Recent turmoil in the St. Louis theatre scene has caused me to reflect on the numerous theatre company disasters I’ve witnessed. These aren’t bad casting decisions, seamy backstage romances or technical disasters I’m talking about. These are theatre company (sometimes large, sometimes storied, sometimes full of promise) self-immolations. I’ve been involved in one or two of these myself, witnessed all at close or keenly interested quarters, and use the macabre “Opening Act” lingo to characterize them as deeply flawed theatre company decisions or actions of titanic (sometimes fatal) proportions.
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times, theatre is a transitory art. That means, among other things, that it is fragile (despite the seeming indestructibility of certain theatre personalities in town.) And that means that it, and the theatre companies that produce it, can be very easily damaged.
Examples (in chronological order; in minimal, imagistic description; some are described or referenced in more detail in other Midnight blogs, which shall be noted.)
THE LORETTO HILTON REPERTORY THEATRE Under the direction of Brit David Frank, this was the forerunner of The Rep, and every other theatre in town. I served as Marketing Director for several years, and during that time, we climbed to 16,000 subscriptions and successfully opened the Studio Theatre.
One spectacular season was kicked off by the Scottish play, and enjoyed nightly season-long sold-out houses with the new subscribers, the momentum and buzz, and walk-ups driven by unique marketing: in those days, the newspaper was the primary (only) form of entertainment news, and realizing we were really competing against the movies for discretionary income, started putting small space ads every day in the movie section of the Post. They were cool ads, e.g. the Scottish guy, bare-chested, bloody and wielding a big sword – looked better than a movie.
That success went to management’s head. The next year, from a single premiere Studio production, two more were added to the five-play Mainstage season, a half-million dollar – when a half-million was a half-million – lighting system was purchased. And the resident acting company (what a concept!) was reduced, adding a huge number of NY actors travel, housing and casting trip costs.
At the same time, programming decisions were adventurous to the point of “what?” The season opened with the full 4-hour plus ICEMAN COMETH, the Studio followed with the requisite full frontal nudity of CURSE OF THE STARVING CLASS, then slammed right back with A PENNY FOR A SONG, a lovely, lyrical piece that David loved as a boy growing up in England but left most stateside audiences cool to cold.
Income dropped precipitously, and the season continued apace (culminating with the new take on FRANKESTEIN that was taken to Broadway and did worse than HIGH.)
Frank never recovered from this season. He was gone soon after, replaced by a handful of other guys till Steve Woolf took over.
After several good and one great season, he thought he was infallible, could spend as much as he wanted, and put on whatever plays he wanted, while still expecting broad, universal, unquestioned support. Didn’t happen.
THEATRE PROJECT COMPANY Spawned during the same growth period of The Rep, this was the brainchild of Artistic Director Fontaine Syer and Administrative Director (and native St. Louisian) Christine Smith, an aggressive young company that took up residence in the pre-renovated Union Station. A legendary group, with a company that included Wayne Salomon, Bobby Miller, Jerry Vogel, John Contini, Ron Himes, yours truly and many more, they quickly caught the fancy of the press and the public and were poised, a la and contemporaneously with Steppenwolf, to take the next step up to Rep-level, near national prominence. All they needed was their own playwright or two. They gained that national attention, but in the wrong fashion.
As Union Station started its fix-up, Theatre Project had to go on the road for a year, playing at Wash U, UMSL and other locations, as they cooled their heels and started the fund-raising for a new permanent home, The Sun. They’d been handed the lease for $1, provided they raise a million – when a million was a million – for The Sun’s renovation. They could have gotten it, too.
But, their peripatetic season included SISTER MARY IGNATIUS EXPLAINS IT ALL FOR YOU, to be presented at The Edison. It was right during the wheelhouse of different ethnic, racial and religious groups protesting about shabby portrayals by the media or arts. And the Catholics decided that this was their time.
They mounted a protest that reached national talk shows. Fontaine went on tv and radio to defend their choice of SISTER MARY IGNATIUS, and sure enough went ahead with the production.
I guess that showed artistic integrity.
But it also soured them for most of the St. Louis monied community. Their fund-raising dried up, The Sun was history, and TPC, under that leadership team and with that high-powered company, was soon history as well.
Theatre Project fought for the right to do a play that wasn’t worth fighting over.
Fontaine got a national spotlight on her, but lost this potentially truly great theatre company in the bargain.
This group had been around who remembers how many years – maybe 60 or so - before they started dissolving along with their leadership, eventually (I think) morphing along with another group into the current HotCity group.
They were run during that time by Irma Schira Tucker and her strongarm son Girard. Irma was the artist, and had presented decades of quality, city-oriented, usually new American or British theatre in St. Louis. They’d been in several different spaces, when I got to know them in the then COCA building on Washington.
I started working under Milt Zoth’s direction there, and as City Players were forced from the Washington building, and started their own peripatetic presentations, Milt and I started picking plays we wanted to do, and including them in City Players venues – HURLY BURLY in the basement of the new COCA building in U City,
THE REAL THING at The Chase, and BREAKING THE CODE in the pre-renovated Coronado Hotel.
As we were just getting into this, City Players was holding season auditions. Milt couldn’t be there, but asked that I go by and assist Irma with the process. I wasn’t directing, I would just help out, handling resumes, sides etc for the actors. (Irma was now about 82 years old, with a long and distinguished history in the theatre under her belt. I’d been in one play she directed; she didn’t like to watch anymore. She listened to the rehearsal over a speaker in her office. When she did watch, she did like to rest her eyes often.)
