative, gay-themed works, but the church had a progressive pastor, and for the most part the congregation turned a blind eye to the productions.

All that changed in early 2000, when the theater hosted productions of South Beach, a musical written by the late local playwright and sometime RFT provocateur Christopher Jackson that was based on the life of Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace, and Corpus Christi, a gay-themed story of Jesus written by the American playwright Terrence McNally.

"That really freaked out the congregation," recalls Scott Miller, who shared the space with Joan Lipkin's Uppity Theatre Company and Jackson's CJ Productions. "South Beach was really pornographic. It freaked me out a little bit — and that ain't easy."

In the end St. Marcus pastor Dick Beale resigned. The congregation fired Jackson, who had managed the basement theater, and the church stopped hosting theatrical productions.

Though the loss of St. Marcus dealt a heavy blow to the theater community, it was hardly the worst local collision between theater troupes and churches.

That honor goes to the Theater Project Company, which produced Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, a dark comedy in which a dogmatic nun is confronted by her former students. Although the play, first brought to the stage in 1979, had always been controversial, when it came to St. Louis in 1983 it sparked intense protest. Writing in the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan weekly newspaper, then-Archbishop John L. May called the work a "vile diatribe against all things Catholic" and urged the faithful to boycott performances.

There were protests outside the theater, and State Senator Edwin L. Dirck, a Democrat from St. Ann, mounted a campaign to reduce funding to the Missouri Arts Council, which a year earlier had given the Theater Project Company a $12,000 grant.

Dirck's drive to cut MAC funding wound up being unsuccessful, although the council did receive a "letter of warning" cautioning it against future funding of groups whose projects are offensive to religious denominations.

By contrast, the turmoil at the Ivory is a relatively minor dustup in a long history of dustups, which leaves New Line Theatre's Scott Miller unfazed.

"I'll tell you," Miller says, "theater companies are happier now than they've been in a long time."

On a recent Wednesday night in the building beneath a deserted parking lot in Clayton that serves as Washington University's West Campus Library, Robert Mitchell is blocking a fight scene for the NonProphet Theatre Company's production of David C. Mann's Corleone: The Shakespearean Godfather. Lighted by fluorescent tubes, the room has the sort of institutional anonymity one might expect from a university's satellite library: desks line to the walls, a few dry erase boards, low-pile carpet.

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