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Theater companies find homes in schools, churches, malls

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 10, 2010 - New Line Theatre Company's Scott Miller recently came thisclose to homelessness after moving in and out of eight different venues in 16 years. But the artistic director got an early holiday present when Washington University unexpectedly agreed to another one-year contract for the theater inside its Clayton Road building, the former Christian Brothers College High School. The decision came after several months of worry.

"I have no idea where we would have gone," Miller said.

Similar to the plot of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," most local theater venues are too expensive, too small or too booked -- with few having that just-right feeling needed for a happy ending, according to Miller and many other owners of local theater outfits.

"It seems to be the eternal problem for all theater companies," Miller said.

Wanted: More Kranzbergs?

With roughly 25 professional companies producing theater in St. Louis and only about half as many official venues, finding stages on which to perform three to four times a year is like a game of musical chairs: Everyone's scrambling, and inevitably someone gets left out.

The 1-year-old, 110-seat maximum black box inside the Kranzberg Arts Center at Grand and Olive, is home to Upstream, Muddy Waters and HotCity theater companies. The Kranzberg black box's advantages include a roomy lobby, downtown location and adequate sound and lighting systems that can run $1,000 a night to bring into a space that lacks them.

It costs $350 a day, Thursday through Sunday, to rent the Kranzberg black box, or $1,500 for a week. That's a bit high, said Joan Lipkin, artistic director of That Uppity Theatre Company, as she and other theater company owners prepare for 15 percent cuts in Regional Arts Commission grants beginning in June. The Kranzberg's fee is on par with the Center of Contemporary Arts' black box, where the Friday/Saturday rate is $750.

Several imperfections mar the otherwise gleaming new Kranzberg, according to Lipkin, whose nomadic company has staged shows at the Metropolitan Community Church, City Museum, Ritz Carlton ballroom and an assortment of school gymnasiums and classrooms. There is a shortage of free parking and a lack of complete soundproofing, she said. But the biggest problem is, with only about six weeks of uncommitted time a year, it's never available when Lipkin tries to get in.

"I'm thrilled about the Kranzberg, its flexibility, location and state-of-the-art technical options," Lipkin said. "But it's like waiving a carrot in front of our eyes that we can't have. We need five Kranzbergs -- a whole row of Kranzbergs next to each other."

Hanging Out At The Mall

Shopping malls have long been popular destinations for teenagers, speed walkers and moms with strollers. Now, a decline in traffic has mall managers investing in a dramatic solution that's also bringing theater-goers inside.

Locally, it started at Crestwood Court. Mall executives, trying to stop losses that stemmed from a growing vacancy rate, approached the RAC about putting in some theater space. Earlier this year, Avalon Theatre Company performed the first production held inside Crestwood Court's ArtSpace, which also includes artists' lofts and dance studios. Crestwood Court is happy with the additional traffic which benefits their retail stores and restaurants.

"It's a win-win for everyone," said marketing manager Liesa Son.

Theater companies, which also include Soundstage, Echo and Danek Theatricals, pay only $100 a month plus utilities for their space. While that sounds like a deal, it's a temporary solution, with owners planning to re-do the mall within five years. Theater tenants also have to supply their own sound, lighting and seating, among other items.

In February, Chesterfield Mall will debut its first theater production, "Steel Magnolias," presented by Dramatic License Productions. The company pays $500 a month plus utilities under a one-year lease.

Mall space is "too suburban" for many St. Louis city-based theater companies, they say. But because Dramatic License has a goal of bringing live theater to West County, Chesterfield Malls' 85-seat, black box location is perfect, said company owner Kim Furlow. Seizing the opportunity, she took money from her public relations business and cobbled together the technical equipment she needed.

"I'm begging, borrowing and buying from anyone that will listen to me," Furlow said. "That's what you do in this economy and in this business."

Ownership Means Security

After producing theater in St. Louis for five years, Gary Bell wanted a home for his Stray Dog Theatre Company. So when the folks at Tower Grove Abbey in South City approached him about buying their building, Bell jumped at the chance.

Now Bell doesn't have to worry about available space and the church rents back from him for services and activities every Sunday.

That arrangement sometimes results in humorous Sunday morning backdrops. For example, during a run of Stray Dog's "Into the Woods" earlier this year, the congregation watched their pastor deliver his sermon against a scene that included fairy-tale trees, Jack's beanstalk and Rapunzel's towering hideaway.

"It was kind of fun and woodsy," Bell said.

Bell declined to say how much he paid for the building, but did acknowledge that he's very happy with the situation and encourages other theater companies to look for innovative solutions.

"I would invite people to create unique ways to work together," Bell said. "It's best to be in one place so people can find you, and that's been very helpful for us."

William Roth, founder of the St. Louis Actors' Studio (STLAS) is also enjoying the benefits of ownership. Roth owns the 97-seat storefront black box Gaslight Theatre in the Central West End, where the 3-year-old company stages most of its shows. Another perk: Patrons can dine at the attached West End Grill and afterward, walk into the theater without having to go back outside.

A bonus for STLAS is unlimited flexibility when it comes to rehearsing and show times.

"We don't have to work around anybody's schedule," Roth said.

The Next Act For St. Louis Theater

Not every company can afford its own building, and many must rely on rentals for the foreseeable future. On Lipkin's wish list for St. Louis are several specific criteria.

"We absolutely need more theater spaces that are small, 150 seats and under, black boxes with flexible lighting and sound on the premises even if it's minimal," Lipkin said. "I honestly feel we are hampered in our artistic development by lack of small, affordable, accessible, well located spaces."

But not everyone agrees that there's a dearth of venues. According to John Armstrong of HotCity Theatre Company, one of the companies calling the Kranzberg home, there's no shortage, thanks to the emergence of venues including the Kranzberg and mall spaces.

"I think it's going to be even better in the future," Armstrong said.

But RAC deputy director Dan Tierney does sees a pressing need for more theater venues. He envisions a solution of small, community theaters like the Black Cat in Maplewood and Florissant's Fine Arts Council. Just like mall theater-goers, community venue patrons can grab a bite to eat or go shopping before or after the show.

"A theater can bring a community around. It can bring other retail and restaurants -- a nice mix to a community," Tierney said.

Nancy Fowler Larson is a freelance writer who, among other things, regularly covers theater for the Beacon.

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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