While some may see wearing masks or standing six feet apart as hindrances to artmaking, one St. Louis theatre company has welcomed the new norms to reignite their production methods.
After hosting virtual auditions, rehearsing for hours over Zoom, and then recording scenes in small physically-distanced groups, Ignite Theatre Company will present “A Chorus Line (High School Edition),” online Aug. 26, through Aug. 30. The 5-day streaming event marks a first for the organization.
Brionna Lacy, 16, who plays Richie Walters in “A Chorus Line (HSE),” has been with the company for almost two years. She said one of the biggest differences between this production and previous ones was connecting with her fellow cast members.
“We do a lot of character and cast bonding to mesh with each other, and we didn’t really have the opportunity to do that this time around,” Lacy said. “It’s been difficult being apart from directors, too … and coming to rehearsal and not being able to connect with them has been hard.”
With new methods, came new challenges, as well as new learning opportunities for the students of Ignite. Lacy, said she unexpectedly enjoyed learning about film production. “I’ve always been interested in the filming aspect of theatre, it’s really cool to dive into that sort of thing,” she said.
Daphne Kraushaar, 16, who plays Al DeLuca in “A Chorus Line (HSE),” said she also liked the “move-making” side of this production.”It’s not like we’re performing a typical musical with cameras … it’s more like we go scene-by-scene and get different shot angles,” Kraushaar explained.
Instead of filming a single show like previous Ignite productions, this musical was filmed in several takes by a local volunteer videographer, Jorgen Pedersen, and then edited together.
“That’s one of the benefits of filming — if one of us makes a mistake, we can do it again,” Kraushaar said. “And also, different clips can overlap, so if someone makes a mistake, we can put in a clip of someone else … we can sort of ‘Band-Aid’ for each other.”
However, filming the production in scenes wasn’t the only difference.“We’re dancing and singing, but almost never at the same time, which is one of the biggest differences with this [production],” Kraushaar said. “For example, we are recording our voices first … and then they are put together to make one track. Then we will dance to that track, lip-synching to ourselves … some of the dialogue is even [pre-recorded].”
“I think that the directors and everyone have done a good job of keeping the rules in place to keep everyone safe,” Kraushaar said, noting that she felt very comfortable during the production process.
“We’re really thankful for the guidance of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation with the reopening and mitigation policies to feel really confident that we’re creating art in the safest way possible,” Managing Director Kimberly Kavanagh said. “We’re [also] grateful for the opportunity to innovate and still be able to not only create something but also be an outlet for students during such an unsure time.”
“This is the first time we will not know what the final product will look like,” Kavanagh said. “I’ll be so proud of the kids no matter what the final product looks like because they worked so hard at something new.”
The selection of plays for a theatre group’s season is always an exciting, wildly hopeful, sometimes frustrating process. The scripts must play to a company’s strength, while often exploring new themes and production styles to encourage artistic growth. It has to take into account the appropriateness of available spaces for the plays selected, as well as the available pool of talent and their appropriateness for roles needed to fill. Also, a group has to consider scheduling issues such as holidays that might fall during a show’s run, necessary rehearsal schedules, performer availability, and more. And then, you have to secure the rights for a play — not always an automatic.
At The Chapel: Kicking Off The Season — And Punting It Into Next Season
2020 has proven to be a challenging time for everyone, including theatre companies, most of whom have decided to shut down all theatre for the calendar year. The Midnight Company’s challenges started at the very beginning of the virus outbreak. They’d scheduled their first production for May at a space new to the company: The Chapel. The show they chose would be a reprise of a one-person play they’d initially presented at the 2018 St Lou Fringe Festival, “Now Playing Third Base For The St. Louis Cardinals…bond, James Bond.”
Written and performed by Midnight Artistic Director Joe Hanrahan, the script focused on 1964 when a teenage boy — set back by world events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and particularly the assassination of John F. Kennedy — finds the world coming back to life with the emergence of the Beatles, a sensational new movie featuring one of the first superheroes, James Bond, and the race of the hometown Cardinals to a pennant and World Championship. The play explores such diverse themes as the racism black Cardinal players had to face as they made their way into Major League baseball, the role WWII played in JFK’s assassination and the history and growth of one-person shows in the theatre scene.
