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Fontaine Syer leaves a legacy of professional theater in St. Louis

Brian McConkey

This post has been updated with the details of Syer's memorial.  

In the mid-1970s a new theater group put on its first show in the then empty Union Station and changed the theater scene in St. Louis forever. The group was Theatre Project Company and its co-founder was Fontaine Syer.

Syer died of cancer on May 29 in Bloomington, Ind. where she had made her home since joining the faculty of Indiana University in 2005. Although she had been gone from St. Louis for many years, a host of actors, directors and theater managers credit her with inspiring the wide variety of small professional theater companies in St. Louis today.

Three former members of Theatre Project Company joined “Cityscape” host Steve Potter to remember their time working with Syer and her lasting impact on theater in St. Louis. Bobby Miller and Wayne Solomon are still active as actors and directors and Sue Greenberg is company manager at the MUNY.

When Theatre Project Company came on the scene, there were few choices for professional theater in St. Louis. “There was the MUNY and the Rep and the Rep was relatively new,” said Miller. “It was really a risk,” he continued. “Could St. Louis support an off-Broadway vibe, a small intimate theater?”

Solomon agreed that the early days were rough. He remembered that the then director of the Rep made it very hard on new companies and supporting small professional theaters was not part of his mandate. “It is part of [current Rep director] Steve Woolf’s mandate, so that’s nice, but it grows out of his relationship, too, I think, with Fontaine.”

But Theatre Project Company developed a core group of actors and designers that put on show after show. “It really caught on,” said Miller. “People loved coming to Union Station before it was developed."

Greenberg heard about Theatre Project Company as she finished college and wanted to get involved. Syer asked her to stage manage. Greenberg said “yes” even though she didn’t know what that was. “And then Fontaine taught me,” she said.

Miller, Solomon and Greenberg recalled some of the many other St. Louis actors and directors who got their start with Syer and Theatre Project Company. The list includes Jerry Vogel, Whit Reichert, John Contini, Ron Himes and Susie Wall, among others. "I think just about every actor of a certain age worked at Theatre Project Company," said Greenberg.

After leaving St. Louis, Syer served as associate artistic director for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and later as artistic director of the Delaware Shakespeare Festival in Wilmington.

Syer’s last performance in St. Louis was in January, 2011 when she starred in Joan Didion’s one woman show “The Year of Magical Thinking” at the Rep Studio Theatre. She appeared on “Cityscape” to talk about her role and her thoughts on acting and teaching.

Fontaine Syer talked with Steve Potter on January 14, 2014 about her role as Joan Didion at the Rep as well as her thoughts on acting and teaching.

Each guest had a final thought about Syer and her influence. “People who have started new small theaters are standing on her shoulders,” said Greenberg. “It [Theatre Project Company] was a young company and it grew up to be the people who run theater in St. Louis for the most part,” observed Solomon.

“I do about five or six shows as an actor/director a year in St. Louis,” said Miller. “I work with a lot of 20 somethings, 30 somethings and 40 somethings. They all know who she is. And that’s the most gratifying thing for me.”

Related event

Celebration of the Life and Work of Fontaine Syer

  • Saturday, September 5, 2015
  • 1:00 p.m.
  • Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.

Mary Edwards is a producer for St. Louis Public Radio's broadcast program, "St. Louis Symphony."