Subterranean Homesick Blues

The people under the stairs at the St. Marcus Theatre may have to pack up and move out

Feb 16, 2000 at 4:00 am
Last week, playwright/director/producer Joan Lipkin was being honored in the state Capitol rotunda with the 2000 Missouri Arts Award in the presence of Gov. Mel Carnahan and his wife; state representatives such as William Clay; her father and sister; and some 400 artists and arts advocates who had made the trek to Jefferson City for a day of grassroots lobbying for the arts. Lipkin is the youngest of the six to receive the award -- which recognizes significant longtime achievement -- this year. Printmaker and recently retired Webster University professor Leon Hicks was the other St. Louisan to receive the award.

Lipkin stood out not just because she was the youngest honoree. In a time when state recognition, and funding, for the arts shies from the controversial, Lipkin's attention to the marginalized in society -- the disabled, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians -- was specifically cited by Bill Levi, a member of the Missouri Arts Council who presented the awards. Not exactly winning subject matter in the age of "compassionate conservatism" (a new way of saying "benign neglect"), yet here was Lipkin being honored for making and presenting art that goes outside the mainstream, the constituency art that claims and politics -- at best -- ignores. It was a remarkable moment.

Then, not even a week later, Lipkin learned that the St. Marcus Theatre, where so much of the work for which she was recognized began and prospered -- including her own plays, which have gone on to be produced internationally, and the popular AC/DC Series -- was closed to her. By a majority vote on the evening of Sunday, Feb. 13, the congregation of St. Marcus Church voted to shut down the theater at the conclusion of the current season. With the end of New Line Theatre's production of Hair on June 24, the St. Marcus Theatre again becomes a church basement.

"I am devastated by this recent turn of events," says Lipkin, reached by phone the day after the decision. "The loss of the St. Marcus Theatre has enormous repercussion for local artists, financially pressed small and midsize companies, and for work that challenges mainstream aesthetics and freedom of expression."

Scott Miller, whose New Line Theatre also found a home at the St. Marcus, producing innovative stagings of American musicals, says, "It's a tremendous shame. That was the place where audiences and companies knew they could go and do unusual stuff, risky stuff. It sucks that there's not a place like that now."

The St. Marcus Theatre has attracted controversy since its inception, as the brainchild of pastor Dickson Beall, with a focus on gay and lesbian themes. But until this last year, says Lipkin, "we haven't had substantial issues with the congregation around programming." Then came a series of theatrical events that raised concerns within and without the St. Marcus Church congregation: New Line's Players, featuring a group of gay male characters unveiling their feelings and their naked bodies; Scott Miller's Head Games, which partly lampooned his own production of Players ("Gratuitous nudity making fun of gratuitous nudity," the director/playwright explains); Chris Jackson's South Beach, a grotesque, salacious musical romp inspired by the murder of Gianni Versace; and Corpus Christi, the Terrence McNally play depicting a gay savior and his gay disciples, onstage in time for Christmas.

Last fall, in response to an anonymous letter that came with press clippings featuring underlined selections, the United Church of Christ's Church and Ministry Committee met with Beall and members of the St. Marcus congregation for a "periodic review" to discuss the theater. Assessments of that meeting by the participants ranged from "tense" to "a good discussion." Ultimately, the committee advised that there be better monitoring of scripts in the future.

That monitoring process was not to come to pass, however; events at St. Marcus Church turned chaotic in the last month-and-a-half. According to Julie George-Carlson, a performer and soon-to-be producer, Beall called her on Friday, Jan. 7, asking her to come give a presentation to the congregation because they were looking to replace Jackson, who had been the theater's manager. George-Carlson gave her presentation on Sunday. That night, she and her husband were invited to Beall's apartment, where, George-Carlson says, "he had champagne and said, "Congratulations, you're the new managing artistic director. They voted you in.'"

