Curtain Raiser

"If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis..."

So it's finally here. The first annual Kevin Kline Awards will be doled out on Monday, March 20, which means that — for the next few days, anyway — people might be thinking about not just the immediate who won what? but the larger, ongoing concern of theater itself. What do we need in this town? There's always room for improvement, right? With that in mind, we asked a dozen local artisans and attendees, dreamers and pragmatists alike, to complete the same statement:

"If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis..."

While no two respondents gave precisely the same reply, their collective wish list speaks to certain shared interests and themes: the need to develop young audiences and performance spaces, the importance of an informed audience, the need for a sense of community.

What would you change?

Philip Boehm (artistic director, Upstream Theatre): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, it would be that St. Louis would embrace theater with the same fervor as baseball, so that we could rattle off as many local actors as major leaguers. Cocktail parties would buzz with advice to the players. Fans would brave foul weather and backless bleachers with nary a complaint. Parents would jostle for prime seats at school shows. We would stand to cheer bold choices on stage, and nobody would assume we should let Chicago or New York dictate how to play or whom to hire. Ballot initiatives for playing spaces throughout the city! Dionysius Spirit Day! Hey — how 'bout them Thespians?

Dunsi Dai (scenic designer): St. Louis has an amazing number of active professional theaters. However, most of these theaters (except for a few well-financed venues) lack scene shops. Some do not even have a space to build their sets. The signs of lacking tech support have left their unpleasant marks on many local productions. I would like to see some midsize commercial scene shops that could serve the production needs of the medium- to small-size professional theaters. If even one or two commercial scene shops could serve the local theaters collectively (as they do in New York and Chicago), it would help to enhance the quality of many local professional productions.

Mary Edwards (producer, KWMU [90.7 FM]'s Cityscape and St. Louis on the Air): I believe that the theater community in St. Louis needs a benefactor to provide an umbrella of assistance for the smaller professional companies in addition to the resources already available. Even with the number of fine theaters in the area, there is still need for a midsize theater that could be shared by a number of companies who are performing in less-than-ideal spaces and worry about their continued access to a space. But beyond the theater, these same companies could use support services such as office space, marketing assistance, rehearsal and storage space and, ideally, access to low-interest loans to help a company through a rough spot and ensure its continued existence.

Sue Greenberg (company manager, the Muny; executive director, St. Louis Volunteer Lawyers and Accountants for the Arts): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, our actors, directors, designers, choreographers, playwrights — all the artists — would be making their living working in the theater.

Michelle Hand (actress): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, it would be to see the development of more permanent, viable performance spaces. A number of our mid-line professional companies have to plan their seasons without knowing where and when they will be able to rehearse and stage their productions. Hopes of providing actor training and community education can't be realized because rental costs are prohibitive. Even those fortunate enough to have an extended lease agreement with a facility often have to contend with scheduling limitations, poor technical resources and even a lack of heat and air-conditioning. The rich and diverse theatrical community that resides here in St. Louis warrants a choice of affordable and available theaters to call home.

Joe Hanrahan (co-founder, the Midnight Company): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, it would be that theater of, not in, St. Louis would be celebrated more.

I'll clarify. Our community strongly supports the arts in St. Louis (artists passing through town) but doesn't recognize or support half enough the arts of St. Louis (artists living and creating here), doesn't recognize that the arts of a city are that city's pulse and lifeblood.

The only way to have a truly vibrant, thriving theater scene (and city) is to literally treasure our own artists and companies. The local media needs to realize that its attention is critical. In return for the support of the community that subsidizes them, influentials like the Rep should do all they can for local groups. Audiences will follow and join in the celebration.

Linda Kennedy (actress): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis.... This challenge immediately brought to mind children, and the lack of opportunity for young people to both attend and perform in productions for and about them. I would love to see a production that included teens from the city and county showing how talented and diverse our youth are. This would also offer a chance to develop young playwrights and designers, as well as providing opportunities in PR/marketing, sales and administration — all of which would encourage youngsters to develop their reading, math and social skills. Best of all it would increase the pool of young actors available to appear in the area's mainstage productions.

Alan Knoll (actor): My wish for the St. Louis theater scene is more appreciation for the kind of theater I have been lucky enough to perform the last nine years with the Imaginary Theatre Company: plays for kids. Last summer, while working at the Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, our technical director told me he remembered ITC's production of The Red Badge of Courage. We visited his high school in the '90s, and he could still recall it. I felt two things: 1) old, and 2) honored that this work I love had an impact. By giving our young audiences a taste of creative, professional theater, we are growing new audiences for "grown-up" theater and empowering children to exhibit their own creativity. Maybe the idea of attending (or performing!) a play will be on a par with a movie or sporting event when they mature.

Champe Leary (stage manager): "If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, it would be that more people would attend. Wonderful work is being done by many groups all over town, large and small, amateur and professional. But it seems that the competition live theater faces from so many other sources leaves more seats empty than should be. People have so many demands on their time and their wallets, and I sense that nowadays the need to see live theater is not as urgent as it once was. Sure, the blockbusters attract a crowd, but there is significant work being done all the time that sadly does not get the audience it deserves. How do we instill in people this desire to see theater? Start them young. Keep up the school programs. Continue to do the best work we can.

Carter Lewis (playwright): If I could change one thing about St. Louis theater, I would want to see more new and daring original plays produced. I think all theater should be, at its core, educational; the responsibility of each theater is to put its individual audience members at risk. What's the old adage? The arts should "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." One way to do that is to embrace new American writers who are speaking their minds on issues — damn the political torpedoes, and all that. Unfortunately theater in this country is somewhat of an elitist art form; consequently it is often utilized to "comfort the already comfortable" by soft-pedaling muted voices rather than providing a forum for the writers who are shouting. But artists are educational activists, not centrists. So if our state of mind is red, then allow us to give audiences piercing red; it it's blue, allow us to give them luminous blue — but don't try to placate audiences with a red-blue magenta.

Pushkar Sharma (Washington University student, director of Ipi Zombi?): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, I would integrate it. I believe that the content of our theater must continue to address pressing local issues, including that of race. Look around you at the next performance you attend. Who are you there with? Is the audience primarily one color? My experience has been yes. An integrated theatrical community is necessary to break down the barriers of race. Sometimes I think that we live in a city that is not only politically and economically segregated, but also theatrically segregated.

Richard Strelinger (artistic director, Hydeware Theatre Company): If I could change one thing about theater in St. Louis, I would give St. Louis a theater district, where one could find a variety of theatrical venues, all within walking distance of one another, that would be the homes to numerous performing, music and visual artists. I envision a specific part of the city where St. Louisans would know that art and culture have an established home.