When I got there, a crowd of about 60 people wanted to audition. I realized I was the only person besides Irma there, asked her what she wanted, and she said,
“Just send some in.” I picked two actors, gave them appropriate sides and sent them in. This was about 1pm.
More people arrived to audition. Then more. It was now about 1:25pm. More people came. I was desperately trying to match sides (from other plays I really didn’t know) with people. It was now 1:45pm. There were over 100 people waiting. The original two actors were still in with Irma.
I poked my head into the audition room. The two actors were sitting on stools, listening. Irma was saying, “And then in 1956…”
I listened, then said, “Uh…Irma…what about…there’s…other people to audition…”
And she said, “Just read them. Go ahead.” And waved me off.
I plunged back in. Read about 80 of the actors. Made a few comments on their forms. Handed them to Irma. And I’m not sure what happened to any of those forms, or resumes, or headshots.
The moral of this story, the moral of this song, involves the fact that there was very little else happening in town. This will be repeated as a key point in a few following stories: City Players had always done solid work, and Milt, and others, were raising it a notch. People wanted to work with them. About 100 people. And I don’t know if any of them were tapped to act, get involved, whatever.
What a waste of interest, and talent, and energy, that was. What a tragedy.
I BOMBED AT THE FABULOUS CHASE CLUB!!!
This isn’t about the fall of a theatre company, but the fall of a lot of my ego, and confidence, and faith in my decision-making.
This is documented in a previous Midnight blog.
See RETURN OF THE BEDBUG: RETURN OF BOEHM (November 13, 2007)
No need to go too far into this. Details about this company are also featured in a previous Midnight blog. See GHOSTS OF SEASONS PAST (December 21, 2010)
I will add that Orthwein had one of those City Players audition days, though much better handled. Over 100 people came to auditions after the first couple Orthwein seasons. Again, in its own way and in its own time, in terms of new and exciting theatre, Orthwein was the only game in town.
Orthwein was non-equity, and the buzz of the auditions was the number of Equity people who were there, or who’d called in, willing to leave the union to get some good work, some good roles in the season Orthwein was throwing out there.
What’s sad about this story is how quickly after this point Orthwein went downhill. It had a head of creative steam that you wouldn’t believe.
But waves of personal issues brought this company to its knees before you knew it.
THE MIDNIGHT COMPANY
Hah! Check out THE MIDNIGHT COMPANY and after blog on this site
(October 22, 2007)
And that will lead you to…
THE ACTORS STUDIO “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest”
What were they thinking? I don’t know, I’m just guessing, but from what I’ve heard, what they were thinking sounded good to me. I heard Actors Studio was talking to Peabody first. And this seems to have been a good, possibly low risk venture. The first straight play – “Cuckoo’s Nest” – in a limited run in the Peabody. Feature a name or two with a strong local supporting cast. Nobody would have made a bundle (unless you got a NAME in the show), but it seems like it would have been good for Peabody, good for Actors Studio, certainly good for St. Louis theatre.
If that were the case, or even it wasn’t, they wound up at Roberts’ Orpheum down the street, a planned one-week run. Their name was Kathleen Quinlan as Nurse Ratched. (Rumors were they were going after Christian Slater for MacMurphey.)
After big yaya announcements, they pretty quickly called the whole thing off. Said it was money, and it had to be. But it had to be that all along.
The venue must have been very expensive, there were some Equity folks in the cast, director and designers were said to be were top fees, and a big bundle was going to Quinlan.
But as expensive as the production might have been, the real money issue came down to audience.
How many people were they going to draw during a one-week run?
Downtown. To the Orpheum. In the early Summer. For a drama.
For Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s been done a hundred times. You can watch the DVD.
How many people were going to turn out for Quinlan? Or for Slater, for that matter?
What were they thinking?
In addition to falling back on a rusty title (which Actors Studio and several other mini-wannabe-Reps do regularly), they made several other colossal misjudgements. Who knows what this will eventually cost them, but this is one where the entire theatre community wound up feeling just a bit tainted.
And that will lead you to…
THE LATE KEVIN KLINE AWARDS
Not the late Kevin Kline. The late Awards. (There were late awards, weren’t there?
Some people never got theirs?)
But this is about the entire theatre community.
And the collective madness that gripped it for several years.
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it a thousand times, all awards are crazy. Acting, baseball, Nobel.
Crazy. How can you compare performances and award one person over another?
(Having said that, I love the Oscars.)
But the madness was how seriously everyone took them.
From the theatre companies who said how good it was for the St. Louis theatre community for New York actors, directors and designers trumpeting in their New York programs how they swept the awards here.
To the Reality-Awards-Show vibe of the ceremonies and the acceptance speeches.
To the local companies and directors who squeezed the life out of some shows to get them over the Kevin hump.
To the vicious circle of the Kevinerrati who became “St. Louis thea-tuh.”
And back to the committee itself, who could never figure out the finances and politics of promoting thea-tuh here.
Such a nobel cause. Such a shame. And again, such a hit on the entire theatre community.
Reminds you, as much does, of Dylan.
“How does it feel? To be on your own.
With no direction home. Like a complete unknown.”