Top Ten Reasons St. Louis Theatre Rocks!

People often ask me why I'm not working in New York. The answer is easy. First, I don't work in the commercial musical theatre, so I have no desire to work on or off Broadway, with all the bullshit and artistic compromise that goes along with that. And second, for a whole lot of reasons, I couldn't do what I do in New York. St. Louis offers me unique opportunities because of its size, its long history of musical theatre (thank you, Muny), and its distance from New York commercial theatre.

In other words, I'm not moving to New York. I love it here. And so, here are my top ten reasons why St. Louis theatre rocks...

It would be silly to talk about the St. Louis theatre scene and not start with The Muny (where I spent eight years as an usher), one of our country's biggest and oldest regional theatres, founded in 1919 and still going strong, perhaps stronger than ever, even as it approaches its 100th birthday. Not only is The Muny now producing some of the best work ever seen there, it's also the place where most St. Louisans began their theatre-going lives, where they are introduced to the classics of the American musical theatre. And today, thanks to the leadership of the amazing Mike Isaacson, it's also the place where audiences can see some of the most exciting theatre artists working on Broadway today, including lots of up-and-coming stars. The Muny creates future audiences for every other company in town, and we should never forget that.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is one of the top regional theatres in the country, under the inspired leadership of Steve Woolf. It is incredibly rare that I dislike anything I see at the Rep, and usually I'm thrilled by both their programming (often producing shows fresh off their Broadway or off Broadway runs, as well as world premieres and commissions), and the incredible quality of the artists who work there. Not only do we get to see outstanding, thoughtful, fearless theatre there all season, but it makes me so proud of our city. And even beyond all that, artistic director Steve Woolf is the best spokesman we could possibly have for the theatre community as a whole, and he takes that role – and our community – very seriously.

Ken and Nancy Kranzberg are my heroes. Not only did they create the two theatre spaces in the Kranzberg Arts Center, years ago, but now they've built a new blackbox theatre, the Marcelle, designed specifically for New Line Theatre. And there's no reason to think the Kranzbergs are stopping there... One of the greatest challenges any small theatre company faces is finding a decent performance space for very little money. The Kranzbergs understand that fully, and they're doing something about it.

When I started New Line in 1991, there weren't all that many theatre companies in town. Now, there are about 35 professional theatre companies and about 40 community theatre companies, producing everything from the oldest classics to quite a few world premieres (often by local writers) and local premieres, from the most serious to the most outrageous, from the most conventional to the most experimental. And there are new companies popping up all the time, like our newest, Theatre Nuevo. We also have four theatre festivals now, a very active cabaret scene, and four opera companies. In other words, St. Louis rocks.

Our local theatre community is positively chock full of smart, trained, inventive, fearless theatre artists. I'm always encouraged when I read casting announcements, because so many of the names are new to me – which means our community is constantly growing and evolving, with new blood and new ideas constantly being pumped into the artistic zeitgeist. At New Line, we strive to cast half new people for every show, and we usually achieve that, sometimes even exceed that. There are just that many really talented people here. And the majority of New Liners also work with other companies around town. No matter how many companies are out there, we never think of them as New Line's competitors – no, they are our fellow cross-pollinators. When someone sees really great theatre, particularly if it's for the first time, they will seek out more of it. New Line always buys ads in the programs for the Rep Studio for exactly that reason.

Judy Newmark, theatre critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and all her reviewer colleagues are doing so much to nurture and cheer for our theatre community. When I started New Line, we usually got two or three reviews for each show, because that was how many news outlets reviewed local theatre. Today, we get ten to twelve reviews for each show, because there are now so many outlets for theatre reviews. They are our most fervent supporters and most invested in our continued success. So don't get pissed if they don't like your show...

There's a lot of Arts Press in our fair city, beyond reviews. Judy Newmark does a lot of preview pieces for the Post and its website; KDHX has both Nancy Kranzberg's Arts Interviews, and also Break a Leg!; BroadwayWorld St. Louis publishes lots of local previews, videos, photos, casting announcements, etc.; St. Louis Public Radio's St. Louis on the Air regularly covers theatre; and now there are the Stage Grok podcast (covering both local and national theatre), and the new St. Louis theatre fansite, The Scene Shop (more about that in a bit). And on top of all that, the national Playbill website often publishes articles about St. Louis companies and productions.

The Scene Shop is the latest and by far the coolest resource we have, "your backstage tour of the St. Louis theatre scene," a self-proclaimed fan website, a kind of Entertainment Weekly for local theatre, with news, listings, a calendar, interviews, opinion pieces, a podcast, and lots more. At first, they're just covering professional theatre, but they have plans to expand to cover all local theatre. It may be be just getting started, but already it's such a cool site!

The Regional Arts Commission is the best support system any small theatre ever had. RAC gave New Line our first grant even before we produced our first show. They have always been there for us, and for all the other theatres in town, not just giving out grants, but also offering workshops, panel discussions, office and research resources, even on occasion loans to get a company through a rough patch. RAC's brand new executive director Felicia Shaw has already shaken things up, creating a new funding category for small professional companies, but also re-evaluating everything about RAC's work and our community's needs. Welcome, Felicia!

But none of that matters without smart, excited, engaged audiences, and St. Louis audiences are extraordinary. When I used to co-host Break a Leg!, we would often talk with out-of-town actors working at the Rep, and every one of them marveled at the intelligence and focus of the St. Louis audiences, how closely they listen, how they catch so many subtle moments – the tone of voice is always one of gratitude. At New Line, we get every age group from middle school kids to seniors, at every single show we produce, and they are smart and fully tuned in. There's no greater gift to an actor.

It's true that St. Louis doesn't have as many theatres as Chicago, but we're also a smaller city. What we do have is lots of extraordinary work being done by extraordinary artists, for enthusiastic, growing audiences. All the time. So much theatre you can't possibly see it all. Even the reviewers can't see it all. But there's always something exciting going on, and it's rarely expensive.

So everything's perfect and we're all awesome! Well, no...

All that said, there are three areas in which our theatre community still has work do do. First, many local companies do well in attracting diverse casts and diverse audiences, and they take that work seriously. But many companies do not, and we have to work on that. Our companies, our staff, our casts, and our audiences should look like our community. Second, it remains almost impossible to get any television coverage of local theatre, beyond the Fox and the Muny, and that must change. Why doesn't local news have an arts block, just like their sports block? After all, the Rep has more subscribers than any of our sports teams. And finally, the biggest challenge is to create a new mindset in everyday St. Louisans, so that when a young couple is looking for something to do on a Friday night, going to the theatre is an obvious and cool option. I don't think that's largely true now, but we can change that.

I think The Scene Shop is going to help with all three of these. They've already announced a panel discussion on race and St. Louis theatre on June 15 at the Marcelle. They plan more events like this.

With The Scene Shop, the Kranzbergs, the Regional Arts Commission, and Judy Newmark all on our side, I've never been more optimistic about the future of the St. Louis theatre scene. And you should be too.

Long Live the Musical!