In the good old days, if Hollywood musicals are to be believed, all an aspiring impresario needed to stage a successful show was an abandoned barn and a dream. Of course, St. Louis is strangely bereft of abandoned barns, which means managers of small theater companies have to make do with churches, schools and community centers.
The Ivory Theatre is nicer than a barn and was, indeed, intended to be one of the nicest small theaters in the city. For 145 years, it was St. Boniface Catholic Church in Carondelet. Then the archdiocese sold it to Red Brick Management, which announced last summer that it planned to spend $800,000 to convert the structure into a state-of-the-art theater.
For local theater companies strapped for performance space, it seemed like a godsend. Even before construction was completed, three avant-garde groups — New Line, NonProphet and Hydeware — had signed leases on the Ivory.
Six months later, only Hydeware remains.
"It really sounded terrific," says New Line's artistic director Scott Miller. Over its seventeen seasons, New Line has had six homes, most recently the ArtLoft Theatre on Washington Avenue.
"We do musicals — only musicals," Miller stresses. "We need more space for a band and a bigger cast, and we need a fairly good-sized house, 150 seats, to make our budget balance. Our shows have adult content, so we can't use the Catholic schools or the secular schools."
New Line hoped that the large, secular (and student-free) Ivory would solve its perpetual homeless problem, but the arrangement turned sour almost from the moment the company moved in last August to begin rehearsals for its fall show, Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll.
"We didn't have a good relationship with New Line from the beginning," admits Mike Allen, co-owner, along with Pete Rothschild, of Red Brick. "The construction was supposed to take ten or eleven weeks, but it ran a little later, and New Line had to push their rehearsals back. After that, it was one thing after another, in my view, all small things. The more we did, the more New Line found to complain about."
To Miller, though, the problems weren't just "small things."
"They installed outlet covers on the stage that stuck up so we couldn't do choreography," he complains. "And the outlets were on the front half of the stage. We needed them in the back where the band would be."
Also, the doors to the stage were too narrow, so the crew had to build sets directly onstage. The counters in the dressing rooms were at bar height instead of table height, so actors were forced to stand while they attended to their hair and makeup. Worst of all, the Ivory had only one backstage toilet, which had to accommodate the entire cast and band during intermission.
"It's not like they said, 'Let's make this difficult,'" Miller says. "It's just that there was no one involved in any aspect who understood theater."
If Red Brick's lack of understanding of the requirements of a functioning theater irritated New Line, Miller's lack of understanding of construction equally irritated Allen.
"We built the theater in an old church with state and federal historical tax credits," Allen explains. "The rules were that we couldn't change the way the building looks. We had to build within the confines of the church space. Scott Miller admitted he had never been involved in building anything. We built what we thought was appropriate. Scott saw the plans. He never complained until he got in there."
The tensions between New Line and Red Brick during Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll might have been attributed to opening-night jitters, but they only escalated during New Line's second show at the Ivory, Assassins.
When the company prepared to move in for rehearsals in February, it discovered that the theater was full of sets and props from the previous show, the Ivory-produced A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, which had closed the night before. Allen says the Ivory management removed the Patsy Cline material the following day.
The NonProphet Theater Company, which mounted two plays at the Ivory, confronted similar obstacles. They, too, took possession of a messy theater and had to spend rehearsal time cleaning. The Ivory's management conducted tours during a dress rehearsal that were so loud, claims Tyson Blanquart, NonProphet's managing director, the actors had to stop performing.
During the week between performances of NonProphet's second show, second, Blanquart says, NonProphet agreed to allow another group to use the theater, provided it left the second set undisturbed. In return, Red Brick would reduce the rent.
"When we came back to the theater," Blanquart writes in an e-mail, "we were met with a truly disturbing sight: Our set — which was screwed into the floor — had been moved. Not only was it moved, but it was broken. There was broken glass on the stage and in the carpet in the house. There was trash literally all over the theater."
Blanquart says the company also never received its rent reduction. "We attempted to air concerns with the owners," he writes, "but the owners of the property refused to rebuke management for any of the problems that we'd had."
The Ivory's managing director, Donna Perrino, could not be reached for comment.
Hydeware, the third company to rent out the Ivory, completed its first production there two weeks ago and will open its second, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, next weekend. Ember Hyde, the director, declined to comment about the state of the theater. Instead, she writes in a recent e-mail: "I don't think it would be fair to Hydeware, the Ivory, or any potential audience members, to have any preconceived notions about any aspect of the space or possibly our performances."
The Ivory has not been especially hospitable to audiences, either. The theater's stadium-style seating keeps viewers suspended over the stage and seems more suited to a concert than a play, says Riverfront Times theater critic Dennis Brown. "Both at second and Assassins, I felt removed from the production."
In the end, both New Line and NonProphet have decided to pick up stakes and go elsewhere. "We agreed it was in their best interests for them to move out," says Allen.
NonProphet has now returned to its previous home, the Tin Ceiling. New Line will stage its next show, High Fidelity, at Washington University's A.E. Hotchner Studio Theatre in June, but will be homeless again come fall.
This is not the first time a St. Louis theater has disappointed its tenants. In 2005 the Soulard Theatre lost all five of its resident companies. But the theater did not remain dark for long; other groups took over the space.
"The great problem in this town is performance space," Brown says. "No question about it. All these vagabond companies are looking for a home."