Because of Fringe restrictions, that production was limited to a handful of performances and limited to less than an hour in length. But still, the show was very enthusiastically received by audiences. Never had Midnight experienced such a visceral reaction to a play. So, thinking that the play (with its crowd-attracting title) could draw larger audiences, it was decided to bring it back to The Chapel in Spring 2020; this time with an expanded script that added depth and new stories to the incidents of the script.
But the outbreak of COVID-19 altered opening plans and Midnight made the cautious decision to postpone the show until July. And as the virus strengthened its grip on the world, it was postponed again until August.
And it was only in mid-July when discussions between the small cast and crew resulted in the difficult decision to reschedule the show for July 2021, at The Chapel. The decision was particularly difficult because the people at The Chapel were unfailingly supportive and enthusiastic about the show, right up until the moment of cancellation. They were preparing to undertake all of the safety precautions pioneered locally by the Kranzberg Arts Foundation. But the final decision rested on the entire team’s belief that a greater number of people might want to see this show, and it should be given the chance to draw those crowds.
If you’d like to take a look at the script of the Fringe production, click here.
At Kranzberg Arts Foundation Theatres: The Fall Shows — October
As a resident company of the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, The Midnight Company had two slots to fill in their 2020 Calendar: mid-September and late October, each for three-week runs.
The October show was the first engagement filled. “It Is Magic” premiered in Chicago in Spring 2019. Midnight management saw the production, and it never left their mind. The play was written by Mickle Maher, playwright, and co-founder of Theater Oobleck in that city. Midnight had already produced two plays of Maher’s: “The Hunchback Variations” and “An Apology For The Course And Outcome Of Certain Events Delivered By Doctor John Faustus On This His Final Evening,” first as individual productions, and then on the same bill in September 2018 as part of Faustival, a St. Louis celebration of the work, which involved five different St. Louis companies doing their own take on Faust.
Midnight loved Maher’s work and loved Theater Oobleck. It’s on hiatus now as are most groups, but you can check out their fabled history on their website: theateroobleck.com. They’re a very small group that gets very big recognition and very good reviews in the very competitive Chicago theatre scene.
“It Is Magic” takes place in the basement of a community theatre. Auditions are going on for a new play — an adult version of the Three Little Pigs. Upstairs, in the main theatre, opening night for the Scottish play is underway. Holding the auditions are two sisters — one who has written the new play, the other an actress. Both have volunteered for this community theatre for years, but neither has ever got the opportunity to contribute artistically. Now one sister has written a play that will be produced, the other wants the lead role of The Big Bad Wolf. Auditioning for them is an actor (in a kilt, expected upstairs soon) who also wants the Wolf role, and who also has been with the group for years without a good role. As the play develops, the arrogant artistic director of the group comes down and causes havoc, and later, an actress appears out of nowhere to audition — yes, she is the “third sister” of Scottish play fame.
The play is brilliant, as is all of Maher’s work. It explores the love/hate relationship many people (and many aspiring artists) have with theatre but confirms the magic that infuses the stage. It also has a touch of black magic, so it qualifies as a show that can open on Halloween weekend. (Midnight, like many companies opening a show at that time of year, first looked around for a more traditionally-themed script, like a “Dracula” adaptation they’d always liked.) And with a cast of five, the show gave Midnight a chance to work with more local talent than their usual cast sizes of one or two.
But as the COVID-19 crisis continued, Midnight saw little choice but to reschedule this show. It’s now slated to run Oct. 21-Nov. 16, 2021, at the Black Box Theatre inside The Kranzberg.
At Kranzberg Arts Foundation Theatres: The Fall Shows — September
After deciding on “It Is Magic” for October, Midnight still had a calendar slot to fill in September. After considering several works, one prominent theme continued to echo for the Company. With the current political turmoil and the upcoming sure-to-be hotly contested elections, Midnight decided to do the one thing it could do best to contribute to possible positive solutions for the country.
It brought back a play it had done before (at The Missouri History Museum, during the dawn of the Obama administration) — “Give ‘em Hell Harry” by Samuel Gallu, the one-man show depicting the life and times of Harry S. Truman. The play premiered in 1975 with James Whitmore in the role. The show was shot on the then-innovative format of videotape and released as a major motion picture (for which Whitmore received an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.)
