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'Snapshots' sum up a year of family dynamics at the Actors' Studio

William Roth
Provided | St. Louis Beacon archives

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: June 2, 2008 - When the St. Louis Actors' Studio announced its 2007-08 season, the first four shows offered a wealth of range, with all of the titles united by the seasonal theme of "The Family Dynamic." Everything from three-hour dramas to sitcom-like comedies was represented on the debut slate, which included "The Late Henry Moss" and "A Delicate Balance." Though that kind of aggressive, "anything goes" approach might be a surprise for a new company, it's not shocking for a company trying to make its mark in a booming market, led by a trio of seasoned theater professionals.

What caused a few doubletakes among even the staunchest supports of the company, however, was the fifth and final show of the season: an original production that would be workshopped into existence. Listed on the website as "the company's interpretation of the season's theme," the Actors' Studio used Monday-night rehearsal sessions and group writing and were open for any form to emerge. The result is "Snapshots," opening 8 p.m., June 6 at the Gaslight Theatre, and running for three weekends.

One of the company's founders, Managing Director William Roth (left), said the concept came to him as way to stretch both the creativity of his company and to challenge the expectations of his audience. In charge of the effort, he says, are the other two principals of the STLAS, Artistic Director Milton Zoth and Associate Artistic Director David Wassilak.

With the production set to launch soon, after months in the formative stage, Roth says, "It's pretty cool. We're really excited about it. The idea was always to have an original piece at the end. Milt and Dave took it from there. They've spearheaded the writing, the editing and the stage production. I'm just looking forward to seeing it."

As for his subscribers, Roth says they've been curious, to say the least, about the potential for "Snapshots."

The feedback's "been half-half," he figures. "They're dealing with what this might mean. Some are looking at it as creative, and some are skeptical. But what I'm telling people is that even if it's the worst play you've ever seen, you're still only spending $15 or $20."

It's Zoth's task to make sure that the "worst" eventuality doesn't come to pass. And, based on his feelings a week out from the opening, the show has interesting potential.

"This is all based on the Monday night workshops we've held from October through mid-March," Zoth says. "Taking the family dynamic, we're looking at childhood, adolescence, adulthood, marriage, divorce, dealing with age, death. It's a chronology of life. We'll be presenting it in the style almost of a revue, a montage of scenes dealing with the different aspects of life and being in a family."

Taking part in the show is a relatively small cast: Syd Andrews, Anna Blair, Cindy Duggan, Roger Erb, Donna Postel and Tyler Vickers.

Zoth suggests that all were instrumental in creating the piece and all grew from the experience.

"People in the workshop had never had so much fun," he says. "A lot of the scenes are verbatim. I turned to them. While they're not a single playwright, they are people seeing and saying things in their own voices."

A success with the last show would be a continuation of what Zoth says has been a remarkably satisfactory first year. When asked about the challenges of the season he jokes that "we lived through it," though he also has some specific good elements to point toward.

Says Zoth, "The critics have been very good to us, for the most part. We wanted to stay true to the vision, with shows that would showcase the theme. There's lots of good material out there, though you have to look for it. And there's been lots of good feedback from people in the Central West End, who've been able to walk to this theater, which is really nice."

While the members of the Actors' Studio will face their most intriguing test of the season over the next three weeks, they've certainly set themselves up for another ambitious set of outings in 2008-09. That season's schedule will feature eight works, including another cast-written original production at the end. The season's theme will "Power and Politics," partially tying into the presidential election held during the beginning of their run.

And in addition to continued work at the Gaslight Theatre, 356 North Boyle, one show, "The Good Person of Setzuan," will be staged at Xavier Hall on the campus of St. Louis University.

For more details on that season or on tickets to "Snapshots," visit the company's website .

West End Grill and Pub

When William Roth envisioned the possibilities for his expansive, underused building on the edge of Gaslight Square, he imagined several elements to complement his hip graphic agency, The 11.

The first would be a brand new theater space, with two levels and an intimate feel. Added to that, a house company to call that space home. And last, a restaurant and bar to serve as a magnet for the neighborhood, as well as a place to allow theater patrons a spot for a pre-show meal or a post-show drink. All of those ambitious plans have become reality.

First came the Gaslight Theatre, with the St. Louis Actors' Studio as the primary tenant. And corresponding with the fourth show of STLAS’ five-show season came the West End Grill and Pub, a venue owned by Roth, Neill Costello, Benet Schaeffer and Henry Arciniega. The latter three are all veterans of the service or entertainment booking industries, with Costello and Arciniega the day-to-day hands of the operation.

That fact allows Roth to say that beyond his initial concept work, “there’s no need for me to anything other than come in at lunch for a sandwich.”

People who (like Roth) can walk to the Pub, are the primary regulars, so far. Arciniega says that there’s “been so much of a good vibe from the neighborhood. We’ve really built our business through word-of-mouth. Right now, we have a lot of people who are walking to us. And the theater’s helped build a lot of foot traffic.”

Decorated in deep reds, the space has a somewhat spartan feel, save for a couple of amusements along the front window, including a dartboard. Eventually, the walls will be filled with photographs and ephemera from the classic Gaslight Square days. But even now, the space has a warm, no-frills feel, with seating for 80, in the bar and in the dining room.

The restaurant features new American fare, with daily specials, almost always including soups and salads. The bar is full service, with all the expected spirits, a short wine list and a variety of beers, including six on draught. The ambiance depends, in large part, on whether a show is up that night. On theatrical evenings, the place buzzes before and after the show, an intended effect.

“We want people to have a place to discuss what they’ve just seen,” Roth says.

On other evenings, particularly during weeknights, the place is a bit more reserved, with neighborhood residents taking up the bar spaces, maybe watching one of two flat-screen TVs. But just as likely, they’re congregated in small groups, chatting, with the patronage a reflection of the neighborhood: both black and white, gay and straight, and with a distinctly 30s and 40s age range.

“It’s got a laid-back atmosphere,” offers Roth. “And the prices are right. We didn’t want people to question whether they would want come in because they’d just broken the bank. Pretty much, it’s turned out to be everything that we wanted it to be.”

West End Grill and Pub
354 N. Boyle

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