It’s Friday night in St. Louis, and the theatre crowd is headed to Tower Grove Abbey, a converted church in South City, where patrons sit on curved church pews to see Stray Dog Theatre stage Charles Busch’s Red Scare on Sunset. The campy dark comedy about Hollywood during the McCarthy era is buoyed by lead Will Bonfiglio, who plays, with exaggerated drag flair, lead character Mary Dale.
Others are at Upstream Theater in Midtown, in a small black box to see the U.S. premiere of Albert Ostermaier’s Infected, a one-man show about a day trader having a breakdown after being quarantined for an unknown illness. Nearby, the 4,500-plus seat Fox Theatre is packing them in for a touring production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. In the cast is Melissa Weyn, a graduate of the local Conservatory of Theatre Arts at Webster University.
And in Webster Groves, on the campus of said conservatory, the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is staging the Tony-winning drama The Humans, which was originally produced on Broadway by Fox Theatricals, a commercial theatre production company founded and still centered in St. Louis. (Its 25 productions have won 48 Tony Awards, but most St. Louisans don’t even know it’s here.)
This is St. Louis theatre: It ranges from the small and off-beat—like YoungLiars’ staging an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s unfinished Burrow, about a man who lives in an underground lair—to the lavishly grand, like the 11,000-seat Muny in Forest Park, which this summer will celebrate its 100th season, making it the nation’s oldest and largest outdoor theatre. The city’s abundance as a theatre town is one reason it’s been chosen as the site of Theatre Communications Group’s next national conference, June 14-16.
“There is some theatre for everybody: family-friendly theatre, provocative theatre, experimental theatre, musical theatre, both traditional and contemporary,” says Tina Farmer, a theatre critic for KDHX Community Media, a local radio station. “I see approximately 140 to 160 shows per year—that’s two to five nights a week I’m attending theatre. That’s how much there is to do in St. Louis.”
In the last year, Rebel and Misfits’ Immersive Theatre Project staged Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at a mansion in a tiny St. Louis suburb. R-S Theatrics mounted Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights to capacity crowds at a 200-seat theatre, and New Line Theatre put on Lizzie, a rock musical by Tim Maner and Steven Cheslik-deMeyer about the life of Lizzie Borden. St. Louis Post-Dispatch theatre critic Judith Newmark hailed it as a “hard-rocking, riot-grrrl explosion of rage, nerve, and the best goth/steampunk/roller-chic costumes ever flaunted on a St. Louis stage.”
There are still more companies: ACT INC, the Black Rep, Equally Represented Arts, Hawthorne Players, Insight Theatre Company, JPEK CreativeWorks, Max & Louie Productions, Mustard Seed Theatre, Metro Theater Company, New Jewish Theatre, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, St. Louis Actors’ Studio, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Stages St. Louis, Tesseract Theatre, Theatre Macabre, That Uppity Theatre Company, West End Players Guild, and more. And these are just the professional groups (though many are non-Equity). There are still more community and educational theatre programs. St. Louis city and county’s combined 1.3 million people have more than 60 professional and community theatre companies. This means you can catch world premieres, Broadway touring productions, intimate shows, and edgy theatre regularly here.
This abundance, though, can also stretch St. Louis audiences a little thin.
“I talk to actors who are in shows every weekend or directors who are directing shows,” says Ed Reggi, a longtime St. Louis actor. “They’re messaging me saying, ‘Reggi, we had seven people at our show last night.’ And these are great shows! I know they are. I can just look at the cast and the director. It’s not weather. It’s just because there’s like 20 other shows going on that weekend.”
Why is the St. Louis theatre scene so sprawling? Reggi has a theory, linked to the character of the area itself: “I think it’s engrained in our DNA that everything has to go back to this idea of being fractured.”
Fragmented by Design
In 2004, when Philip Boehm arrived in St. Louis, he had a vision of bringing international theatre to the Midwest. Though he’s an American, Boehm had been living in Poland for most of his artistic career and had directed plays at some of Poland’s largest theatres.
“I knocked on a lot of doors,” he says. “And no one was interested.” One artistic director he spoke to called his ideas “‘too poetic.’ When I heard that, I thought, ‘How can anything be too poetic?’” Boehm recalls. “And then I realized instead of knocking on these doors that aren’t opening, I’ll just start my own thing.”
