When Scott Miller founded New Line Theatre in 1991 it was a risky proposition, in more ways than one.
The nonprofit would occupy a tight niche: musicals only. It would also ride the first wave of a national trend, producing work about topics avoided by many in polite St. Louis company: politics, violence, race, sexuality and religion.
Its productions would salute the “F” word, not just that one, but also “flamboyant,” “far-out” and just plain “fun.” And there would be lots of rock ‘n roll.
Season One included “Attempting the Absurd,” perhaps an apt description for Miller’s nascent efforts. The hits kept coming, including 2001’s labor musical “The Cradle Will Rock," and later, 2013’s exploration of the art of drinking, drugs and sex, called “Bukowsical.” With success came local and even national attention including praise from “American Theatre Magazine.”
Accolades alone do not a stable theater company make. Grants, money from Miller’s seven or so books and his frugal lifestyle have kept New Line afloat. But a permanent venue eluded the organization.
“There’s always been this struggle with space, from the first year we were in business,” Miller said.
But that worry is over. St. Louis philanthropists Ken and Nancy Kranzberg are building, to New Line’s specifications, a 150-seat black box theater named Marcelle, to open this fall. It's designed to be New Line's permanent home.
“That just makes me feel so relieved and calm and happy,” Miller said. “Because I’m not going to have to call people and cajole, and that's going to be nice.”
Theater + dance + comedy at Marcelle
So what, exactly, prompted the Kranzbergs to envision Marcelle, on Samuel Shepard Drive, in the old Specialty Supply scaffolding rental building that they own?
“I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time,” Ken Kranzberg began, explaining that there's no similar-sized theater venue in the Grand Center area.
“Now wait a minute, Ken Kranzberg,” his wife chimed in. “You’re leaving out the part where I think Scott Miller is terrific, with his New Line Theatre.”
Ken Kranzberg agreed with that point. The couple also agreed on something else: the name.
“My mother’s name was Marcelle and she was in The Muny Opera, back in 1925,” Ken Kranzberg said. “And our oldest granddaughter is Sophia Marcelle and then we have another granddaughter, Marcelle Lior.”
“It’s a beautiful name [for] a beautiful woman, Ken’s mom,” Nancy Kranzberg said.
Nancy Kranzberg went on to explain that they're both singers. They also love musicals, particularly the edgy work of New Line. She noted the company pushes boundaries like no other, evidenced by its current "Jerry Springer." Still, she said, "We want to be daring here in St. Louis."
Chris Hansen, director of events at the Kranzberg Arts Center and head of operations at Marcelle, is overseeing the construction. The building is 22,000 square feet, 8,000 of which will be renovated as a performing arts space, the rest leased out to other companies. Hansen declined to say how much the project cost.
“New Line’s lighting director Rob Lippert happens to be an architect as well,” Hansen said. “So we contracted with U-Studios and Rob Lippert and his team. And with their intimate knowledge of what New Line needed and their knowledge of this environment, we put together a wonderful set of plans.”
New Line will have first dibs on the black box, paying rent per production. The company will also be able to add a fourth show each year.
“New Line was the 'hook', and we wanted to do it for them, but we needed to put some other things around it to make it fiscally sound,” Hansen said.
Another interesting black-box tenant will be a year-old St. Louis comedy show called “STL Up Late.” It will do about 35 live tapings a year to be shown on its YouTube Channel. Here’s a link to a sample skit, a very St. Loius-y parody on Facebook and race.
“They’re doing a pretty bang-up job,” Hansen said.
‘Adventurous’ and ‘scary’
Money is always a challenge for a small company of any kind. Theater organizations rarely make any money from ticket sales. Marcelle will charge New Line the same “really low” rent it currently pays at the Washington University theater, the old CBC High School, but Miller declined to state an amount.
“It’s always difficult to make the budget balance, particularly with the kinds of shows we do. I mean, we’re never going to do ‘Hello, Dolly!’” Miller said.
Miller had a full-time job during the first few years of New Line, but now heading the company is his only gig, along with his book sales. “I honestly think my secret is I’ve never made very much money,” Miller said. “I make enough to pay the rent and utilities and that’s all that matters.”
HotCity artistic director Marty Stanberry worked in insurance sales up until the time he closed his company late last year.
“I’m at the point where the daily battles of running a theater company have just outweighed the fun,” Stanberry told St. Louis Public Radio at the time.
HotCity performed in its later years at the Kranzberg Arts Center. But that space is too small for New Line's use.
For HotCity, as with almost all small theater companies, money was always a struggle. It was especially discouraging for Stanberry to see larger organizations get the lion’s share.
“The global companies that are here, they give to The Rep and they give to The Fox,” Stanberry said. “But something like HotCity, that delves into the more controversial, the more edgy new-play development, no one wants to give the kind of sizeable money to keep that going.”
Stanberry will direct other organizations’ shows, when he can. “I’m hoping other theater companies will offer me projects,” he said.
Miller praised the work of HotCity, formed 10 years ago from the merger of HotHouse and City Players. He also understands the difficulty of maintaining optimism while facing myriad challenges of keeping a theater company going. Even with the prospect of the new Marcelle black box, Miller said, the effort is “sometimes immense.”
“But I so love what we do. It’s so adventurous but it’s a little scary,” Miller said. “A lot of people say to me, ‘Gosh, I wish I could live your life.’ And I say to them, ‘Yeah, but you don’t want to live my salary.”
Closing in on New Line's 25th year, and having just turned 51, himself, what are Miller’s plans for the future?
“At some point, either I’ll get too tired or there won’t be enough cool stuff,” Miller said. “But that’s not coming any time soon.”
Watch Nancy Kranzberg join Denise Thimes in a duet at this year's A&E awards.
The Kranzbergs are supporters of St. Louis Public Radio.
Follow Nancy Fowler on Twitter: @NancyFowlerSTL