Striving to better, the Kevin Klines may mar what's well.

Feb 17, 2011 at 4:00 am
Striving to better, the Kevin Klines may mar what's well.
Chris Whetzel

Steve Isom dreamed of a community. As an actor in St. Louis, he found himself working at the craft he loved in what felt like a fractured scene, a group of artists working without a core to coalesce around.

He looked to other cities with thriving theater scenes. He looked at Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. He saw theater artists engaged in friendly rivalry with each other, and struck gold: In many cities with real theater scenes, he realized, the community came together over theater awards. They weren't the Tony Awards. They weren't the Oscars. But they were a way for local theater companies to be recognized, to promote each other and to hone their craft in competition with each other.

St. Louis, Isom thought, needed its own theater awards.

"People like competition and getting press," he says. "If you look at when these awards shows started in other cities and the growth of the theater [scene], the [increased] number of theaters — they do it by drawing attention to the theater. It also gives something else for theaters to market."

Sitting in his living room six years ago, Isom decided to create a community like that for his hometown.

"We certainly used the image of a rising tide lifting all boats," he says.

In thinking about exceptional theater in St. Louis, Isom brainstormed names of St. Louis' native sons and daughters, Midwesterners who'd made their mark on the wide world.

One name was the obvious choice.

Kevin Kline grew up in St. Louis. He's made it, in Hollywood and on Broadway: He has won two Tony Awards, for On the Twentieth Century and The Pirates of Penzance, and an Academy Award for A Fish Called Wanda. He has a reputation around Hollywood as a craftsman, someone who chooses his roles discerningly.

When Isom's fledgling group reached out to Kline, he agreed to lend his name to the undertaking. The luminary actor even returned to St. Louis for the first-ever Kevin Kline Awards in 2005.

Kline did press. Kline handed out awards. Kline lent star power.

The number of shows mounted in town jumped dramatically after those first awards, as Isom expected. He cites one small company, the now-defunct Orange Girls, that won three Klines. They'd been a new theater, but after their success at the Klines, they began playing to packed houses.

All the theaters that participated in the Klines promoted one another, with notices of upcoming plays in their handbills and posters in their lobbies.

A community budded.

Ever since that first year, the Kevin Kline Awards have been administered by a nonprofit organization called the Professional Theatre Awards Council, with Isom serving as the executive director. A board of a dozen or so directors set policy and selected the panel of judges.

After five years, Isom left the Kevin Kline Awards. An actor full-time, he has both a career and a family to tend to — a teenage daughter's theater career is getting under way as well. Isom says that he'd always intended to hand the reins to someone else, and in May 2009, he gave control to the board of directors.

Officially, the show has gone on. Last year's gala, in March, toasted a new set of winners. Nominations for the sixth annual Kevin Kline Awards have just been announced.

Some in the theater community fear there will be no seventh.

Cash is tight for the council, as it is for everyone these days. And after operating without an executive director for two years, the cracks are starting to show for the theater council. The Klines' website is temporarily suspended, and last year's winners say their awards haven't arrived yet.

It seems like a bad time to be alienating local theater companies. But the council has announced major changes aimed at "professionalizing" theater in St. Louis, and the changes are rankling some companies.

As of next year, theater companies that want to participate in the Klines will have to pay a set — and escalating — rate to their cast and crew. There will also be an increase in the number of required performances.

Some in the theater community say these new requirements are too onerous for smaller or more experimental theaters. They've been characterized as an attempt to create a theater union, a role doubters say is best left to actual unions such as Actors' Equity Association.

Some companies say they no longer see value in the awards and won't participate anymore. Three companies that have always been a part of the awards recently pulled out in light of the changes: St. Louis Shakespeare, New Line Theatre and Stray Dog Theatre.

[Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.] Donna Northcott is the founder and creative director of St. Louis Shakespeare. Northcott's troupe has been nominated for its share of Klines. But now, they're out.

"I don't see much purpose in the awards ceremony, other than just the theater community dressing up and having a fun evening," Northcott says, "when all that money and effort could be spent into actually strengthening theater in the St. Louis community.

"It seems like more and more the focus is just to have awards."

The old rules for participation in the Klines were pretty simple.

Previously, any theater company in the city of St. Louis, St. Louis County or any adjacent municipality could have its shows considered for the awards if it met two criteria: It paid its artists, and it did at least six productions of any one show. There was no specified pay rate, and because the awards were funded through grants and donations, there was no fee to enter.

Starting with the 2011-2012 season, however, companies entering the Klines must mount at least eight performances of every show they produce. And they must pay performers a set rate for every one of those shows — not just the ones being submitted for award consideration. Under the new rules, all actors must be paid at least $15 a show in the 2011-2012 season, $20 a show for the following season and $25 per performance in the season after that.

It's not just actors. Kline-eligible theaters will have to pay directors a minimum of $400 in 2011-2012, then $600 in the following season and $800 the next. Designers, choreographers and musical directors must get $200, then $300, then $400.

Finally, on top of paying that rate, companies will have to pay the awards council a fee of $25 per production being considered.

