Stage Fright: The Ivory is turning into a horror show for some St. Louis theater companies

Ivory Theatre

Marble Stage Theatre's artistic director, Greg Matzker, recently learned that after lengthy discussions — and what he considered a verbal agreement with the Ivory Theatre's managing director Donna Perrino — his group would not be permitted to stage its upcoming production of Bye Bye Birdie at the Ivory after all.

Matzker says he's aware of problems other local theater groups have had with the Ivory. Both New Line Theatre and the NonProphet Theater Company left the Ivory after various disagreements with Perrino and Red Brick Management, the company that owns the building.

"Repairs needed to be done with the relationship between the theater community and the community in general with the Ivory," Matzker says. For the past month, he adds, he talked often with Perrino about arranging a series of theatrical programs at the Ivory, including a fairy-tale theater for small children and a performance of The Sound of Music to honor the Ivory's previous incarnation as St. Boniface Catholic Church.

Matzker says Perrino asked him if he'd be interested in choreographing and directing an all-Actors' Equity production of The Fantasticks. But Perrino claims otherwise. "I don't know the kid," she counters. "I met with him twice to talk about Bye Bye Birdie. He started tap-dancing on the stage and I took him to lunch. I had to meet with him and talk with him and find out where he was coming from. But I can't commit to anything until I talk with my partners [Red Brick's Pete Rothschild and Mike Allen]."

She couldn't lease the theater to Marble Stage, says Perrino, because "there were conflicts with scheduling." Marble Stage wanted exclusive rights to the Ivory during Bye Bye Birdie's weeklong run, while Perrino preferred to allow two or three groups to share the space in order to maximize profits.

The news came as a shock to Matzker. He and Marble Stage had already invested several thousand dollars into Bye Bye Birdie, part of which they raised by selling fresh eggs from door to door.

"Now I have to go back to the group and say, 'We've been dropped like a hot potato, guys,'" Matzker says. "Now we're without a place to do our show. I'm scared to death now that we may have to cancel the season. I'm literally fighting back tears right now."

Like many local theater companies, Marble Stage has no permanent home. For the past few years, it had staged shows at Bayless High School in south county, the best facility it could afford. But this summer Bayless will be under construction, so the Ivory seemed an ideal solution.

Open since last summer, the Ivory, located in the Carondelet neighborhood, is the product of an $800,000 renovation of St. Boniface. Red Brick had purchased the church from the archdiocese, and the theater was meant to be, in Perrino's words, "a functional professional theater. We plan to upgrade as we go."

Though the Ivory has mostly housed community productions, Perrino hopes to attract touring professional companies. Its first Equity show, A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, opened last winter to positive notices and minuscule audiences. Still, Perrino considers the show a success. "Patsy Cline brought us up to ground zero," she says.

Perrino's relationships with the local groups were less successful. "We let New Line pay the same rent at the Ivory they paid at the ArtLoft [their previous home]," Perrino explains. "I personally put up the blackout drapes and paid for things they said they had to have. We did so many things to make them comfortable. But kindness can be mistaken for weakness. Maybe that's what happened."

New Line, naturally, tells a different story.

"The Ivory had no one involved in any aspect who understood theater," says Scott Miller, New Line's artistic director and one of the Ivory's most vocal critics. In Miller's opinion, the theater itself was inadequate. The doors were too narrow, he complains, so the crew had to build sets directly onstage. Plus, he says, the raised electrical outlet covers on the stage made choreography nearly impossible.

When New Line took possession of the Ivory the day after Patsy Cline closed, the company found a theater full of leftover sets, props and trash. Red Brick's Allen says management came in the following day to clean up.

NonProphet also took over a messy theater, but its biggest problem with the Ivory concerned rent. NonProphet's managing director, Tyson Blanquart, claims that he had a verbal agreement with Perrino that another group could use the theater on days when NonProphet wasn't there. In exchange, NonProphet would receive a reduction on its rent.

Instead, the NonProphet actors and crew returned to a trashed theater. The set had been destroyed and the public spaces, including the lobby and the bathrooms, were full of garbage. "After the dust settled and we received our bill for rent," Blanquart writes in an e-mail, "we noticed that management never reduced the rent for us the way they said they would."

Untrue, counters Perrino. "NonProphet didn't pay their bill. It got blown up out of proportion."

After New Line and NonProphet left the Ivory and word spread about their mishaps, Perrino became a persona non grata in St. Louis theater circles. Members of other groups, including Matzker, posted complaints on New Line's listserv, and an anonymous blogger composed a lengthy chronicle of Perrino's misdeeds on a Web site called the Ivory Theatre Horror Show.

Perrino has worked in theater for twenty years and says she's never experienced anything like this. "They don't treat it as a business," she says of Marble Stage and other local groups. "They take it so personally. There's nothing personal. They took every allegation to the max."

She sighs. "Honey, it's community theater. That's what I've learned."

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