St. Louis theater institutions celebrated their staying power in 2016 | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis theater institutions celebrated their staying power in 2016

Dec 30, 2016

A half-dozen St. Louis theater companies toasted to longevity in 2016.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis turned 50 years old and the St. Louis Black Repertory Company observed its 40th anniversary. Stages St. Louis marked 30 years and New Jewish Theatre Company celebrated 20.

Mustard Seed Theatre logged 10 years and St. Lou Fringe festival of performing arts commemorated five.

The area’s loyal patrons are a big reason why so many local companies have staying power, according to Felicia Shaw, executive director of the Regional Arts Commission.

“St. Louis has branded itself as a theater town,” Shaw said. “People like it; they support it with their attendance, their philanthropy, and with the rave reviews.”

Felicia Shaw is executive director of the Regional Arts Commission. RAC is a major giver to the arts in St. Louis.
Credit Provided | Regional Arts Commission

‘Right before your very eyes’

Some St. Louis theater companies, like the Black Rep and New Jewish, address a specific population, Shaw said.

“It’s important for people to see their stories being told,” Shaw said. “But the stories are also universal, and that keeps a variety of people coming back.”

That universality is expressed by a large number of large and small theater companies, unusual for a city of this size, Shaw said.

“Everything from tiny little groups like Stray Dog and even Magic Smoking Monkey Theater and That Uppity Theatre Company and Slightly Askew,” Shaw said.  “When you put it all together, it’s over 100 companies, doing high-quality theater.”

New performances spaces also add to the vibrancy of the St. Louis theater scene, Shaw said. Debuting and updated venues like .Zack and The Grandel bode well for local theater in years ahead.

Both venues are in the Grand Center area, a burgeoning theater district which already houses the Kranzberg Arts Center and The Marcelle.

“Where else do you see a theater district growing right before your very eyes?” Shaw said.

‘Keep it going’

This is the finished version of the mural William Burton Jr. painted on an outside wall of the Black Rep's offices. It depicts playwright August Wilson and his many scripts and characters.
Credit Provided | William Burton Jr.

Many of the companies marking anniversaries this year are associated with larger institutions: The Rep is housed at Webster University; the Black Rep has in recent years formed working relationships with Washington University and Harris Stowe State University. Mustard Seed is connected to Fontbonne University.

New Jewish Theatre is housed at the Jewish Community Center. Having a dedicated performance space has “plusses and minuses,“ according to New Jewish artistic director Kathleen Sitzer.

“We have the support of that entire institution behind us,” Siztzer said. “A huge benefit is a dedicated performance space.”

Kathleen Sitzer is artistic director of New Jewish Theatre. She returned to the stage this year for the leading role in Driving Miss Daisy.
Credit Provided | New Jewish Theatre

But technically, “We are no more than a program of the JCC, like volleyball,” Sitzer said.

That means the JCC could technically weigh in on the selection of theater productions, Sizter said, but so far, there hasn’t been a conflict.

The situation also means operating expenses are the complete responsibility of New Jewish. They’re paid for by ticket sales, grants and donations. The company can apply for grants to help with programming, but not for day-to-day costs. That means Sitzer has filled many roles over the past two decades, including marketing and communications.

Although New Jewish marked 20 years in 2016, its roots go back much further, "more than 75 years,” Sitzer said.

New Jewish has a long history of community theater at the JCC.  In 1996, Sitzer set out to continue that legacy with some big changes. She made New Jewish a professional company that only presents work rooted in Jewish culture. She pointed out that the themes resonate with many types of people.

Shanara Gabrielle-Andrew and Michael Neiman star in Yentl presented by New Jewish Theatre last May.
Credit Provided | New Jewish Theatre

“We’re very much open to the entire community.”

So what about the next 20 years? Sitzer said she has a simple goal.

“To keep it going,” she said.  

Follow Nancy on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL