Monday, June 02, 2008

Home Sickness

There's a serious homelessness problem in the St. Louis theatre community.

I'm not talking about homeless actors - although, given what the average stage actor earns in a year, that's certainly possible. I'm talking about homeless theatre companies.

Eight years ago, when the St. Marcus Theatre closed in a flurry of bad feeling following a production of Terrence McNally's controversial Corpus Christi (among other things) my friend Joan Lipkin - whose Uppity Theatre Company was one of the groups left out in the cold - remarked that theatre in St. Louis was mostly about real estate. What she meant, of course, was that there were too many companies chasing after too few spaces.

The situation is at least as bad today. A few new spaces have opened up, but a lot more companies have come into existence while others have extended their seasons. It's still a game of musical chairs, with many smaller companies left standing around when the music stops.

It was, therefore, a cause of great rejoicing among local thespians two years ago when developer Peter Rothschild bought St. Boniface Church at Ivory and Michigan in the city's Carondelet neighborhood from the St. Louis Archdiocese and announced his intention to turn it into the Ivory Theatre. He appeared to be serious about it, spending $1 million on the building and another $800,000 to convert it into a modern theatre space, complete with a handsome and well-appointed lobby. Theatre manager Donna Perrino began contacting local companies, looking for groups who might be interested in making the Ivory their home. It all seemed too good to be true.

Which, alas, it was.

The first storm clouds appeared on the horizon with the inaugural production in the space, New Line Theatre's revue Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. Convinced that the title presaged an evening of wild debauchery, the theatre's former owners exercised an odd clause in the sales contract that allowed them to prevent the building for being used for an odd collection of purposes, including “human abortion, sterilization [or] euthanasia” (there's a lot of that on stage these days, apparently), tattoos, massages, anything “pornographic or soft pornographic” and “live performances directed to an adult audience rather than the general public."

The opening night performance was cancelled, dueling press releases were issues, meetings were held and, eventually, the Archdiocese got around to actually finding out what was in the show. They blinked, found a face-saving exit, and Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll went on. The drama, however, had just begun.

In the intervening months, every company that had signed up for permanent residence at the Ivory found itself in conflict with Perrino. Agreements were broken, the facility wasn't maintained, sets were damaged, and rehearsals were disrupted by loud meetings in the lobby. Chaos, in short, reigned. By the early months of 2008, all of the companies that had signed up for residency had flown the coop, each with its own tale of managerial incompetence.

I won't bore you with the details, but if you want all the dirt in detail there's a blog dedicated to the entire unfolding debacle. That, along with a recent Riverfront Times article, should provide you with an ample sufficiency of dirt.

The situation could be worse, I suppose. The Soulard Preservation Hall has finally opened after years of gut rehab, but the facility is more suitable for musical or comedy shows than live theatre. Tower Grove Abbey - another church now hosting theatre - is open for business, but its resident company, Stray Dog Theatre, has an ambitious year-round schedule that doesn't appear to leave much room for sharing. The new Kranzberg Cultural Center in the former Woolworth Building in Grand Center promises “two performance spaces seating 100 in the black box theatre and 75 in the cabaret studio”, bit it's not scheduled to open until the fall and nobody knows exactly what the facilities will look like or how much it will cost to rent them.

The bottom line, though, is that a number of adventurous small theatre companies are now huddling in doorways, begging for spare change. For a city with such a rich cultural heritage, this is a pretty shameful situation.

1 comment:

Chip Michael said...

I think you'd find the situation here in Edinburgh even worse than in St Louis. There are dozens of theatre companies and groups attempting to put on shows and really one 4 good houses to do so. Groups put on a show with a tech in on Monday, dress on Tuesday, open on Wednesday with a close and tear down on Saturday. Some might do a Sunday Matinee, but those are really rare.

I was in shock when I found that companies expected to get enough revenue in 4-5 days of performances to pay for their productions. Not at all what I was used to in Monterey California where companies would run shows for 4 to 8 weeks depending on whether it was a straight play or a musical.