Striving to better, the Kevin Klines may mar what's well.

Striving to better, the Kevin Klines may mar what's well.
Chris Whetzel

Steve Isom dreamed of a community. As an actor in St. Louis, he found himself working at the craft he loved in what felt like a fractured scene, a group of artists working without a core to coalesce around.

He looked to other cities with thriving theater scenes. He looked at Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He saw theater artists engaged in friendly rivalry with each other, and struck gold: In many cities with real theater scenes, he realized, the community came together over theater awards. They weren't the Tony Awards. They weren't the Oscars. But they were a way for local theater companies to be recognized, to promote each other and to hone their craft in competition with each other.

St. Louis, Isom thought, needed its own theater awards.

Tony Award winner Kevin Kline came to St. Louis for the first Kline awards ceremony.
Gerry Love
Tony Award winner Kevin Kline came to St. Louis for the first Kline awards ceremony.
Steve Isom at the inaugural Kline ceremony.
Steve Isom at the inaugural Kline ceremony.

"People like competition and getting press," he says. "If you look at when these awards shows started in other cities and the growth of the theater [scene], the [increased] number of theaters — they do it by drawing attention to the theater. It also gives something else for theaters to market."

Sitting in his living room six years ago, Isom decided to create a community like that for his hometown.

"We certainly used the image of a rising tide lifting all boats," he says.

In thinking about exceptional theater in St. Louis, Isom brainstormed names of St. Louis' native sons and daughters, Midwesterners who'd made their mark on the wide world.

One name was the obvious choice.

Kevin Kline grew up in St. Louis. He's made it, in Hollywood and on Broadway: He has won two Tony Awards, for On the Twentieth Century and The Pirates of Penzance, and an Academy Award for A Fish Called Wanda. He has a reputation around Hollywood as a craftsman, someone who chooses his roles discerningly.

When Isom's fledgling group reached out to Kline, he agreed to lend his name to the undertaking. The luminary actor even returned to St. Louis for the first-ever Kevin Kline Awards in 2005.

Kline did press. Kline handed out awards. Kline lent star power.

The number of shows mounted in town jumped dramatically after those first awards, as Isom expected. He cites one small company, the now-defunct Orange Girls, that won three Klines. They'd been a new theater, but after their success at the Klines, they began playing to packed houses.

All the theaters that participated in the Klines promoted one another, with notices of upcoming plays in their handbills and posters in their lobbies.

A community budded.

Ever since that first year, the Kevin Kline Awards have been administered by a nonprofit organization called the Professional Theatre Awards Council, with Isom serving as the executive director. A board of a dozen or so directors set policy and selected the panel of judges.

After five years, Isom left the Kevin Kline Awards. An actor full-time, he has both a career and a family to tend to — a teenage daughter's theater career is getting under way as well. Isom says that he'd always intended to hand the reins to someone else, and in May 2009, he gave control to the board of directors.

Officially, the show has gone on. Last year's gala, in March, toasted a new set of winners. Nominations for the sixth annual Kevin Kline Awards have just been announced.

Some in the theater community fear there will be no seventh.

Cash is tight for the council, as it is for everyone these days. And after operating without an executive director for two years, the cracks are starting to show for the theater council. The Klines' website is temporarily suspended, and last year's winners say their awards haven't arrived yet.

It seems like a bad time to be alienating local theater companies. But the council has announced major changes aimed at "professionalizing" theater in St. Louis, and the changes are rankling some companies.

As of next year, theater companies that want to participate in the Klines will have to pay a set — and escalating — rate to their cast and crew. There will also be an increase in the number of required performances.

Some in the theater community say these new requirements are too onerous for smaller or more experimental theaters. They've been characterized as an attempt to create a theater union, a role doubters say is best left to actual unions such as Actors' Equity Association.

Some companies say they no longer see value in the awards and won't participate anymore. Three companies that have always been a part of the awards recently pulled out in light of the changes: St. Louis Shakespeare, New Line Theatre and Stray Dog Theatre.

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.] Donna Northcott is the founder and creative director of St. Louis Shakespeare. Northcott's troupe has been nominated for its share of Klines. But now, they're out.

"I don't see much purpose in the awards ceremony, other than just the theater community dressing up and having a fun evening," Northcott says, "when all that money and effort could be spent into actually strengthening theater in the St. Louis community.

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