It was a short-lived appointment, however. The next Sunday, the church-board president, Al Ura, rose from the congregation and called for Beall's resignation. Ura, president for 23 years, explains: "He didn't have no time for the church. I asked him to come down to the church two or three days a week, and he said, "I can do more work at my apartment.' So that was it." Along with the call for Beall's resignation, Ura announced a meeting of the congregation the next week to further discuss the theater.

On Sunday, Jan. 23, George-Carlson, Miller and Jackson were present for the congregational meeting, only to discover that Beall had announced his resignation at the close of his service. What followed was a tumultuous church-board meeting, with part of the congregation arguing that the vote to oust Jackson and hire George-Carlson was legitimate and others saying it wasn't.

At this time, Ura asked Jackson to read a letter in which Jackson suggested there was no need for a theater manager at all. The companies could provide scripts to members of the congregation for approval and the companies would haggle over the dates themselves, he said. Jackson proposed the theater be closed down for a "cooling-off period" after June 24, with further discussions about the theater to resume in the fall.

According to George-Carlson, Ura then announced, "I think we've heard enough. I guess we'll have to go into a cooling-off period."

"Al kept trying to adjourn the meeting before anything was decided," says Miller. "The thing that was the biggest surprise to me was that there were about 15 people at this meeting and quite a few of them were arguing passionately in favor of keeping the theater open. Afterward, several of them said to me, "Don't worry, I'm going to fight for you,' which I never expected."

Miller recognizes that the St. Marcus, church and theater, belongs to the congregation -- and that some productions have been difficult for some churchgoers to accept -- but he argues, "It's not about that the stuff in the theater -- and I'm separating most of the stuff from South Beach -- is so terribly wrong for a church. It's that the stuff in the theater is stuff people disagree about whether it's right for a church. There are people in the church who believe the stuff going on downstairs is good, important stuff that's ministering to the community. I think that's a cool thing. Personally, I feel that way. I feel when we're doing shows, I think they touch people. They're important. They matter for the community. I feel that way about the stuff we do, and I feel that way about the stuff Joan does."

But not enough of the congregation felt that way on Feb. 13. Although, as Ura puts it, Lipkin's Missouri Arts Award "was mentioned," most of the congregation voted to close the theater "because of the nudity and the vulgar language," explains Ura. "We asked them not to have Corpus Christi, and they went ahead and had it anyway." (St. Marcus manager Jackson would not comment on this allegation.)

"People have been asking us if we're in the church business or the theater business," Ura continues. "We only have 16 or 18 people on a Sunday morning. We used to have 180 people in the congregation; now we're down to about 26. (The theater) hasn't done us any good."

Even after Sunday's vote, dissension lingers within the congregation, with some of those in favor of the theater arguing that the church bylaws and voting procedures have not been properly followed. Ura's response to these allegations reveals the division, and suspicion, now present at St. Marcus Church. "That was one of the new members that is trying to take over the congregation," says the longtime board president.

With his wife, Lorraine, in the background, calling -- "Tell him we closed it; that's all that's necessary, Al" -- Ura bids farewell and hangs up.

Lipkin says her energies are now directed toward "getting this devastating decision reversed." Miller, on the other hand, is looking to move on. "The good news is, it's the middle of February, and I don't have to find a new space until November. At least it's not a panic situation.

"In an ideal world, I think Julie and Joan and I will go somewhere together and develop a new space. If that happens, the ultimate fallout is not as bad."

Is there a space for AC/DC, for New Line's next season (which tentatively includes The Cradle Will Rock, A New Brain -- by the author of Falsettos -- and Merrily We Roll Along), and for George-Carlson's proposed Theater 101 Equity company, which she says has "a full season ready to go," including Big River, Rhinoceros, Aristophanes' The Birds and Orphans or She Stoops to Conquer?

"I think this is a wake-up call to the people in St. Louis," says the ambitious new theater kid on the block, George-Carlson, "both the people who have theater companies and the people who patronize those companies. It shows all the more the need for people to galvanize around this issue. There is a real need for a good space for midsize companies.

"I really think it can happen."