For St. Louis' big-name theaters, such as the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, the Muny and Stages St. Louis — which have historically done very well in the Klines anyway — that's an affordable proposition. For smaller, more experimental theater companies, such as St. Louis Shakespeare or New Line Theatre, fees like that are out of the question.

Consider a play with a large cast, such as A Midsummer Night's Dream, which has 21 speaking roles. By 2014, the mandatory eight performances of that show would cost a company hoping to enter the Klines a minimum of $5,400. That's before it has even paid the electric bill or printed up a program — and regardless of whether it intends to enter that production for awards consideration.

The awards council says the changes are meant to codify what it means to be a "professional" theater in St. Louis, that the new requirements can only add to the cachet of the scene. But opponents believe that the council has lost sight of its role as an audience-outreach mechanism, rather than an actors' union — or an excuse for a party. And some theaters simply object philosophically to being told how to run their businesses, when the council itself isn't in great shape.

"We should not allow ourselves to be subject to the standards of other cities but should embrace our own unique market and move within it," one critic of the new criteria wrote on a Yahoo! message board. "Is my idealism showing? Good, because if I cannot be hopeful and idealistic in the world of theater, it is a sad day indeed. Many worthy performances are being shut out because of money, and I thought we were better than that. This move by the Klines comes off as elitist and discriminatory and punitive."

To date, the awards council still hasn't replaced Isom. It can't afford to. But former board member Jason Cannon has a long institutional memory; he has been instrumental in implementing the changes and is serving as the council's de facto point man for the discussion.

Thanks to that role, Cannon has taken his share of slings and arrows on local theater message boards. It may not help that Cannon is something of a polarizing figure in St. Louis theater. Everyone's got at least one Jason Cannon story. Years ago, the oft-repeated tale goes, he was producing Hamlet. And directing it. And designing the sets. All the posters had his name splashed across them. Then, just before showtime, his star fell ill. Cannon stepped in, of course, as the poster boy for theatrical angst.

And, speaking of posters, the story goes that he reissued them, with one more instance of his name.

He's a presence wherever he goes. Sitting in a coffee shop awaiting a reporter, he notices the reporter accidentally introducing herself to the wrong person, asking the guy if he happens to be Cannon. From across the room, Cannon sees the interaction and booms out his greeting.

Cannon has said — both in an interview with the RFT and on semi-private theater message boards — that the changes are the result of feedback from local theaters.

"Since day one, our constituent theater companies have wanted us to define 'professional' with a line in the sand," Cannon tells the RFT.

At a roundtable three years ago, he says, the twenty theater representatives present went around the table and gave their notion of what 'professional' meant to them. Predictably, there were at least twenty answers.

That, Cannon believed, cried out for an answer from the awards council: "The theater community was anxious for us to define 'professional.'"

So Cannon and the rest of the board started doing research. They examined seven other cities' theater awards: the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, D.C., the Joseph Jefferson Awards in Chicago, the Carbonell Awards in South Florida, the Ivey Awards in Minneapolis, the LA Stage Alliance Ovation Awards in Los Angeles, the ariZoni Theatre Awards of Excellence in the Phoenix area and Philadelphia's Barrymore Awards for Excellence in Theatre.

"In terms of the national conversation, we were the lowest bar," Cannon says. "It was, if not embarrassing, a little eye-opening." While the Klines required only a minimum of six performances and that artists be compensated, the other cities had more rigorous requirements. Some spelled out how much artists had to be paid or specified that only Equity artists (that is, dues-paying members of the nation's premier theater union) be considered. All of them required more shows than the Klines did.

Cannon says that theater artists — and he's speaking from personal experience, as a Kevin Kline Award winner himself and prolific actor and producer of shows in St. Louis — feel more respected and produce better work when there's a check that comes with their role.

"There is a moral obligation as producers to compensate your artists," he says. "It's not even minimum wage. Yes, it's tight. That's a producer's job. The artists need a gesture that you are appreciated."

So the board took the other cities' criteria back home to St. Louis and started drafting a version that would work here. ("We cribbed a lot," Cannon allows.)

The board reached out to local companies, holding roundtable discussions and crafting a document using input garnered through the discussions. He says the document has evolved through the discussions and e-mail chains and is likely to continue to evolve.

"We are trying to be as transparent as possible," he says. "All of these [criteria] are inspired by groups around the country. We sent it to all the [St. Louis] theater companies and solicited their input."

Ninety percent of the local theater companies are already at or close to the newly required compensation levels, Cannon says. He believes it's not too much to ask the others to get in line.

And the Klines, he says, are well within their rights to ask more of their constituent theaters. Winning a Kline, or even being nominated, lends prestige to artists and theater companies. Cannon says that as the new criteria are implemented, they'll only become more of a feather in artists' caps: "If you want our services, you have to meet A, B, C and D."

He's certainly aware of grousing, online and in person, from a few theater companies. He calls the critics a "vocal minority" and says, accurately, that much of the complaining has come from companies that haven't sent representatives to the council's roundtables anyway.

"I expect one or two may walk on philosophical grounds: They are seeing something sinister that is not there," Cannon says. "We're not in the business of trying to squeeze anyone out."

