The Show Must GO

It's the best of times and the worst of times for St. Louis theater companies

Transitioning from Jason Robert Brown's bluesy "The River Won't Flow," New Line Theatre's cast recedes into the shadows of the Ivory Theatre's spanking-new stage.

As the actors all but disappear, Khnemu Menu-Ra steps into the spotlight. His hair cut short and a delicate goatee dusting his chin, the rail-thin Menu-Ra launches into "Gethsemane," a mournful number from Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar.

Gethsemane is the garden where Christ and His disciples went to pray after the Last Supper. It is also the site where Judas Iscariot betrayed Christ to the Romans, giving Him up for crucifixion. The song is filled with references to Christ's imminent demise, as well as Christ's own doubts about His impending martyrdom. "Why why should I die?" he asks. "Can you show me now/That I would not be killed in vain?"

First crouching and then sitting on stage, Menu-Ra cuts an unlikely Christ figure. Clad in a light gray suit and tie, he's more of an everyman, transforming the number's biblical theme into one of marital infidelity. As he comes to accept his fate, he pulls a rubber tourniquet and syringe from his pocket. Tying off his arm and driving the plunger home, he sings, "You're far too keen on where and how/But not so hot on why/All right I'll die!/Just watch me die!"

As he collapses on the floor, concluding the number, members of the cast begin to re-emerge from the horseshoe of chairs that fills the stage. Cast member John Rhine embraces Menu-Ra and then, taking his cue from the four-piece band that ups the tempo, turns his attention to "Flying Home," another Jason Robert Brown tune and the penultimate number in New Line Theatre's production of Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll.

The inaugural show at the newly christened Ivory Theatre, Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll is the brainchild of New Line Theatre artistic director Scott Miller. The show combines musical numbers from more than twenty separate musicals — everything from Oklahoma! to Hedwig and the Angry Inch — creating a theatrical crazy quilt exploration of...well, sex, drugs and rock & roll.

"These are these three very powerful cultural forces. We wanted to make a piece of theater that explored those," offers Miller, an animated man whose face is punctuated by a bushy mustache and framed with fine blond hair. "In the days since all this, I've talked to people and they've said, 'Well, yeah, it does sound pretty pornographic,' and I'm like: 'Really? Because it doesn't to me.' This phrase has been around for 50 years. How is it that scary and provocative? That was the biggest surprise of all. But I think that really took them aback — that we wanted to have a serious discourse on what sex, drugs and rock & roll are all about."

By "them," Miller means the Archdiocese of St. Louis. As the former owner of St. Boniface Catholic Church — the building, located in the Carondelet neighborhood of south St. Louis, that now houses the Ivory Theatre — the archdiocese maintains some control over how the facility may be used, in the form of a deed restriction that accompanied the sale of the property in 2005.

The restriction stipulates that St. Boniface may not be used as a venue for "human abortion, sterilization [or] euthanasia." It prohibits tattoos or massages on the premises, as well as the "sale of pornographic or soft pornographic" materials. Finally, the deed restriction prohibits "live performances directed to an adult audience rather than the general public."

Pointing to this last provision, the archdiocese, represented by its attorneys and Monsignor Vernon Gardin, persuaded St. Louis Circuit Judge Philip D. Heagney to issue a temporary restraining order blocking the show from opening on September 27.

"The reason for the deed restriction is to honor the memory of the people that used to worship there," Monsignor Gardin explains. "When we became aware of the show, we had an obligation to make sure that the agreement was being honored."

That night, instead of opening the show in a brand-new theater, New Line cast members spent the evening filming the most controversial sections of the show for the archdiocese's review.

"When I bought the church, I signed this thing," explains the Ivory's owner, Pete Rothschild, who has completed several high-profile real estate projects in the Central West End. "It's a little bit broad — they didn't want strip clubs and topless joints. Then this show comes along. In truth, it's completely innocuous. But [the archdiocese] saw an ad in Alive magazine that said, 'Leave the kids at home.' New Line's ad called it 'adult entertainment,' and they freaked out."

Judge Heagney scheduled a hearing for September 28, when he would consider arguments for making the restraining order permanent. But before the hearing Miller showed Monsignor Gardin videotaped portions of the show, including the prologue from the musical Baby, which describes the meeting of a sperm and egg. Other numbers Gardin saw included "By Threes," a song about threesomes, and a ditty about sexually transmitted diseases called "I Got It from Agnes."

