Dropping the Curtain

A theater critic offers some exit lines

Mar 7, 2001 at 4:00 am
Before I moved here from Massachusetts, I had no idea St. Louis enjoyed such a wide range of theater. Gay theater, black theater, dance theater, opera theater, Equity theater and ambitious amateur efforts abounded. I'd had a very enjoyable sabbatical from music, theater and book criticism for the Boston Phoenix and other East Coast papers, but my curiosity was whetted. So I called Cliff Froehlich, the RFT associate editor, and we had a very useful schmoozathon (newspaperese for "job interview"). Two summers ago, I began reviewing. Sixty-odd (some very odd, others sublime) productions later, I must bid adieu, because my husband, Chuck, and I are moving home to New England.

During my posting, I've been careful to keep a critical distance, but once our departure date was announced, I decided to break that fourth wall and talk with theater folks about the state of the art. A posted query on the local theatrical e-board elicited great responses. Linda Spall of Backstage applauds the "'little' theaters" where you can see adventurous or not necessarily profitable plays, ranging from Ionesco to McNally, but says one crucial issue is space: "How about a real theater district, Washington Avenue, Bevo or Soulard? There must be a neighborhood willing to take a chance and revitalize." Though St. Louis has plenty of delightful places for coffee, very few are within walking distance of a theater. Perhaps the poobahs carving up your beautiful downtown might notice that pedestrians go with nightlife and cultural development and see whether all that adds up to coffee-after-a-show.

Donna Parroné of HotHouse Theatre Co. says she's encouraged by audience development. "There are many people out there who love what we do and think it's vital and important to challenge their heads," she writes, adding that her "goal at HotHouse is to grow to a point where we are actually paying people what they deserve, not what they'll accept." Scott Miller of New Line Theater also thinks about the bottom line: "I think it's getting harder all the time to make a living as an actor in St. Louis. That's always been a problem, but I think it's worse since the demise of Theater Project Company, Shattermask, TNT, etc." One obstruction, unfortunately, is the union. "Equity refuses to allow Equity actors to perform in smaller non-Equity shows the way they can in LA, NYC and other places," he says. "So the Equity actors work less, get less experience and then have a harder time getting cast when work does come along. On the other hand, the number and variety of companies in town always amazed me. There are so many companies and so many doing alternative work."

With some exceptions, people agreed that, all things considered, the local theater scene is pretty vibrant. Compared with a decade or so ago, when there was less of everything, this is a positively flowering epoch, with more, no doubt, to come. At long last, this summer St. Louis will have its own "Shakespeare in the park," with a new company presenting Romeo and Juliet for free in Forest Park. And I'm very excited about the new (Mostly) Harmless Theatre, which debuts a pair of shows this summer: Jane Anderson's drama Defying Gravity, inspired by the aborted Challenger mission, and David Lindsay-Abaire's quirky comedy Fuddy Meers. "I want to provide St. Louis with works that are structurally innovative, philosophically challenging, provide strong roles for actors and address significant historical and social issues while exploring alternative performance technique," says artistic director Robert Neblett. His influences range from Robert Wilson to filmmaker Peter Greenaway, including theater visionary Anne Bogart and playwright Jose Rivera (both of whom sit on the advisory board). "We consider ourselves a professional rather than a community company because we want to pay everybody and pay them what they're worth. And that's a tough row to hoe." (M)HT will presenting Surface Tension, six 10-minute plays (you read that right), March 22-25 at St. Louis Hillel Auditorium.

So many shows, so little time. But I'd be remiss if I didn't offer some advice to folks in the community about facilitating what we do:

• Get your press releases in more than a week before the play opens, with usable (not too dark, not too dumb) pictures of the production. Send your release to the critic, the calendar editor and the editor in charge of arts coverage. Too many is smarter than too few.

• Smart scheduling. Here's a horror story I'll be telling for some time: Some while ago, a large theater decided to move press night back a week -- at the last minute. Now, another large theater already had its opening scheduled, months in advance. As a result, two important houses got half the word count they might have received otherwise.

• Consider the lulls. Dead times for this page have been August and holidays. Someone could have opened something then and received coverage.

• If your "theater" is an open space with folding chairs, that's fine, but stagger the seats so everyone has good sightlines -- not just folks in the front row.

• Be patient but persistent about coverage. Because of the RFT's redesign, space for reviews has been trimmed (from 1,500 to 1,300 words) in the past few months. However, you may have noticed that the paper has a remarkably liberal policy about running letters.

Thanks to everyone who met me in St. Louis, and break a leg, everyone.