"It seems like more and more the focus is just to have awards."

The old rules for participation in the Klines were pretty simple.

Previously, any theater company in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County or any adjacent municipality could have its shows considered for the awards if it met two criteria: It paid its artists, and it did at least six productions of any one show. There was no specified pay rate, and because the awards were funded through grants and donations, there was no fee to enter.

St. Louis Shakespeare's Treasure Island.
St. Louis Shakespeare's Treasure Island.
New Line Theatre's production of Evita. Scott Miller, New Line's founder, says, "The Kevin Klines have no luster left, they really don't. It's been such a mess. It's been run so badly."
Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre's production of Evita. Scott Miller, New Line's founder, says, "The Kevin Klines have no luster left, they really don't. It's been such a mess. It's been run so badly."

Starting with the 2011-2012 season, however, companies entering the Klines must mount at least eight performances of every show they produce. And they must pay performers a set rate for every one of those shows — not just the ones being submitted for award consideration. Under the new rules, all actors must be paid at least $15 a show in the 2011-2012 season, $20 a show for the following season and $25 per performance in the season after that.

It's not just actors. Kline-eligible theaters will have to pay directors a minimum of $400 in 2011-2012, then $600 in the following season and $800 the next. Designers, choreographers and musical directors must get $200, then $300, then $400.

Finally, on top of paying that rate, companies will have to pay the awards council a fee of $25 per production being considered.

For St. Louis' big-name theaters, such as the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the Muny and Stages St. Louis — which have historically done very well in the Klines anyway — that's an affordable proposition. For smaller, more experimental theater companies, such as St. Louis Shakespeare or New Line Theatre, fees like that are out of the question.

Consider a play with a large cast, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, which has 21 speaking roles. By 2014, the mandatory eight performances of that show would cost a company hoping to enter the Klines a minimum of $5,400. That's before it has even paid the electric bill or printed up a program — and regardless of whether it intends to enter that production for awards consideration.

The awards council says the changes are meant to codify what it means to be a "professional" theater in St. Louis, that the new requirements can only add to the cachet of the scene. But opponents believe that the council has lost sight of its role as an audience-outreach mechanism, rather than an actors' union — or an excuse for a party. And some theaters simply object philosophically to being told how to run their businesses, when the council itself isn't in great shape.

"We should not allow ourselves to be subject to the standards of other cities but should embrace our own unique market and move within it," one critic of the new criteria wrote on a Yahoo! message board. "Is my idealism showing? Good, because if I cannot be hopeful and idealistic in the world of theater, it is a sad day indeed. Many worthy performances are being shut out because of money, and I thought we were better than that. This move by the Klines comes off as elitist and discriminatory and punitive."

To date, the awards council still hasn't replaced Isom. It can't afford to. But former board member Jason Cannon has a long institutional memory; he has been instrumental in implementing the changes and is serving as the council's de facto point man for the discussion.

Thanks to that role, Cannon has taken his share of slings and arrows on local theater message boards. It may not help that Cannon is something of a polarizing figure in St. Louis theater. Everyone's got at least one Jason Cannon story. Years ago, the oft-repeated tale goes, he was producing Hamlet. And directing it. And designing the sets. All the posters had his name splashed across them. Then, just before showtime, his star fell ill. Cannon stepped in, of course, as the poster boy for theatrical angst.

And, speaking of posters, the story goes that he reissued them, with one more instance of his name.

He's a presence wherever he goes. Sitting in a coffee shop awaiting a reporter, he notices the reporter accidentally introducing herself to the wrong person, asking the guy if he happens to be Cannon. From across the room, Cannon sees the interaction and booms out his greeting.

Cannon has said — both in an interview with the RFT and on semi-private theater message boards — that the changes are the result of feedback from local theaters.

"Since day one, our constituent theater companies have wanted us to define 'professional' with a line in the sand," Cannon tells the RFT.

At a roundtable three years ago, he says, the twenty theater representatives present went around the table and gave their notion of what 'professional' meant to them. Predictably, there were at least twenty answers.

That, Cannon believed, cried out for an answer from the awards council: "The theater community was anxious for us to define 'professional.'"

So Cannon and the rest of the board started doing research. They examined seven other cities' theater awards: the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, D.C., the Joseph Jefferson Awards in Chicago, the Carbonell Awards in South Florida, the Ivey Awards in Minneapolis, the LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards in Los Angeles, the ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence in the Phoenix area and Philadelphia's Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre.

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