Trying to help small and midsize performing-arts groups in St. Louis can be like finding that cute little stray dog, taking it home and then discovering it's been beaten for years.
That's the metaphor Joan Bricetti comes up with as she describes the early stages of the creation of the Loop Theatre. She works for one of those stray dogs, the Metro Theatre Company, which consistently makes stage plays for children as if children had minds worthy of good theater. Metro is one of 14 performing-arts companies involved in the "let's build a theater" process. With Joe Edwards behind it, with a strong board, with fundraising efforts nearing the half-million-dollar mark after only a few months, the Loop Theatre is happening. The space midsize performing-arts groups have been crying in the wilderness for is going to be a reality come the fall of '03.
But in the face of opportunity, stray dogs only know the wilderness and only know to cry.
At least in these initial stages of the process, a few parties reverted to their long-held victim status. One look at the first draft of the theater's design, and everything was wrong -- so wrong that these parties called the RFT and complained that the Loop Theatre was a mess: The plan had changed; the price of the construction had doubled; the completion date had been pushed back. There's not enough rehearsal space; there won't be enough rehearsal time between shows or time to build sets. There are too many seats; there are not enough seats. We don't need the Loop Theatre to market our shows, because we have our audience. What's more, the executive director makes too damn much money!
Despite rumors to the contrary, the collaborative spirit is not a special province of the arts.
Bricetti laughs at the idea that she's a voice of reason, but given that she knows how to keep children focused in their seats for an hour or so, she's a good one to talk to about the process of constructing a theater that will make a varied group of artists happy. "Take 15 of anything, particularly artists," she says sagely, "and put them in the same bowl together and mix them around, there's going to be some bubbling taking effect."
Bricetti has heard a number of grand plans over the years -- from the Medinah Temple to the Kiel Opera House -- and none has as much going for it as the Loop Theatre, she says: "There's money, or the strong possibility of money. There's a strong board. It's in place, so let's go swim the English Channel. 'How do we get there from here?' I don't know, but let's get in there."
The original conception of the theater has changed, as has the price tag, but, says Bricetti, "Is the price higher than they expected? Yup. Is it going to take longer? Yup. That's exactly what I expected. Let's all keep our shirts on. Change is going to be inevitable.
"If you want to shoot yourself in the foot," she cautions, "go and complain at this early stage and get all freaky about this whole thing. Everything [the organizers] have done has been on step with a learning process, and all the decisions they've made have gotten better and make really good sense."
One of those decisions has been to scrap the original plan to renovate the Olivet Missionary Baptist Church on Delmar Boulevard, just east of Skinker Boulevard, and instead build a whole new facility at the site. This has increased the cost projection from $2.5 million to $5 million, but the benefits are glaringly obvious. Retrofitting an old church to hold a theater limits the possibilities of what that theater space could be. Building a new theater is more costly, but working from a blank slate means adapting to the artists' needs rather than conforming to the existing architecture.
That is, if those artists can come to an agreement on what those needs are. "It's not going to be the Taj Mahal on the outside with intimate seating and perfect technical capabilities inside -- and it's free! Somehow we have to reconcile ourselves to that fact," says Bricetti.
The person in the dubious position of chief reconciler is Julie George-Carlson, who last March sat down over a paper napkin with Edwards and her husband, Bud Carlson, and conceived of a midsize theater on the Loop. Edwards tagged her executive director of the Loop Theatre, which means that until now she's been principal cheerleader, fundraiser, design coordinator, programmer and liaison to donors, board and artists. Those who think she's not earning her $40,000 salary have been embracing their own poverty for too long.
Sitting down for coffee with her husband at the St. Louis Bread Co., George-Carlson looks as if she's been kept awake by the whining of whipped puppies too many nights in a row. She reports that the city has given the OK to tear down the church and that the board is behind the new plan. On Jan. 22 architect Kevin Flynn of Kiku Obata & Co. showed the plans to the artists, and, says George-Carlson with a Pinteresque pause, "now ... we're in the process of dialogue."
"Trying to come to consensus is certainly a challenge," she adds, which is artspeak for "somebody is being a royal pain in the ass." George-Carlson has to admit that it's a little hard to go into a meeting of artists with reports of positive fundraising activity and a general strong vibe from the community at large, only to hear "This isn't going to work."
Bud, who is serving as board treasurer, has listened as the dialogue has changed from the early conceptual stages, during which the artists acted as "polite audience members," to now, where it looks like this thing is really going to happen. "They're micromanagers, and that's good," he says. "We only have the first-draft drawings of the space, and they have devoured these initial drawings."
Those drawings show a three-story building, set between the Thai Café and the future Del Pietro's. The façade of the church may remain, and there will be room for tables outside. A studio-theater space will sit on the roof of the main building. "We had to build up," explains George-Carlson, "because there's only so much space between the restaurants. But that means now we need two elevators," a freight elevator and one for disability access. "If I had my way, I would have the whole city block; that would cut costs tremendously."
You can't always get what you want, that's for sure, and lots of details need to be worked out, but they inevitably will. Says Bud, "In the end, however the design's going to look, however it's going to cost out, the donors are paying for it. Let's build it the way we want it. It's not that hard."
The artists involved are e-mailing back and forth among themselves and George-Carlson daily. It's a morass of opinion, but a workable theater is going to take shape from the dialogue over the coming months. Angela Culbertson of Atrek Contemporary Dance has volunteered to serve on the building committee, and she's one of those who plays well with others. Culbertson says she can't do better than Brichetti's whipped-dog analogy: "I understand being a part of that dog, and damn it, we need this.
"It's all part of the process. I'm used to taking something that doesn't exist and then building upon that and presenting it. When we make dance, we start from nothing and make something out of it. I think the process is going quite well. I'm excited about it, that's for sure. I'm hip on the whole idea. Somebody want to build a new theater? I'm in. I'm fine with it."
Culbertson, who has just returned from a trip to Las Vegas, lends some perspective: "Cirque du Soleil just had a $95 million theater built just for them. We've got to catch up here."