"It wasn't what had been billed in the advertising. There were two places that said this was 'adults only, keep the children home.' So it could be construed as not honoring the agreement," says the monsignor. "But after a collaborative discussion, we came to a mutual agreement that it did not violate the agreement."

Miller doesn't think he'll run into further trouble at the Ivory.

"All of our shows are open to the general public. We've never restricted admission," he says. "We get tons of high school and college kids."

Miller also believes press accounts of the brouhaha were misleading.

"Part of the misunderstanding was this idea that the archdiocese approved of our show and therefore we were able to go on. I don't think the monsignor would have liked our show, but he also didn't think it violated [the deed restriction]," Miller says. "If they see these songs about threesomes and STDs and musical orgasms and it doesn't freak them out, then I think we're pretty safe."

Though Miller is sanguine about his prospects at the Ivory, leaders of two other companies that will be in residence there — the NonProphet Theater Company and Hydeware Theatre — aren't nearly so optimistic.

"If you're going to pick three theaters to put into your theater, all three of us [New Line, Hydeware and NonProphet] are not exactly straightforward," says NonProphet artistic director Robert Mitchell. "We're not the Muny. We're all kind of edgy."

For years it has been something of a miracle that small companies like Hydeware and NonProphet have managed to mount a show at all. Working on shoestring budgets — Mitchell estimates that his company has roughly $1,500 in the till at the beginning of each season — NonProphet and its ilk try to defray costs by producing plays that do not call for elaborate sets, need few props and feature small casts.

Further complicating matters is the fact that for years St. Louis has had a dearth of usable spaces.

"That's one of the biggest problems facing a lot of companies these days," says NonProphet managing director Tyson Blanquart. "They have trouble finding space — that makes a lot of them very nomadic."

Not only must these smaller companies jockey for space, but they're also left with the unenviable task of informing audiences where their next show will be.

"People like to go to the same place to see the same theater company," says Ember Hyde, of Hydeware Theater. "When you're jumping around from space to space, people don't know where to go, and over a period of time that hurts you. The audience base doesn't grow."

But after years of having only a few spaces available, St. Louis is experiencing a mini-boom. The Ivory opened in late September. Stray Dog Theatre has found a permanent home at the Tower Grove Abbey on Tennessee Avenue east of Tower Grove Park. The long-vacant Woolworth building in Grand Center is slated to house a cabaret and a black box that will be available to local companies, and the fledgling St. Louis Actors' Studio recently opened its doors in the Gaslight Theater on Boyle Avenue in the Central West End.

Many people in the St. Louis theater community point to the Kevin Kline Awards as the primary impetus for the boomlet. Not only have the awards prompted a lot of former community theaters to begin paying their actors small stipends, but they've also raised awareness among the theatergoing population.

"For us the real value of the Kevin Kline Awards is the posters in the lobbies," says Miller, pointing to a placard in the Ivory's lobby that lists every show currently being staged in town. "Everybody is cross-promoting everybody."

So it is that on a recent Tuesday afternoon, William Roth dusts off his shirt as he emerges from the construction zone that three days hence will host the inaugural performance of the St. Louis Actors' Studio.

Today, opening night seems a long way off. The floor is still being painted black. Seating has yet to be installed. Though the stage is built, the adjoining restaurant and bar — which are slated to open on December 8, to coincide with the opening of Actors' Studio's second show — remains a raw space of exposed beams and two-by-fours.

Roth is a twenty-year veteran of the St. Louis stage. Like his partners, Milton Zoth and David Wassilak, he has worked with several companies around town. When presented with the opportunity of having their own space, the partners jumped.

"We want to create a home where professional artists can work and be paid," says Roth, gazing down at the stage from the balcony. "Most of the theater in St. Louis is performed by actors who are paid nothing. For the most part they're working all day, rehearsing all night and, if they're lucky, at the end of the show they'll get 100 bucks. We're trying to get to the point where whether you're union or not, you'll get a union wage."

This is only one of the partners' ambitions. Aside from a working restaurant and bar, they are planning for each season's plays to have a theme. (This year's: the family dynamic, including A Delicate Balance by Edward Albee, which opened the season; and Sam Shepard's The Late Henry Moss.)

