The responses to my request were varied. "Good idea," one artistic director replied, "good for the theater community." But others were more wary. One AD gave me a tongue-lashing for even having proposed the idea. I was chastised with words like "wedge" and "divisiveness." Indeed, all this week's contributors sought assurance that I would make it crystal-clear in my introduction (as I hope I am here doing) that they were not favoring one actor over another. But most echoed St. Louis Rep artistic director Steve Woolf, whose e-mail reply stated, "This will be fun."
Here, then, are some of the responses:
Philip Boehm, Upstream Theater: Farshid Soltanshahi has graced many Upstream shows, but his performance as a statue in El Concierto was truly memorable, especially considering that this particular statue was of John Lennon in a park in Havana. Sitting in rehearsal with Beatle Bob coaching Jerry, Jerome, Norman, Peter and Terrell as Beatle wannabes, or listening to Briston, Isabel, Jane and Thomasina practice backups for "Nowhere Man" — how cool was that? While the playwright in Cuba kept eyes fixed on St. Louis...with the idea that theater can bring more than a statue to life.
Ron Himes, the Black Rep: One of my favorite collaborations last season was working with Sharisa Whatley, who created the title role in Sarafina. She approached the role without fear. Six grueling hours a day for four weeks — text work, dialect, singing, choreography, the building of a character so foreign to her that it was miraculous to watch her daily development as she moved closer and deeper to becoming Sarafina, the courageous young South African student/activist. Her intensity and commitment were inspirational. The audience only gets to see the finished product. But the beauty of her work in the rehearsal hall is the reason I am still in the theater.
Erin and Larry Mabrey, Avalon Theatre Company: It was very important to us that the cast of Little Bosnia include local Bosnian actors. We were thrilled that one-third of the actors who auditioned were of Bosnian descent. In the role of a Bosnian woman who has suffered a tragic existence, we took a risk by casting Elma Mujanovic, an actress with no stage experience, whose character only spoke in Bosnian. Her rehearsal process began as measured and self-conscious, but in time she blossomed and gave a truly moving performance. Audiences were mesmerized by her scenes. You could hear a pin drop each time she was onstage.
Dennis M. Reagan, the Muny: Although he had never before performed at the Muny, from the moment Eugene Fleming first walked through the gate onto the back lot to begin rehearsing his role as Mr. Magix in My One and Only, it was as if Eugene had been here all his life. Not only was he a consummate professional onstage, delivering a performance of deceptive ease, but backstage he was a delight. He volunteered to give a master class for the Muny Teens. In a phrase, Eugene is a prince.
Kathleen Sitzer, New Jewish Theatre: Although I felt that many of the performances at NJT this year were extraordinary, I must single out Bobby Miller's subtle and hilarious work in The Tale of the Allergist's Wife. At one performance, when Bobby bit down on a toothpick in the Chinese dumpling fed to him by Lavonne Byers and broke his tooth, he not only continued without pause, but kept the broken tooth in his cheek until he could leave the stage — and no one even saw the blood. A true professional.
Many artistic directors found themselves unable to limit their praise to one performance. Deanna Jent at Mustard Seed Theatre singled out the three actresses who rotated in two roles as the Church Ladies in Smoke on the Mountain: "With nary a scripted line, Ann Cailteux, Leslie Wobbe and Kirsten Wylder proved that active listening and honest reactions are as compelling as any dialogue. How difficult is it to sit on a hard church pew and frown for two hours? More so than you'd think, as I discovered one night (during a cameo appearance as Miss Martha), giving me additional admiration for the consistently engaging (and exhausting!) work of these three women."
Others singled out the casts of two-actor plays. Gary Bell at Stray Dog Theatre offered encomiums for the "riveting" work accomplished by Kim Furlow and Donna Weinsting in Marsha Norman's 'night Mother. ("Cheers to you, ladies!" Bell wrote.) Joe Hanrahan at the Midnight Company praised the cast of Bill C. Davis' Mass Appeal: "'It's like two one-man shows.' That's what I told two actors as we started work. Both would be onstage virtually the entire time, sharing the storytelling, the emotional highs and lows. Steve Springmeyer and Travis Hanrahan worked brilliantly together. Both played to, and owned, the room — in this case the massive, magnificent Christ Church Cathedral. Spirited performances, an inspiring performance."
Others hailed the work of even larger casts. "How can I possibly choose the performance of just one person from Go, Dog, Go! asked Carol North at Metro Theater Company. "Go, Dog, Go! was an ensemble show in every way. Here's to the whole litter!"
When the Rep's Steve Woolf, who initially had predicted that making this selection would be fun, submitted his response, he added, "It was a harder assignment than one would think." Well, it's true: "It's not easy to single one actor out over another, even when you're not an artistic director. Although the St. Louis Rep presented many showy performances in its eleven productions this year, Woolf devoted his space to an entire cast: "The whole ensemble of Twelve Angry Men — twelve jurors and the bailiff — came together to deliver an engrossing performance of a story much of the audience at first believed they knew backward and forward. In a play full of contention, humor, bald prejudice and grudging respect, the entire cast used their behaviors, postures and quirks to create a group of real, flawed human beings. Audience members were riveted and often expressed their shock at seeing a reflection of a society that was not from the distant past."
Ultimately, I had to be impressed by our artistic directors' insistence on inclusiveness, for it seems to portend an innate understanding that our area theaters need to unite together in the coming year. Surely the most influential theater event of 2008 did not occur on any stage; rather, it was the tanking of the economy. When dollars become scarce, theater is sure to take an early hit, is likely to be regarded as a frill rather than the necessity it is. We can all expect a lot of belt tightening in 2009. When that occurs, a sense of ensemble in the theater community will be more critical than ever.