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Small Hannibal theater company takes on established St. Louis troupes in regional competition

Michael Ferguson and Betsy Bowman starred in Bluff City Theater's 2017 presentation of The Glass Menagerie.
Joe Anderson

A small theater company in Hannibal is giving larger St. Louis troupes a run for their money in a regional awards competition.

The 4-year-old Bluff City Theater is nominated for 12 Broadway World regional awards for the 2017 season, including Best Theater Company. Larger, more established institutions like Stages St. Louis and The Rep typically dominate the annual contest. A public vote decides the winners.


Last year, Bluff City Theater wasn’t even in the running. The nominations and even the awards contest itself took theater founder Joe Anderson by complete surprise.

“I wasn’t aware they even existed,” Anderson said.

Today’s Tom Sawyer

Bluff City’s nominations are in connection with three of its five shows in a season whose theme was “family.”

“Emily: the Musical,” the story of an orphaned girl and her friends whose big dreams are tempered  by reality, is nominated in eight categories, including Best Musical.

The Boys in Autumn revisits Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in 1920.
Credit Provided | Joe Anderson
The Boys in Autumn revisits Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in 1920.

“The Boys in Autumn,” which garnered nominations in three categories including Best Drama, seems a natural fit for Hannibal, the birthplace home of Mark Twain. The play is about the reunion of Twain characters Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn as adults. It’s a thought-provoking piece that examines Huck’s assistance in his ailing wife’s death and Tom’s thoughts of pedophilia.

“It’s not a sympathetic look at Tom,” Anderson said.  “And then the key question that is looked at as a play is, ‘What sins are forgivable and what sins are not?’”

“Having Our Say,” “The Glass Menagerie” and “C’est La Vie, nominated in two categories,” rounded out this year’s schedule. Within the 12 categories, Bluff City has 21 total nominations.

In a way, getting recognition from the Broadway World awards competition is a result of several years of hard work and regional outreach, according to Anderson.

“We're in the middle of our subscription drive for 2018 now and we're getting subscriptions from St. Louis and Springfield, Illinois, which is 90 miles away,” Anderson said.

Building a company, rebuilding a city

Joe Anderson founded Bluff City Theater in 2013.
Credit Provided | Joe Anderson
Joe Anderson founded Bluff City Theater in 2013.

Anderson, a former media executive in Toronto, moved to his husband’s home town of Hannibal when he retired five years ago. He started Bluff City in 2013 to bring professional theater to Hannibal and to help an area still struggling with the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs in the 1980s and '90s.

“They were trying to figure out, ‘How do you rebuild a city that had been a blue-collar town for 100 years?’” Anderson said.

The first season consisted of a single play. Because the company lacked of a venue, the one-man show, “Tales of an Urban Indian,” played on an unorthodox stage.

“It was performed entirely on a transit bus while I drove around the city,” Anderson said. “The audience would get on the bus and then the bus would stop. The actor would get on, and the play would start and run for the next 55 minutes.”

In 2014, the company began to remodel an old bank building on a street aptly named Broadway, an effort that seemed to spark a trend.

Bluff City Theater renovated an old bank building in time for its 2015 season.
Credit Provided | Joe Anderson
Bluff City Theater renovated an old bank building in time for its 2015 season.

“Since we bought the theater, there are … probably 15 or 20 renovation projects going on up Broadway,” Anderson said. “One theater will not — cannot — transform a city. But one theater as part of a larger undertaking and belief can really make it happen.”

Bluff City Theater brings in some cast and crew members from St. Louis, and others from as far away as New York City, Canada and even Europe.

St. Louis is one of 56 cities with theater companies that are vying for Broadway World regional awards. Locally, The Rep, Stages, The Muny, Stray Dog Theater, Clayton Community Theater and dozens more  large and small local troupes are nominated in 29 categories.

The public can cast their ballots through New Year’s Eve on the Broadway World website. The organization has several methods for making sure the outcome is fair, according to regional managing editor Alan Henry.

“Everyone can vote only once,” Henry said. “We double check this with by email and IP address, to make sure nobody is flooding the ballot box.”

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL

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.