After catching Lavonne Byers recently in MASTER CLASS at Stray Dog, had drinks with her, Penny Kols and Diane Peterson. All of us were alumni of the Orthwein Theatre, and talk turned to those days (as well as a possible upcoming reunion.) Orthwein (named after the mainstage theatre at Country Day School) began when Milt Zoth moved over from Webster High to teach at Country Day. He had tacit go-ahead from the school administration to start a theatre group in the school's facilities, which not only included the Orthwein proscenium space but also a new Black Box. The group would involve Country Day students onstage and off, providing invaluable theatre experiences and learning for them. The theatre landscape in St. Louis was very different when Orthwein sprung to life. There was the Rep and Muny, of course. The Black Rep was still establishing itself. There was City Players still, the West End group, Kirkwood, and just a couple more odd groups (sometimes they were pretty odd.) So there was room for a new group like this, and this group took advantage of it. Milt was Artistic Director, I served as Associate Artistic Director (and eventually LATE NIGHT series Producer) while I was there, and the group took off. The output and range of work in a few short seasons was unprecedented:
- A ginormous (cast and crew of over 50, and an onstage Model T) production of Steppenwolf's GRAPES OF WRATH, with a visit from John Steinbeck's widow.
- The work of Sam Shepard, Tennesse Williams and Eugene O'Neill
- Full (big sets, great costumes) productions of period plays like HARVEY, OUR TOWN and DETECTIVE STORY
- The entire NORMAN CONQUESTS trilogy
- A studio Black Box season featuring contemporary work like BURN THIS, WINGS, and work from Woody Allen, Harry Kondoleon and more.
- A late night (10:30 pm curtains) series with cutting edge work like BONDAGE from David Henry Hwang, SINCERITY FOREVER by Mac Wellman, Eric Bogosian’s solos and more.
- FEFU AND HER FRIENDS, an early movable feast, where the audience was led to four different spaces by the“L‘Hommes Fromage” (or Cheese Guys), tuxedo’d ushers offering wine and cheese during the trip.
- And times when a number of shows were happening at the same time or right on top of each other. For example, just as GRAPES was coming down, the next few weeks saw productions of an original play by Dick Colloton about Edgar Allan Poe in the Black Box, CEMENTVILLE, a wild show about lady wrestlers across the campus in Mary Institute's space, and “GIVE ‘EM HELL HARRY on the mainstage.
These, along with the many other productions jammed into a few short years, were strong, effective work. And the cast of characters that delivered the work reflected a talented group that have gone on to more great work, national careers and new theatre groups on the St. Louis scene. They included:
Milt Zoth (Artistic Director/Director) now ACTORS STUDIO
Carolyne Hood (2nd Artistic Director/Director)
David Wassilak (Actor/Director/LATE NIGHT producer/Associate Artistic Director)
Jon Hamm (Actor) MAD MAN, and more to come
Lavonne Byers (Actor)
Sarah Clarke (Actor) 24
William Roth (Actor/Director) ACTORS STUDIO
Patrick Huber (Designer, and Patrick was also a faculty member at Counry Day)
Philip Boehm (Director) UPSTREAM
Bob Mitchell (Director) NON-PROPHETS
Kim Furlow (Actress) DRAMATIC LICENSE
Greg Johnston (Actor/Director) RIVER CITY/Kevin Kline honcho
Chris Limber (Director) SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL ST. LOUIS
Steve Callahan (Actor) ACT INC
Donna Northcott (Director) ST. LOUIS SHAKESPEARE
Karen Klaus (Actor)
The late, great Blake Travis (Musician)
The late, great Dick Colloton (Director/Playwright/Actor)
Larry Dell (Actor)
Sally Eaton (Actor)
Chris Lawyer (Actor)
Penny Kols (Actor)
Diane Peterson (Actor)
Jen Loui (Actor/Director
Steve Springmeyer (Actor)
B Weller (Actor)
Charlie Heuvelman (Actor)
Liz Hopfl (Actor)
Of course, there were more, and I apologize for whoever I left out, or for any favorite productions I neglected to mention. The Orthwein lasted just a few seasons (“One Brief Shining Moment”). I was pushed out by a power-mad or just plain mad creature before they ended with a whimper. But in addition to the nostalgia factor here, it makes one reflect on the transitory nature of theatre. Miss a show (or a season, or a company), and it’s gone forever. Nowhere is that more true than in St. Louis, where currently the seven shows that opened last weekend just vanished in the dust. I think you can blame part of this on whats left of our theatre press. There’s no real sense of St. Louis theatre history in the sporadic coverage that occurs here. No sense of perspective, either. I also think it’s important to be aware of what companies and theatre artists have accomplished in their past work, in order to help gauge their growth and exploration. So here, an attempt to keep the past alive, to help the great work of the Orthwein did endure.