The play begins with Truman’s days in the White House, a tumultuous time. After three terms of Franklin Roosevelt guiding the nation through the Depression and World War II, FDR’s death propelled Truman into the Oval Office, introducing a new president that the nation knew only slightly (as FDR knew him only slightly.) Truman’s first four months in office were some of the most critical and overwhelming any President has ever faced: Four months that saw the founding of the United Nations, the fall of Berlin, victory at Okinawa, firebombing in Tokyo, the Nazi Surrender, the liberation of concentration camps, mass starvation in Europe, the controversial decision to drop nuclear weapons on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the surrender of Imperial Japan, and finally, the end of World War II and the rise of the Cold War. After Franklin Roosevelt died, and the unknown senator from Missouri took the oath of office, what was called Truman’s “Accidental Presidency” began. But his performance as leader of a changing world in crisis during those whirlwind four months, and after, continues to enhance his reputation and regard.
Two recent books underline the continued interest in and appreciation of Truman’s term in office. Chris Wallace’s “Countdown 1945” focuses on those first few months of the Truman presidency, narrowing in on the final preparations and Truman’s decision to use the Atomic Bomb to end World War II. And A.J. Baime’s “Dewey Defeats Truman” moves ahead to 1948, when Truman’s whistle-stop tour of America helped his underdog campaign win back the White House. (Baime also wrote 2017’s “The Accidental President,” which explores the first four months of the Truman presidency in detail, but also gives a good, balanced overview of his early life and career in Missouri.)
Through research, Midnight (along with most everyone else) came to the conclusion that Harry S. Truman was, at minimum, a decent human being who sat in the Oval Office. It was their goal through this play to offer that example, and to instigate more thought about the type of person that should lead our nation.
At the time of this writing, “Give ‘em Hell Harry” is still scheduled to run this Sept. 17-Nov. 3, at .ZACK Theatre.
At The Kranzberg Theatres: The Fall Shows – New Show For October?
And for an on-going theatre company, the selection of which plays to present never ends.
For Midnight, with the rescheduling of “It Is Magic,” there are now open dates in late October. Midnight does not have to fill those dates, but already has a play in their pocket that — worldwide pandemic allowing — will run at that time.
And also for Midnight, that leaves June 7-June 27, 2021, at the Black Box Theatre inside The Kranzberg waiting. Hoping things will be back to some kind of (new) normal, the Company is currently looking into a number of scripts for that time.
Joe Hanrahan is the Artistic Director of The Midnight Company. As an actor and director, Joe has worked with many St. Louis theatre groups, including the St. Louis Rep, the Black Rep, Upstream, Stray Dog, Metro Theatre, New Jewish Theatre, the West End Players, R-S Theatrics and SATE. As a playwright, his scripts have been produced by companies and festivals in Kansas, Brooklyn and St. Louis. As a company, Midnight has produced many works new to St. Louis in a variety of spaces, as well as performing at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival and the Jesse James Farm in Kearney, MO.
The arts are a vital part of our city, social life, economy, and sanity — and in times like these, we feel the importance of art that can inspire us. But, when it comes to reopening our spaces, we know we only have one chance to do it right. Ensuring the safety of our guests, cast, and crew is of the utmost importance before we open our doors again.
Last week, we asked our audience what they would need to feel safe returning to our spaces. This information will be used alongside guidance from our local health and government officials to continue preparing to safely bring the arts back into our spaces. The survey went out to our email and was posted social media. It was open May 4 – 6, and received 915 responses.
The 2020 St. Louis Theater Circle Awards recognized six Kranzberg Arts Foundation resident organizations this week. Outstanding work in professional St. Louis theater is acknowledged during this ceremony, which was presented virtually this year by HEC-TV.
Well-deserved recognition also goes to Nancy and Ken Kranzberg for receiving a special award for invaluable support in the arts. The St. Louis arts is a thriving community because of their longtime contributions.
Many congratulations to the Kranzbergs and the winning resident organizations, listed below.