Despite his confidence that the changes are a good thing, Cannon is clearly feeling some pressure.

One week after a collegial, hourlong chat over coffee, Cannon sent an e-mail to Riverfront Times — attempting to retract the entire conversation.

One of the seven other theater awards that Cannon and the rest of the board looked at was the ariZonis, the theater awards for the Phoenix area. They've got about 45 member theaters and have been running for twenty years. The president of the ariZoni Theatre Awards, Eric Chapman, and vice president of its board of directors, Scott Withers, say the awards have undergone changes of their own.

Some theaters have dropped out, and others have joined; there's been plenty of griping. Yet the awards have continued.

When Withers came onto the board four years ago, the theater company he'd been working with had recently dropped out. "Most of the community was getting sort of 'over it.' We didn't feel like it was meaning much anymore."

Their main challenges, Withers says, were standardizing the scoring and teasing apart the awards for professional actors from a separate set for amateurs and youth theaters. (The ariZonis are one of the few awards in the country that consider youth theater.)

The Phoenix group looked at Philadelphia's Barrymores and started vetting and training their judges more extensively. Chapman says most of their rules are in the interest of simplicity of scheduling adjudicators and other administrative reasons.

The ariZonis explicitly created separate judging and awards for Equity versus non-contracted productions, which Withers and Chapman say made a big difference in the awards' perceived value.

"When you do this not as a hobby but as a living, you want to be adjudicated by people who you realize are also professionals in the field," Withers says.

Since the split four years ago, Chapman says that the awards mean more to everyone.

"You'll see on résumés, 'ariZoni winner,' 'ariZoni nominee,'" he says. "It's a validation."

But it wasn't smooth, the pair stresses.

"One of the major youth theaters pulled out," Withers says. "They haven't come back, but we ask them every year." A prominent contract theater company, too, has bowed out, saying they don't see how it's fair for them to compete, with all the resources at their disposal.

Pain or no, the ariZonis are growing — their awards gala this September was the biggest ever, drawing more than 600 people.

"There's always naysayers, that's true of any awards," Withers says. "There's people who just don't get into it. These changes have been in effect for just four years now, and people are getting more into it."

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.

"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."

Miller, too, recently decided with his board to leave the Klines behind.

Like Reggi, Miller notes that only Los Angeles has similar pay requirements for actors. He, too, believes that St. Louis can't be fairly compared to LA.

But money isn't the primary reason New Line walked.

"Originally, the Kevin Klines were going to do all kinds of marketing and developmental support," he says. "Personally, I'm really uncomfortable with the idea of competing for making art. Philosophically, we have a problem with the Kevin Klines telling us how to run our company. We're running a successful business. For the Kevin Klines, who aren't running a successful business..."

He says the local theater scene is healthy. He says the party for the Klines isn't even that great anymore. And, he says, most city folks have never even heard of the awards anyway.

"I think they are a curiosity at this point," he says.

Miller may be right. The average St. Louisan — not an actor or producer or married or related to anyone who is — probably isn't aware of the Kevin Kline Awards at all.

Andrea Torrance doesn't tread the boards. She is, however, a theater snob — it says so right on her blog, www.stlouistheatresnob.blogspot .com. She's simply a highly interested but ultimately uninvolved observer of the scene.

But she's never felt the need to attend a Kline awards ceremony.

"It always seemed to me that, unfortunately, not many people even know that there is an organization here to honor excellence in St. Louis," says Torrance. "I think the main goal of the organization is to raise awareness, but the folks who know about it are mainly theater folks and their families."

While she says she follows the nominations for the awards and enjoys reading who won, that information has no influence on what shows she'll see or what companies she enjoys.

Then again, she says, "I don't know that the Tonys influence what Mary and Joe from Middle America will go see when they take the big trip to New York."

And regardless of whether the Klines continue to live on and thrive, the theater scene in St. Louis surely will do so.

While local message boards have been alight with bad feeling, finger pointing and complaints, it can't be surprising that theater folks see change and react with, well, drama.

And, yes, the moaning can be a voyeuristic thrill to read. But some folks in the Yahoo! group warn that a little perspective would be a better response.

In one long-frothing Yahoo! thread, a theater director summed it up nicely.

"I have noticed that the theaters or individuals who have a problem with the new KK guidelines that will be phased in over time have not offered an alternative," he writes. "Easy to bitch. So I am asking as a non-compliant theater company. What do you think the guidelines should be?"

The author notes that he "could [not] care less if the KKs live or die." He continues, "If you do theatre and love theatre just keep doing it and who cares?...So let's let it go and ask ourselves 'What can I do to make my show kick ass?' and let it go. If the KKs apply to you, well, good luck and if they don't, well, good luck as well. Just do the theatre and quit sweating the small stuff."

Wrote another online wag: "If this weren't causing so much worry and division in the local community, it would just be funny.

"Maybe," the writer added puckishly, "someone will write a play."

Correction published 2/22/11: In the original version of this story, we erroneously described St. Louis Shakespeare's success at the Kevin Kline Awards. Though the troupe has been nominated for several awards, it has never won.