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Stages: Consistent growth means education now combines with productions

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 4, 2013 - As its 27th season nears its end, Stages founders Jack Lane and Michael Hamilton reflect on how the company evolved from a fledgling theater company that held rehearsals in small rooms at the top floor of the Reim to one that has a full-time staff of 30 (plus 40 part-time instructors) and now is housed in a state-of-the-art, 22,000-foot facility in Chesterfield.

In 1987, Lane and Hamilton started to bring their dream to reality. They started a theater company -- one focused on presenting musicals during the summer, which happened to overlap with the season of the prestigious Muny Theatre in Forest Park.

In addition, as the home base for what they decided to call Stages St. Louis, Hamilton and Lane chose the Robert G. Reim Theater in Kirkwood Park – an intimate venue that holds a little less than 400 people.

At the time, Hamilton had recently returned to St Louis from New York, where he had been working to make a name for himself as a dancer on the Manhattan theater scene. Hamilton was also interested in directing musicals as well as dancing. Lane, a native New Yorker, was also eager to pursue the dream of starting a theater company – but with a focus on the production aspects.

They teamed up and -- with a $50,000 budget for year one and eight part-time, seasonal employees -- they put together the first Stages season. It consisted of 24 performances of “Dames at Sea,” “Snoopy” and “I Do! I Do!” that attracted a total audience of about 3,000 people.

With a strong commitment to presenting quality productions featuring a mix of professional actors from St. Louis and around the country, Stages kept growing.

During its second season, Stages achieved its first sellout performances with “A Chorus Line.” Now, as the 27th season of Stages wraps up with performances of “My Fair Lady” from Sept. 6-Oct. 6, capacity houses are the norm at the Reim. This year, Stages will present 124 performances that will attract an overall audience of nearly 50,000.

Performing Arts Academy

The annual budget for Stages is now pushing $4 million, and Stages runs its own Performing Arts Academy, which started in 2004. It also presents outreach programs such as its Urban Arts Initiative to underserved students in the area.

In 2005, Stages added an annual Theatre for Young Audiences musical to its season. (This year’s show was “Cinderella.”)

Although Stages still presents its shows at the Reim Theatre in Kirkwood, the Arts Academy, administrative offices and rehearsal facilities are all in place at the new Kent Center for the Arts in Chesterfield – the former Kol Am building.

During a recent interview in the multi-functional space that serves as a full-size rehearsal space for Stages productions – and can also serve as a black box theater for smaller presentations – Lane and Hamilton talked about the company's move from Kirkwood, finding the Kol Am facility, and the nest steps for Stages – and themselves.

For both Hamilton and Lane, the decision to move the Stages offices to Chesterfield from Kirkwood was difficult. As Stages grew, they envisioned a combined new theater and support facility in Kirkwood near the intersection of Big Bend and Kirkwood roads.

But they said the plan fell through because of difficulties gaining approval from Kirkwood. Eventually, Stages moved its offices to Chesterfield – with a long-term goal of building a new theater there as well.

A new strategy

The economic downturn several years ago slowed that process, and eventually Lane, Hamilton and the Stages board of directors developed a new strategy.

“The original dream was always to stay in Kirkwood,” states Lane. “But when that didn’t work out, the city of Chesterfield stepped up and it has been amazing.

“But it was clear that, although we had come far in raising funds for a new theater, it was going to be difficult to achieve. Thankfully, we have a dynamic board, and a couple years ago we all decided to let go of that dream, see what we needed and find a way to get there.”

The new focus was to search for an existing facility that could be converted to house the administrative offices of Stages and meet the growing space needs of the Performing Arts Academy.

“So when this building became available,” Lane says, “we did a lot of research and decided the space would be perfect. And the board was 100 percent behind that decision.”

Stages moved into the Kent Center in April, and it’s now bustling with activity. In addition to Academy classes held in the building’s three dance studios, two acting studios and two voice studios, there’s a multi-purpose student lounge, a theater box office and administrative offices – and the performance/rehearsal space where we’re seated, which is blocked out for “My Fair Lady.”

“The plan is to use this space as a black box theater,” says Lane. “We want to present new musicals that are being developed, and give them initial chances to be performed in this kind of intimate setting.”

“To my knowledge, I don’t think there are any theater companies in the area that own their own building,” adds Hamilton. “And with this black box theater space, we now have a performance space in addition to the Reim Theatre in Kirkwood – and a real rehearsal space as well.”

Responsibility for the future

For both Hamilton and Lane, the new space has stimulated pride and a sense of accomplishment for what Stages has become over 27 years. But it also creates a sense of responsibility – for both the immediate and long-term future.

“When Stages began, most of the theater companies in town that currently exist weren’t around,” Hamilton says. “There was the Rep, and the Muny and the Black Rep. We’ve managed to stay around, and we’re incredibly happy that we’ve now got a home that allows us to expand our artistic footprint in an area that we love.”

“There’s also a sense of reaching a threshold,” Lane says. “It’s a new phase, and it definitely makes us feel grown up. Every day I walk in here I feel incredibly lucky. I feel like now we’ve made it through college finally and in graduate school. And it also makes me want to make sure we do all we can to keep Stages strong and growing.”

Lane and Hamilton also realize that change and transition have to take place in any organization that wants to be around for generations.

“The very nature of art is that it’s demanding and it’s hard,” says Hamilton. “And it’s very rare that you’re in the same place more than 10 years. In St. Louis, Steve Woolf at the Rep is a rare example – besides the two of us. And you look around the country and it’s even more rare. So we definitely appreciate all of this.”

“I know that I also want to do other things at some point,” Lane says. “I’d like to get more involved in producing theater in New York and nationally. But I also want to know that when I walk away the footprint for Stages is as solid as it can possibly be. Anyone who creates a company knows that it takes on its own life. It grows from adolescence to maturity and the founders eventually step away.”

“But in the meantime, we’ve got rehearsals of “My Fair Lady,” says Hamilton with a smile. “The show opens Sept. 6!”

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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