Max & Louie Productions
Outstanding Lighting Design in a Play
Patrick Huber, Indecent
Outstanding Sound Design
Phillip Evans, Indecent
Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama Indecent
Outstanding Director of a Drama
Joanne Gordon, Indecent
Outstanding Production of a Drama Indecent
New Line Theatre
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Musical
Tiélere Cheatem, La Cage aux Folles
Outstanding Costume Design in a Musical
Sarah Porter, La Cage aux Folles
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis
Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy
Patrick Blindauer, Love’s Labors Lost
Shakespeare Festival St. Louis & The Big Muddy Dance Company
Dexandro Montalvo, Such Sweet Thunder, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, The Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, and The Nine Network of Public Media
Outstanding Production of a Musical Such Sweet Thunder, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, The Big Muddy Dance Company, Jazz St. Louis, and The Nine Network of Public Media
Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis
Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy
Kelley Weber, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Outstanding Actress in a Comedy (Tie with Katie Kleiger, Pride and Prejudice, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis)
Maggie Wininger, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Outstanding Ensemble in a Comedy A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Outstanding Director of a Comedy
Kari Ely, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur
Outstanding Actress in a Drama
Donna Weinsting, Salt, Root, and Roe
At its best, theatre can provide a great deal: It entertains us, it moves us, it sustains us, it reflects us back to ourselves. But for some St. Louis school kids, it can literally save their lives.
Metro Theater Company’s “Say Something, Do Something!” program uses drama to help equip students to face difficult circumstances, from bullying to gun violence. The interactive skits encourage them to consider how to defuse tense moments or intervene when they see interactions going south.
“It’s a theatrical experience, but it’s a theatrical experience with a very specific goal,” says Metro Theater managing director Joe Gfaller. The hope is that, having walked through difficult scenarios in safe circumstances, participants might have access to the strategies later, if necessary.
Metro Theater is directed at young audiences and their families, creating access to theatre as well as the growth and development that it fosters. The company produces plays at The Grandel and takes theatre into schools. Last year, it visited 31 schools across the region.
Launched in Fall 2011, the “Say Something, Do Something!” experience involves a relatively small group of kids — usually about 60 fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-graders — and a small troupe of Metro actors, as well as a teaching artist who serves as a facilitator. The scripts and entire experience are the result of intense preparation by Metro’s production team. Before they ever take the stage at a school, they’ve conducted interviews with teachers and social workers in the schools and learned all they can about the specific conflicts that kids might be facing. They’ve also researched language, because lingo and vocabulary are ever-changing, and the scenes need to seem feasible.
“We want the language and conflict situation to feel true to life,” says Metro Theater education director Karen Weberman. “It’s what they’re actually going through. Our education is on the ground every week, in classrooms across the city and county.”
She stresses the need for deep listening to the teachers, administrators, and other school staff who know the kids best. “We don’t want this to be, ‘Here’s this program we think you need,’” she says.
Metro’s methodology for the program is backed by serious scholarship. Saint Louis University’s College for Public Health and Social Justice evaluated the program, and Weberman and SLU researchers presented the data last year at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in Philadelphia.
The sessions begin with a deep dive into the study of body language. Actors will freeze into a tableau, which the students can pick apart, examining characters’ motivations and feelings in a specific moment. It’s good training for what comes next — the scripted conflict. The scene is only about five minutes long, Weberman says, and while the conflict itself may vary from season to season or, to some extent, from school to school, one thing is constant: There’s a clear and obvious imbalance of power.
“When the scene comes to the highest point of conflict, the facilitator calls a freeze,” says Weberman. “The students dig into the body language of the characters. We hold up an actual thought bubble, like you might see in a cartoon.”
The students fill the bubbles with what a character — aggressor, victim, or bystander — might be thinking. Then the actors break out of the tableau but not their character, and the students take on the role of investigative reporter.
“They’re put in the hot seat, and the students get to interview them,” Weberman says. The students aren’t shy about grilling the characters, she adds. “They really go after the actor who’s playing the bully character. They want to know, ‘Why are you the way you are? Were you bullied?’”
“They want to understand the bad guy as much as they want to help the good guy,” says Gfaller.
After the interrogations, students come up with strategies for better outcomes. The actors run the scene again, and kids can tag actors out and step into the scene themselves to try the strategies.
“We like to say, ‘It’s like rehearsal for real life,’” says Weberman. “It really is all about empathy, stepping into the shoes of another.”
Previous seasons have addressed physical violence and sexual harassment — disheartening realities, Weberman says, for sixth graders. Some of the programming for the upcoming season will continue to look at violence.
During the forthcoming year, Metro Theater will also work with the Diversity Awareness Partnership, whose “Give Respect Get Respect” campaign pairs older students with local corporate executives in a mentorship program. Metro’s programming for that initiative will address gender identity issues.
The region’s small and midsize theatre and dance companies offer a wealth of options. You just need to know where to look.