By 2005, Boehm had founded Upstream Theater, which specializes in translated, classical, and international works. The most recent season included the world premiere of Suspended by Maya Arad Yasur, about two refugee window washers troubled by violent pasts.
Boehm’s story is all too familiar on the St. Louis theatre scene. It’s part of what makes the scene “scrappy,” as Mike Isaacson, artistic director of the Muny, described it, as well as disparate. Artists who don’t find the scene sufficiently open to collaboration carve out their own niches and marshal their resources—patrons, backers, and other assets—which in turn makes the scene less open to partnerships and collaboration.
“The St. Louis theatre community, and I would even say the art community, we very much emulate the municipalities,” says Reggi. “No matter what we say, we’re geographically broken up, this city is, and these dividing lines have sometimes created divided companies.”
St. Louis County has more than 90 municipalities, reportedly some with fewer than 200 people, and most have their own governments. The city of St. Louis, while all part of one governing body, has more than 70 neighborhoods. And, exurbs like St. Charles and St. Peters have their own communities and theatre companies. In this jigsaw, the city competes with the county, and municipalities compete with each other for resources and businesses. This free-for-all trickles down to the theatre community.
“The analogy I use is that it feels to me like many professional theatre companies have the idea of ‘Mom gave me my basketball and said that I don’t have to share,’” says Christina Rios, artistic director for R-S Theatrics. “But we only have one court.”
Divisions also play out among theatregoers. “Generally, theatre audiences in St. Louis reflect St. Louis a lot, in that there are theatre audiences that go to certain theatres and they don’t necessarily go to others,” says Ron Himes, artistic director for the Black Rep.
Reggi, who also runs the website STL Auditions, often hears that actors won’t audition for certain companies. “I’ll ask why,” Reggi says. “And they’ll will say, ‘Well, that company’s way up there in North St. Louis.’ Or, ‘I would never go to St. Charles! That’s crazy, Reggi!’”
This is a city where, when people ask, “What school did you go to?” they mean which high school. And everyone always asks, because your neighborhood, parish, or even private school offers a glimpse into your background. Neighborhoods splice the area up according to politics, class, and, above all, race.
The Race Divide
“Race is big in St. Louis,” says Himes, artistic director of the Black Rep, which for many of its 40 seasons was the area’s only African-American theatre company. “It’s a major issue in America. Race has a lot to do with the philanthropic support that institutions of color get in St. Louis. Race has a lot to do with audiences and the cross-fertilization of audiences in St. Louis. There are a number of major playwrights that would not be seen in St. Louis if it weren’t for black theatre companies, because other companies just wouldn’t do the work.”
The city’s race problems came to a head, and to international attention, in 2014, when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, a St. Louis suburb. This sparked a series of protests and elevated the Black Lives Matter movement.
Reggi remembers that after Ferguson many companies started to take notice of the “missing people of color” on their stages. But casting roles of color can be difficult here. While Himes says that there is talent that would not get onstage at all were it not for African-American theatre companies, Reggi says he hears from directors that when they send out casting calls for people of color they don’t get much response.
“I don’t want to sit here and say only St. Louis is guilty of it,” says Reggi. “I think it’s a national question, and one that’s not falling on deaf ears. In St. Louis that’s really being discussed. It’s not just a matter of posting a casting notice up, but really going out of your way to really invite [talent] and know their name.”
Even before the rude awakening of 2014, there had been promising trends. According to Steven Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, one of the best shifts he’s seen in the last few decades has been the “effort and ease” of multiethnic casting, also sometimes called non-traditional casting, in which roles traditionally played by white actors by default are opened up to performers of all backgrounds.
Also encouraging: Some new African-American theatre companies have sprung up. Joel Patrick Edward King, founder of JPEK CreativeWorks, remembers starting his company in the early 2000s and staging shows in beauty salons, clubs, and churches. “There was once a day when people would attend my shows and maybe one Caucasian was in the audience,” recalls King, who gained early acclaim for Real Life, a musical drama about life in the ghetto. That percentage has changed in the years since. As King puts it, “Now that I’m here and it’s seemingly working, the goal is to continue to achieve a level of success that makes my company look good as an African-American-run theatre company.”
Other companies have also made a push to make St. Louis theatre more representative. Last year, Rachel Tibbets and Ellie Schwetye, the artistic director and managing director, respectively, for Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble, started the Aphra Behn Emerging Artists’ Festival, which features short plays written and directed by women.
