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Shows go on - even in a recession

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 21, 2009 - When the going gets tough, the tough get ... creative. St. Louis theater company owners know there's nothing comedic about the recession but their plight is no tragedy, either.

Grants are harder to come by, and some have had to cut a show or two out of formerly robust schedules. But so far, not one company has closed its curtains because of hard times.

In fact, the number of local theater troupes has not only not shrunk -- it's grown. Three new companies have entered the St. Louis scene in the past year.

Dramatic License Productions

"What do you do in a recession? Why, you start a theater company, of course," joked Kim Furlow to her husband when her public relations business began to slow down.

After 28 years of acting and singing in the local theater community, Furlow debuted Dramatic License Productions  in August with "Doubt, a Parable" at the Kranzberg Arts Center in Grand Center. Even before the play began, she'd decided her all her subsequent productions would be held farther west -- near her home in Ballwin.

"There were no professional theater companies west of 270," Furlow noted.

Her 2010 season, with performances to be held at St. Joseph Institute for the Deaf in Chesterfield, will begin with "Steel Magnolias" in February. (The schedule has yet to be posted on the DLT website.)To attract West County theater-goers whose spare time is largely dedicated to kids' dance lessons, soccer tournaments and softball games, she knows she has to produce familiar scripts.

"That way, when they hear the title, they say, 'Oh, that's a great show; I'd love to see it'," Furlow said. "If it's something they don't know and you're just doing it for art's sake, that's not going to drive many people out here."

Offering $12 Thursday night and Saturday matinee "recession specials" helped to fill at least half the seats for each "Doubt" performance. Borrowing props and costumes cut costs and allowed Dramatic License to donate $800 from the "Doubt" proceeds to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul for families in need.

Even in the toughest times, there will always be a demand for theater, Furlow said: "People will always want that outlet for fantasy."

[insert Name Here] Theatre Project

No, [insert name here] is not a misprint as I thought the first time I saw it in writing. "So many companies' names tend to be pretentious; we said, 'let's not take it too seriously'," explained artistic director Chris Owens.

The 23-year-old theatrical entrepreneur founded the company, which is also called INH, to produce edgier shows and to give young, local actors a chance to perform what he calls "more challenging material." In preparing for his August 2008 debut production, "The Last Five Years," Owens borrowed a futon, a table and even a Christmas tree, and hustled to pack his program with paid ads.

"There was a lot of scrambling to make sure I had all the funds I needed to pull it all together," Owens remembered.

Now, though, Owens can relax a bit about costs. INH recently partnered with 6-year-old Stray Dog Theatre, and the combined companies this summer produced a sold-out run of "The Rocky Horror Show" at the Tower Grove Abbey in south St. Louis.

It's a good partnership that's takes some of the pressure off as Owens finishes his theater degree at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

"Stray Dog likes what I do," Owens said. "But if I have other ideas down the line that maybe they don't agree with, I can take that on solo." (INH productions are listed with Stray Dog in the accompanying table.)

Insight Theatre Company

Nerinx Hall High School theater teacher Maggie Ryan wanted students to have more professional experience. So she created Insight Theatre Company to give them those opportunities. As she began work on her first production, "The Musical of Musicals: (The Musical!)" in 2008, Ryan wasn't really worried so much about finances.

"We had been planning to open since early spring and we had our first production in August," Ryan said. "It was October when the economy really bombed." 

But as the banks, the housing market and the automakers took a dive, Insight was riding high.

In its first season, the company was nominated for four Kevin Kline Awards, and won in the categories of Best Ensemble in a Play and Best Sound Design in a Play, both for its October 2008 production of "Grace & Glorie."

Ryan credits the performers and sound designer. "I've got some wonderful people working for me," Ryan said.

High on those early accolades, Insight forged ahead with the help of donations and the use of Nerinx Hall's Heagney Theater, located in Webster Groves.

Ryan had to cut one show out of her season, and she's also saving money by re-using and borrowing props, including 10 black telephones for its just-closed offering "Something's Afoot," which Ryan is directing.

"So far, we're doing OK," Ryan said.

The More, The Merrier

Despite the tight money situation, the entire St. Louis theater scene is doing pretty well, according to Greg Johnston, a board member of the Professional Theatre Awards Council. This year, the council expects to judge twice as many productions as it did four years ago. During the past four years, the number of local theater companies has almost doubled.

"There's always room for more good theater," Johnston said. "It's tough economically; it's hard for companies to have the money to pay their artists. But people who are determined to produce hell or high water because they have a passion will scrape together enough to put on a show."

Nancy Larson is a freelance writer who regularly covers theater, among other topics.