And some people in the St. Louis scene are hopeful that's exactly what will happen here.

John Contini is something of an institution in St. Louis theater. He won his first Kline last year for Barrymore, a one-man show portraying one of his personal theatrical heroes.

He's aware of the scuttlebutt locally but says he welcomes the new strictures.

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.

"Like with anything, there's room for improvement," he says. "They're meeting regularly and trying to work out all the bugs. It brings awareness to the public that there is theater in St. Louis and that we should be taken seriously — we do important, good work here. I hope they never lose sight of that."

As far as the new pay requirements, Contini thinks they're a good thing.

"If anybody is offended, and they want to withdraw, they should reexamine that status and work toward [paying Equity rates]," he says. "Being a member of Actors' Equity, that should be taken into consideration.

"Maybe they're should be two nights, one for Equity and one for non-Equity. The public needs to know the difference."

Donna Northcott is apologetic for missing a phone call and quick about calling back. She's just pulled an all-nighter, and in line at the grocery store is a rare moment she can snatch to chat with a reporter. She's opening one show and in rehearsals for another — choreographing stage fights in the morning and rehearsing small scenes in the evenings, with run-throughs of scenes featuring the entire cast a few times a week.

In between rehearsals and openings, some truly gnarly winter weather and a bout of pneumonia, she's behind on convening the board of her company, St. Louis Shakespeare.

But, finally, when the board does manage to meet, it decides to end its relationship with the Klines.

"They are creating rules that are just to be followed by all organizations without really knowing what's appropriate," she says.

Northcott would love to pay her artists more. She'd love to pay herself more. But it's not that simple.

"It's putting the responsibility on theater to dramatically increase pay rates — and continue to increase them over the next two years. There seems to be a belief that the theater companies have a great stash of money that they're unwilling to pay actors. It's not there."

She says the idea of the awards was great: Audience outreach is a critical part of creating and maintaining a theater scene. It's also thankless and tedious.

"It's not glamorous, it's not fun. It's hard work, and no one wants to do it," she says. "Personally, I've been willing to put up with the boring, unpleasant, hard parts for 26 years because when I'm in rehearsal, the opportunity to work with all these creative people, the actors, engineers; seeing an audience reacting, laughing, gasping — OK, that makes it worth it. But it's an unpleasant job someone has to do, and it's mostly unpaid."

Now, she says, the Kevin Klines have shifted. They're about glamour. They're about awards shows and statuettes.

"A lot of people in the theater community enjoyed going to the awards ceremony, going out to the party — that's lovely. But I think there was an expectation when the organization was formed that they would be doing more to help companies grow and increase awareness."

Her company, she says, operates on very slim margins but has succeeded because it has refused to go into debt or overextend itself. Paying actors at the increased levels mandated by the Klines would take it out of that balance, imperiling her decades of hard work.

But, to be fair, Northcott's never attended one of the awards council's roundtables. "My bad for not attending," she says. "I have to admit to being one of the people who doesn't go, because of jobs."

Ed Reggi's been an actor in New York, Chicago and St. Louis. He's a card-holding member of Actors' Equity and has won an Emmy. He says the council is treading dangerously close to creating a union.

He believes they should back off.

"If the Kevin Klines are going to start setting salaries — that's the job of the union I'm proud to be a member of! I'd rather leave bargaining and money stuff to the unions."

He says he researched the comparable cities' awards and found that none of them, save Los Angeles, set salary requirements. Many of them began as Equity-only awards but couldn't survive that way.

"They had to open up. It was very clear they had to make it all-embracing," he says.

The fee increases, he says, in addition to closing in on the work of a union, are an attempt to shore up the organization's finances.

"Let me be blunt: I think it's like cleaning house, for the organization to pay some bills. The mission is not matching the end result."

Scott Miller is the founder and artistic designer of New Line Theatre. He runs a Yahoo! discussion group that's hosted some virulent complaining about the changes, and he's blunt about his own thoughts.

"The Kevin Klines have no luster left, they really don't," he says. "It's been such a mess. It's been run so badly."

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