“Seeing the stories of women or of people of color, or of trans and homosexual folks—these are all so important. These stories are our community,” says Schwetye. “And I think things are changing because of us and companies that are being vocal about change and saying women as artists matter, women as art leaders matter.”
Christina Rios, a Mexican-American and female artistic director (who runs R-S Theatrics, alongside two other women in leadership roles), is also trying to push the community to be more inclusive.
“I believe firmly as a woman, in a professional setting that tends to be dominated by men, that one of my jobs is to get to the top of the hill so that I can turn around, and now I’ve got two arms to bring up two more people,” she says.
The theatre scene is evolving in other ways too. Most will say that for all its far-flung fragmentation, companies are far less divided now than they used to be. Farmer remembers that 20 years ago if you worked for certain companies, others might not hire you. “We’ve grown and matured,” she says.
This maturing into a more cohesive whole might be attributed to several factors. One is an increase in theatre festivals in the last decade. There is the six-year-old Grand Center Theatre Crawl, in which more than two dozen theatre groups put on short performances at venues throughout Grand Center, an arts district in the city. The three-year-old Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis has companies stage the plays of the classic American writer, who is buried in town; St. Lou Fringe Festival, which is in its seventh year, is a showcase for the smaller avant-garde theatres; and during the eight-year-old Shake-38 festival, companies all over town stage works by Shakespeare, putting on his entire canon in five days.
What’s more, St. Louis benefactors have helped alleviate one of the local theatre scene’s long-standing bugbears: bad, scarce, and/or expensive spaces. Itinerancy is a common problem for small and even mid-sized theatre companies here. The Centene Corporation and Arts and Education Council created the Centene Center for the Arts, an arts accelerator, while philanthropists Ken and Nancy Kranzberg created the Kranzberg Arts Center and .ZACK, an arts incubator. All offer space for offices, rehearsals, and performances at reduced rates.
Still, some would like to see a further shift in attitude. Those finite resources companies guard? Maybe they aren’t so finite after all.
“There is the idea that we’re all cultivating our own patrons,” says Rios. “And we’re competing against each other for their interest. I think we’re competing against the movies and the Cardinals [baseball team] and the Blues [hockey team] and bars. The average person in St. Louis isn’t sitting at home thinking, ‘What live performance should we go to?’ But they can, if we all work together.”
Rios envisions smaller companies pooling resources and marketing as a group to get the word out about all of their shows. “I don’t want to cultivate an R-S Theatrics patron,” she says. “I want to cultivate a St. Louis theatre patron.”
A City of Creators
Despite the divides, most will concede that an art scene where people feel free to create their own companies and do their own thing is good. In St. Louis the cost of living is low and barriers to entry to the art world are not as high as in cities like New York or Los Angeles.
“You can say all you want about New York, but the rules are set,” says Isaacson, a Tony-winning Broadway producer. “St. Louis is still figuring out what it is, and the energy that’s going on in the arts reflects that, and it’s really great.”
As Farmer puts it, “We have a community here where the mindset is ‘do, create.’”
And the theatre scene does a lot of things well. Thanks to the Muny exclusively staging musicals every summer for a century, “we really excel at musical theatre,” says Reggi. “Now, some people might make a gagging sound, like throwing up,” he adds with a laugh. “But it’s in our DNA.”
According to Patrick Huber, associate director for St. Louis Actors’ Studio, St. Louis excels at staging the “second generation of American playwrights—Shepard, Nicky Silver, Tracy Letts…I think we’re fine-tuned to do outstanding productions of those types of plays.”
According to Boehm, St. Louis is a good place for fostering talent. “We have a lot of talented people here,” he says. “And they persist.”
Jennifer Wintzer, interim producing director of Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, agrees. “The arts—and the theatre scene in particular—create opportunities for young people to learn and to dream big about their future and the future of their city,” Wintzer says.
This makes St. Louis, perhaps surprisingly, a great town to be an artist. Schwetye, who works with Slightly Askew, often uses the hashtag, “Wasn’t I lucky to be born in my favorite city?” Says Rios, “Every time I see her tag something with that, I always think, ‘You know, it’s funny, that’s exactly how I feel.’”
Rosalind Early is the associate editor of the alumni magazine for Washington University in St. Louis and a freelance theatre critic for St. Louis Magazine.