By Lindsay Toler
By Chad Garrison
By Brett Koshkin
By RFT Staff
By Lindsay Toler
By Riverfront Times
By Danny Wicentowski
By Pete Kotz
"I look back on that time," Syer says, "and think to myself, 'We must have been insane.' But you're always a little insane if you're going to start a theater."
TPC began modestly in 1975 with each woman contributing $150 in seed money. They staged the company's first two plays that season in a bar in Laclede's Landing. The following year they mounted a four-play season at the Learning Center in the Central West End. Sue Greenberg, who had just graduated from Washington University with a degree in art history and urban studies, was one of the first to sign on.
"I got involved totally by accident," says Greenberg, who since 1992 has been the Muny's company manager. "I started selling ads for the program. Very soon after, Fontaine said, 'Would you like to stage manage?' I said, 'Sure.' Then I asked, 'What's that?'"
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She learned fast.
"We talk a lot about the Theatre Project Company and how cool we all were," Salomon says. "But Sue Greenberg was the heart of that company. For every one of us she was the rock. She ran a rehearsal hall like nobody I've ever seen."
Salomon auditioned for that first full season (1976-77) and was cast as Adam, a servant in As You Like It. "From that minor role," he says, "I insinuated myself with the company." He became associate artistic director ("a glorified title for office boy"). It was almost a short-lived stint, because audiences were meager.
Salomon remembers meeting with the crew from TPC at Christine Smith's house in Lafayette Square on August 16, 1977, to discuss folding the company. Salomon can recall the exact date because Elvis died the same day. Death, it seems, was in the air.
"They were thinking about folding the company," says Salomon. "I tried to explain to Fontaine and Christine that they had succeeded in creating the company that some of us who lived here dreamed we might create. As diplomatically as I could, I suggested that perhaps they were working with the wrong actors and that they might like to work with my friends. I also said that the Learning Center was not an ideal location for a theater and that we needed to find a really exciting place. Christine went out looking, and that place became Union Station."
The new theater was located in the former ladies waiting room; the elegant Grand Hall became the theater lobby. "It was exciting," Greenberg says, "because this was our space and we were figuring it out. Behind the theater we had offices that turned into dressing rooms at night. Then in the back, which would be on 18th Street, was a restroom, which we called the Black Hole. If the actors wanted to use this bathroom during the show, they had to use a bucket of water to flush the toilet."
Midway through that debut Union Station season, Salomon directed The Taming of the Shrew. He cast Syer as the shrewish Katherine then asked Miller to play Petruchio, Katherine's suitor. "I hadn't acted in four years," Miller recalls. "I had left theater to pursue a career as a film editor. I had just gotten fired from my first studio job when Wayne called to say, 'Come do Shakespeare with me at the train station.' I was like, 'The train station? What are you talking about?' He said, 'We're going to do Taming of the Shrew. There's this woman, Fontaine Syer. You've got to meet her.' And that's how Wayne brought me back into the theater."
Shrew was the first of several plays — The Homecoming, Catch-22, Coming Attractions, Much Ado About Nothing — that during the next decade would feature Miller and Syer and be directed by Salomon.
"There's always a positive atmosphere when Wayne is directing," Greenberg explains. "During rehearsals most directors will say, 'Stop, let's go back.' Wayne never said the word stop. He always said, 'Good,' and good meant stop."
One of the highlights of the second Union Station season was a Syer-directed Waiting for Godot with Miller and Salomon as the two clowns, Vladimir and Estragon.
"Bobby and Wayne were absolutely central in almost every conceivable way to the theater's best stuff," Syer says. "Their collaboration was an inspiration for all of us. Their connection is this indestructible thing."
That same year, 1979, TPC took a hit when Amtrak moved out of Union Station, leaving the theater without heat. The scrappy ensemble took the setback in stride. "The joke was that that the best seats were the ones near the space heaters," Miller says. "There were bums sleeping in the station, but our audience was loyal and rabid." The third Union Station season played to 86 percent capacity; the fourth, to 98 percent capacity.
Then, when nearly every performance was selling out, TPC was evicted from Union Station. "They were going to renovate the place," Greenberg says, "but there was a long delay. We could have done another year or two there." Instead TPC became nomads. It opened its 1981-82 season at the Missouri Botanical Garden then staged the next five plays at Washington University and UMSL. But even when homeless, there were positives. Corporate contributions more than doubled.