Roth's also talking about bringing in speakers and films that will address the theme in other ways.

"Anything we can think of that looks at what we're trying to dissect in as many ways as possible," he explains. "We're going to have a weekly improv/storytelling session around the season's theme. We're going to examine it as best we can, hoping that some kind of interesting plot line will come out of it so we can produce that for the sixth slot for each season. Not only will that give us an original piece, it also allows actors to hone their skills."

Across town, the scene is significantly more serene as Stray Dog Theatre's artistic director Gary Bell saunters into the Tower Grove Abbey. Wearing Bermuda shorts, a T-shirt and sandals and eating from a bowl of Corn Flakes, Bell pulls out a key and enters the handsome brick church from the side.

Inside, the space looks like it's one part theater and one part church. Where the altar once stood, Bell's company has constructed a stage. Rows of pews still fill the room, but to the rear stands lighting scaffolding.

"The relationship between churches and theaters goes back forever," notes Bell, now sitting cross-legged in one of the pews. "But our situation is very unique."

Unlike many theater companies, which rely on churches to grant them use of their space, the Tower Grove Abbey and Stray Dog Theatre are equal partners in the space.

"We were working out of Clayton High School when the folks from this church came knocking on our door. They actually wanted to sell us the church," Bell says. "We're a theater company, but we also do a lot of arts-education outreach programs. So my partner said, 'Your outreach is very similar to ours: children, the neighborhood. If you really need assistance, why don't you rent it to us for 99 years, Monday through Saturday, and you can keep Sunday.'

"So we signed this unique agreement."

Founded in 2003, Stray Dog Theatre has bounced around from location to location, performing in vacant dance studios, at Washington University and, most recently, at Clayton High. All that changed last September, when Stray Dog premiered its inaugural show, Tennessee Williams' Suddenly Last Summer, at Tower Grove Abbey.

And while Stray Dog will be the principal company in residence, Bell seems ready to share.

"This is sort of a reverse relationship between theaters and churches," he says. "When all this was happening with Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll, I called Scott, and I told him if things didn't work out with the Ivory, he should just come here."

The skirmish between the archdiocese and New Line Theatre appears to have passed without incident. But that's not to say the matter is settled.

"A deed restriction can affect a property forever," says local property attorney Stephen Novack. That said, Novack explains that some deed restrictions can become unenforceable over time. "In general there are a number of doctrines that can be used to attack them, although any attack's effectiveness can only be determined on a case-by-case basis."

While the skirmish at the Ivory is unique because of the deed restriction, battles between the church and theaters are not without precedent.

In the late 1990s, St. Marcus United Church of Christ in Benton Park opened its doors to many theater companies. Many of the groups mounted provocative, gay-themed works, but the church had a progressive pastor, and for the most part the congregation turned a blind eye to the productions.

All that changed in early 2000, when the theater hosted productions of South Beach, a musical written by the late local playwright and sometime RFT provocateur Christopher Jackson that was based on the life of Andrew Cunanan, the serial killer who murdered fashion designer Gianni Versace, and Corpus Christi, a gay-themed story of Jesus written by the American playwright Terrence McNally.

"That really freaked out the congregation," recalls Scott Miller, who shared the space with Joan Lipkin's Uppity Theatre Company and Jackson's CJ Productions. "South Beach was really pornographic. It freaked me out a little bit — and that ain't easy."

In the end St. Marcus pastor Dick Beale resigned. The congregation fired Jackson, who had managed the basement theater, and the church stopped hosting theatrical productions.

Though the loss of St. Marcus dealt a heavy blow to the theater community, it was hardly the worst local collision between theater troupes and churches.

That honor goes to the Theater Project Company, which produced Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You, a dark comedy in which a dogmatic nun is confronted by her former students. Although the play, first brought to the stage in 1979, had always been controversial, when it came to St. Louis in 1983 it sparked intense protest. Writing in the St. Louis Review, the archdiocesan weekly newspaper, then-Archbishop John L. May called the work a "vile diatribe against all things Catholic" and urged the faithful to boycott performances.

There were protests outside the theater, and State Senator Edwin L. Dirck, a Democrat from St. Ann, mounted a campaign to reduce funding to the Missouri Arts Council, which a year earlier had given the Theater Project Company a $12,000 grant.

Dirck's drive to cut MAC funding wound up being unsuccessful, although the council did receive a "letter of warning" cautioning it against future funding of groups whose projects are offensive to religious denominations.