By Alison Gold
“When people say, ‘Oh there’s nothing to do here in St. Louis on a Friday or Saturday night,’ I think they’re crazy,” says Joseph Novak,
After living in several places across the United States, the tech director believes St. Louis’ art scene is particularly vibrant — for those who pursue it. “I think people just aren’t looking outside their box.”
Part of the reason small and midsize arts organizations get overlooked, he believes, is that there is such a vast range of options across the region. “Because there are so many arts groups in St. Louis, I think some tend to go unseen,” he says. “A lot of people are just not aware of their works.”
Novak has worked on a wide range of shows across St. Louis, including Max & Louie Productions’ June production of Indecent, the true story of a Polish-Jewish playwright who, in 1906, pens a controversial script dealing with prostitution, homosexuality, and cultural assimilation. “I think it has a lot of social impact,” says Novak, who hopes to work on similar projects in the future.
“I think the art scene is growing and blossoming here,” he says. “A lot of companies seem to be doing more shows, and the quality just keeps going up.”
Upstream Theater Company is about to start its 15th season, making it one of St. Louis’ longest-running small professional theaters. In fact, Upstream is “the oldest resident company in the Kranzberg ecosystem,” says artistic director Philip Boehm. “We’ve been able to produce plays where St. Louis audiences are the first to see these international works in the United States. That wouldn’t have happened without the Kranzberg Arts Foundation.”
To date, the company has produced more than 40 plays from nearly 20 countries, the majority of which has been the United States premieres from around the globe: Australia, Argentina, Croatia, and more. The company’s goal is to “move you and move you to think.”
This year, Upstream kicks off the season with The Agitators, the story of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass’ 45-year friendship that helped shape American society. Lisa Tejero, a Broadway veteran who’s also done work at The Rep, will direct Mat Smart’s powerful play, Sept. 27-Oct. 13.
Upstream is also expanding beyond St. Louis. This October, it will bring Salt, Root, and Roe (pictured above) — the story of a set of aging identical twins who live by the sea in Wales — to Houston. The theater company produced the U.S. premiere this past spring right here in St. Louis.
“We want audiences to think about what they see,” says Boehm. “It seems to me that theater in the United States, in general, could benefit from more international work.”
Dance has been a part of Ashley Tate’s life since she was a child. “I don’t really know myself without dance,” she says. “I’m a shy person, so it’s my way of being my most expressive self.” She started out with ballet, tap, and traditional dance. Eventually, she joined the St. Louis Rams’ cheerleading squad.
Then, in 2007, she launched her own dance company, Ashleyliane Dance Company. “I wanted to continue giving adults a place to train and dance, including those who worked full-time,” she says, noting that the company rehearses at night. The company started out dancing at festivals and fairs—“anywhere that promoted the arts.”
Now, it spans a professional dance company, an entry program, a summer junior program, and a full drop-in class schedule. Ashleyliane produces at least two main-stage concerts per year and hosts several other events, in addition to partnering with other organizations. “I want to inspire people to know it is hard, but you can make dance a full-time career,” she says. “We’re a small but mighty organization.”
In late October, Ashleyliane will perform Phantom of the Opera while playing up masquerade themes. Then, for Valentine’s Day next February, Ashleyliane will host a hair and fashion dance show focused on the theme of love, which diverges from the typical format of a dance recital in its imitation of a fashion show.
Tate says, “We wanted something interactive and fun for the audience.”
Freedom to Flourish
After working on productions across the country, Andrew Snyder can appreciate what makes St. Louis’ art scene so special. “Everyone is here to support everyone else,” says Snyder, the lighting designer, and stage manager at The Big Muddy Dance Company. “You don’t always get that in other cities. Someone is always there to help, no questions asked.”
On Nov. 9-10, the Inaugural Big Muddy Dance Fest will showcase all the company has to offer. Participants can enjoy classes, workshops, auditions, panel discussions, vendors, and networking with other dancers.
A few days later, on Nov. 14-15, the company will stage a Christmas Carol production — with a contemporary twist. The show will be set against live music of an original arrangement of Tchaikovsky classics, with themes of love and redemption at the forefront.
Then, early next year, Big Muddy will perform Beat Ballads, featuring the music of British composer Joby Talbot, whose work has ranged from a BBC comedy to a ballet of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.Moves & Grooves will follow in April and feature the sounds of Henry Saiz, an electronic music artist. The historic Grandel Theatre will play host to both shows.