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Theater companies scramble for venues and storage after ArtSpace closes

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 4, 2012 - Theater companies are reinventing themselves after the curtain closed on a temporary arrangement providing inexpensive space to 70 arts organizations while filling thousands of otherwise-empty square feet at Crestwood Court.

A collection of art galleries and craft shops, a community theater company and two professional theater companies shut their doors at the end of February to make way for mall renovation. The transition means a new beginning for one professional troupe, R-S Theatrics. But it signals an ending of sorts for the other, Avalon Theatre.

Avalon's founders, husband-and-wife team Larry Mabrey and Erin Kelley, are  concentrating on out-of-town and local acting, directing and lighting design gigs with other theater companies. But the Avalon's hiatus from regular theater productions is a boost for Grand Center Arts Academy.

For the foreseeable future, Avalon’s seats, risers, curtains, stage, furniture, props and costumes will move to the St. Louis public charter school for the arts, where the couple’s son Jackson -- also an actor -- is a student.

It’s a win-win situation, according to Mabrey.

“They get these items sooner than they thought they would, and our stuff doesn’t have to go into storage,” Mabrey said.

One door closes, another opens

Last April, Mabrey lost his full-time job when Webster University closed its center for professional development where he was the director. The theater company has never provided an income, and Mabrey’s difficulty in finding another position spurred him and Kelley to put Avalon on hold and pursue their personal careers, which currently do not provide health insurance.

“It’s a fact of life for performing artists,” Mabrey said.

The pair will continue to stage occasional presentations of Kelley’s signature “Portrait of My People,” about growing up in a Native American/multi-racial family, in various locations. These venues may include the arts academy.

That prospect is a great fit with the school’s expansion plans. Next year, the academy will add ninth grade to its existing middle-school curriculum. But its larger goal is to provide performing arts presentations and education to not only students but also the public, according to Dan Rubright, the arts academy’s director of community partnerships.

“We want to offer programs and workshops after school, and on evenings and weekends -- much more like a community arts center, beyond just the academic and educational and artistic framework of our school,” Rubright said.

R-S Theatrics pregnant with possibilities

As Christina Rios neared the end of her pregnancy and oversaw R-S Theatrics’ February presentation of “Autobahn,” she also coped with another stressor: finding a new home for the theater company.

Much to her relief, Rios and artistic managing director Randy Stinebaker worked out a last-minute deal with the Black Cat Theatre. R-S will store its props and other equipment and stage its productions at the Maplewood venue.

Rios declined to reveal the terms of the Black Cat arrangement but said it’s not as expensive as the $8,000 she says she needs to rehearse and stage its productions at the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) and secure storage space. Sticking to a budget is essential even though the family does have one steady income and health insurance, thanks to the Washington University admissions day job of her actor husband Mark Kelley, who also serves as her unofficial technical director.

Next up for R-S, an offshoot of Soundstage Productions, is the musical “Adding Machine,” about a man who kills his boss after he’s replaced at work by -- wait for it -- an adding machine. The run dates are still being worked out, but knowing they have a venue means they don’t have to resort to Rios’ worst-case scenario.

“We were about to have to figure out how to sell tickets to our living room,” Rios said. “Finding space is by far the most difficult part of being involved in a theater company.”

Eats and sleeps among sets and staging equipment

After three years at ArtSpace, Greg Matzker’s Marble Stage community theater has found a new, temporary home for its productions but not its paraphernalia. For twice the rent of its ArtSpace location, Marble Stage will perform at the Southampton Presbyterian Church building on Macklind.

The arrangement gives Marble Stage a venue to present the children’s classic “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse” every Saturday in April and Neil Simon’s “Plaza Suite” April 19-22. Soon after that, Matzker will find out if the church will extend their arrangement.

“We could be in the exact same position we were in, come June,” Matzker said.

In the meantime, Matzker -- who makes a living acting, choreographing and directing for other companies -- has stuffed his own 1,000-square-foot home with all the costumes, sets and staging equipment formerly stored in a 5,000 square-foot space at Crestwood Court.

“My house looks like an episode of ‘Hoarders,’” Matzker said. “There is a very small path to my front door. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

It’s not clear exactly what the spaces left by Matzker and other former ArtSpace tenants will eventually look like. Neither Crestwood Court owners Centrum Properties nor mall manager Tony Stephens would confirm reports that a bowling alley and high-end movie theater may be part of the renovation plan.

Stephens did say that Crestwood is working with RAC to keep more than a dozen ArtSpace tenants in the mall, but he declined to name them.

“We’re in discussion who is staying and how long they’re going to stay,” Stephens said.

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.