Earlier this year, two notable St. Louis theater companies decided to merge, setting off a flurry of speculation and a wave of anticipation. City Theatre, who had been a mainstay of the St. Louis theater community in one form or another for over 75 years, and HotHouse Theatre, the junior of the two companies which was founded in 1997, decided to join forces, with the sole purpose of setting St. Louis ablaze with exciting theater.
The reasons behind the merger—and its likely impact on the St. Louis theater scene—were a hot topic (no pun intended) on various theater discussion lists for the better part of four months. In theatrical terms, this news was the equivalent of, say, the Cardinals merging with the Kansas City Royals.
I recently sat down with Margeau Baue Steinau, who was the Associate Artistic Director for City Theatre and now holds the same title with the new company, to find out how the notion of a merger came about, and what the implications of such a union could be.
How did the idea of merging your two companies come about?
Actually, the idea came from a random audience member who was a patron of both companies. They suggested after a show one night that, since City Theatre and HotHouse did similar material, it would be a good idea to put our heads together. So we [City Theatre Artistic Director Ted Gregory, and HotHouse’s Artistic Director and Managing Director Marty Stanberry and Donna M. Parrone, respectively] got together to see if it would be feasible. We decided around Christmas 2003 to approach our Boards of Directors with the proposal, and they each voted unanimously for the merger. We then worked at it for about five months after that, ending with the merger announcement in June of this year.
How did you go about selecting plays for your inaugural season?
We read about 450 plays between all of us, and our dramaturge Steve Harrick helped us whittle that down to a short list. At that point, we just selected the ones that we had strong feelings about. Steve has those gut feelings about certain plays, and his instincts really helped us.
Gregory and Stanberry are both acting as Artistic Co-Directors. Were you worried about a potential ego clash when discussing the merger?
Not at all. Ted and Marty are both great ADs, and they’re was never a worry about egos. They’re different enough to bring something new to the table, but alike in that they respect the other’s opinions and vision for the company.
There had been some speculation on the various theater discussion boards about how this would affect your funding, and how many shows you would do. What will be the effect, and what kind of shows can we expect?
By joining our companies, allows us to pool our resources and offer St. Louis audiences the same number of shows, if not more, than would normally be produced by the two companies in a given year. We plan on having four to six Mainstage shows a season, and at least two Greenhouse shows. The Greenhouse series will serve as HotCity’s second stage, and is designed to nurture new scripts and new theatrical experiences. In our inaugural season, we will actually be producing ten shows. We have seven Mainstage shows planned and three Greenhouse shows this season.
As far as the type of material, we plan on giving St. Louis audiences a choice between spicy and mild shows. We have The Exonerated coming up first, followed by our revival of I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change! These two shows are polar opposites and could not be more different in tone.
City Theatre originally did I Love You last May. What was the initial reaction to the show, and did that influence you to revive it under the new entity?
Oh, definitely. The last weekend of the show we had to turn people away each night. We even had to extend the run because we were 80 percent sold out by opening night. It really ended City Theatre’s season on a high note, and I think will start off HotCity’s season with a bang.
How will the merger affect your hiring of Equity actors?
When we merged, our funding was bumped up simply by pooling our resources. We’re actually going to be able to offer more Equity contracts this season than either of the two companies were able to offer before. I think St. Louisians believe that having an Equity actor in the cast raises the stakes a bit. So it’s going to work out to everyone’s advantage. We’re able to offer more professional actors jobs, and the audiences benefit by getting to see top talent.
Another plan that has been getting attention is your Education Outreach program. What will that entail?
Our newest staff member is Christopher Mannelli, and he’s heading up this program. The goal is to offer theater education to all junior and senior high schools in the metro area. Chris will be doing curriculum-based residencies with schools to introduce students to the world of theater. He’s putting together an issue-oriented touring show that will include talk-back sessions, workshops, and classes on various areas of theater. We hope to have an audition process in line by next summer, and we’d also like to see this lead to an introduction to playwrighting for students.
What do you think about the explosion of the theater scene in the last few years, and where do you see it heading?
It just came out of nowhere! There have been more new companies just in the last five years than all the companies combined in the previous ten years. I think that it shows that St. Louis is a great city for theater. I think that, in the future, Equity actors will become the standard, but with a balance. There’s enough talent in this city so that even those people who choose not to join the union will still be able to find great roles.
Where would you like to see HotCity ten years from now?
First and foremost, we’d love our own building. We’re hoping to find ourselves in a situation like the Steppenwolf Theatre of Chicago, where we actually have a place all to ourselves. In the next 12 months, the main focus is going to be the Education Outreach program for students, and then hopefully training and education for theater professionals. We also have a goal to be able to bring in nationally known directors, and also to be able to export our talent across the country.
Get a full account of HotCity Theatre’s inaugural season and more information on the company by visiting its Web page at www.HotCityTheatre.org.
Tyson Blanquart is the Theater Editor for Playback St. Louis.