By contrast, the turmoil at the Ivory is a relatively minor dustup in a long history of dustups, which leaves New Line Theatre's Scott Miller unfazed.

"I'll tell you," Miller says, "theater companies are happier now than they've been in a long time."

On a recent Wednesday night in the building beneath a deserted parking lot in Clayton that serves as Washington University's West Campus Library, Robert Mitchell is blocking a fight scene for the NonProphet Theatre Company's production of David C. Mann's Corleone: The Shakespearean Godfather. Lighted by fluorescent tubes, the room has the sort of institutional anonymity one might expect from a university's satellite library: desks line to the walls, a few dry erase boards, low-pile carpet.

The show's in mid-run. It has been a success, and Mitchell aims to extend the run and move it from the black-box theater at the Regional Arts Commission to the Ivory. Problem is, the actor they had playing Michael Corleone isn't able to work the extended run, and Mitchell has had to sub in Richard Strelinger for the role.

Now, two weeks before the show opens, Mitchell is blocking a fight scene between Michael Corleone and Virgil "The Turk" Sollozzo.

In the film adaptation of Mario Puzo's novel, Sollozzo is an upstart whose men tried to kill Michael's father, Vito Corleone, when he opposed their heroin-distribution scheme. The fight scene comes when Michael, at dinner ostensibly to make peace with Sollozzo and a corrupt police captain, returns from the bathroom and shoots them both dead.

In the NonProphet version of the scene, Michael grabs a blade while sitting at the table with Sollozzo. The fight scene is not particularly intricate, but Strelinger is coming to it fresh, and Mitchell has the actors run through the scene several times at half speed before he's satisfied.

Luckily, blocking the scene and getting Strelinger familiar with the script are all that Mitchell has to worry about for the time being. This is The Godfather, after all, and he has little fear the play's content will fall beyond the archdiocese's pale.

Even though the archdiocese isn't going to call the artistic shots at the Ivory — and certainly won't be signing off on the resident companies' upcoming seasons — Mitchell is leery of how the church might greet Second, the company's next offering and a play that takes as its jumping-off point the cloning of Christ.

"We're worried about Second," says Mitchell. "The stupid thing is, though, that cloning of Christ is not the focus of the play. The subject is faith: what to believe, whom to believe. Upon first glance you might think this is conceivably sacrilegious, but there's really much more to it than that."

After Second, Mitchell says, the season's fourth offering is the only other play that might attract archdiocesan rancor.

"The fourth show of the season is Laura's Bush, a satirical play by Jane Martin about a small-town librarian and a dominatrix who plot to kidnap Laura Bush. It's wild, wacky, out-there. It's not over the top, but it certainly pushes envelopes — mainly political envelopes, but ideas as well," says Mitchell.

He's more concerned about how the deed restriction at the Ivory may affect his decisions when it comes to programming future seasons.

"I know right now there's one show that I would love to do that's something they would just hate," says Mitchell, referring to Red Light Winter, a gay-themed tale of thwarted love with plenty of nudity and graphic sex scenes. "Unfortunately, now it does affect how we are going to go about choosing our plays for next season."

Hydeware Theatre's Ember Hyde is also anxious about her company's upcoming performance at the Ivory of The Caucasian Chalk Circle, by the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht: "Are they going to have problem with a Socialist play? Will it be too long for kids? Maybe the subject matter isn't too crude for a child, but it's too complex. That little sentence [about performances geared toward 'an adult audience rather than the general public'] isn't very specific. We're going to hope that it all works out for our shows for the next season."

So far these remain just fears, and Monsignor Gardin says the archdiocese isn't exactly waiting in the tall grass for a theater company to mount something controversial.

"Everyone here has a pretty full day," says the monsignor. "Mr. Rothschild was a perfect gentleman. We trust him as far as honoring the agreement."

Scott Miller adds that he's heartened by his dealings with the archdiocese in September.

"We're not going to make choices about what shows the archdiocese won't try to block. We're going to do the shows we want to do," says Miller, whose company produces only musicals. "I may be wildly naive, but I think we're OK. We're never going to produce something that would be terrible for kids to see.

"But then again, musicals are inherently tamer than plays. So even the wildest musicals aren't anywhere near as wild as the wildest plays."

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