One of the arts-media rites of spring includes a luncheon hosted by the Edison Theatre's Ovations! Series, the bold performing-arts series that has delivered to St. Louis audiences more reasons to walk out in a huff than any other. The woman who put her significant mark on Ovations!, Evy Warshawski, departed to head the Ann Arbor Summer Festival two years ago, leaving behind a great legacy -- and many uncertainties. Would Ovations! maintain its status as the most challenging and broadly inclusive performing-arts series in the city? Would it remain at all? Washington University houses Ovations!, but even though there's been a big enough budget to bring in Laurie Anderson and Spalding Gray, Warshawski persevered with a bare-bones staff and, as one of those former staffers described, lived through persistent "territorial" battles with the performing-arts department.
A year ago, when Henry Schvey had to chair the department and book Ovations!, the spring presentation did not have the one or two blood-quickening must-sees that had become common under Warshawski's tenure. The season was top-heavy with theater, a sign of Schvey's professional predilections, along with the peculiar addition of a classical-music sidebar -- a niche Ovations! had no purpose in filling. The hope then was that this was the best Schvey could do under overburdened circumstances, that Washington University would recognize the series' value and hire someone full-time and give him or her some real support and the interim season would be forgotten.
Charlie Robin was hired as the Edison's managing director last summer. He's young, he's tall, he's a redhead, he sings, he ballroom-dances and he's a local hire: a Wash. U. alum, former operations manager of the Edison, former manager of the a cappella group Pieces of 8, former executive director for Circus Flora. "Local hire" can mean the university took the easy route and didn't look too far from the tree, or it may mean that Robin -- because he knows the territory -- is both an ideal and serviceable fit.
This luncheon preview, then, was highlighting his inaugural season. The local media perused their packets while grazing through a healthful salad, and then Robin took the floor. Not only is Robin tall and redheaded, he is exuberant. "I feel like a kid in a candy store" he enthused. The season brochure is adorned with photos of confectionery, as well as a quote from Forrest Gump: "Life is a box of chocolates. You never know what you are going to get."
"Let go of your cynicism," a guru once said, but it's not always easy.
Then Robin got into describing the season, and the atmosphere turned very un-Gump-like. Ovations! opens with Charlie Victor Romeo, a performance piece that takes its dialogue and dramatic action directly from the transcripts compiled from black-box recorders -- those little gadgets that tape the last interactions in a cockpit as the plane's going down. As Robin described the projections of before-and-after photos of planes, whole and crashed, that come with the scenery, a distinct rustling in the seats was observed among those working the local art beat. Here it was, only the spring presentation, and the critics were already disturbed. Score one for Robin.
Add to that the return of Kronos Quartet, Cyrus Chestnut playing his arrangements of the classic Vince Guaraldi score to A Charlie Brown Christmas, the hot Aquila Theatre Company (Warshawski has them booked for Ann Arbor as well) presenting The Wrath of Achilles and The Tempest, Pilobolus Too, an evening with David Sedaris, the brainy interaction between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in Michael Frayn's award-winning Copenhagen -- and more -- and the redhead really did have something to crow about (if only he'd dump the Gump).
He's getting praise from his most significant partner (in terms of presenting), Sally Bliss of Dance St. Louis, as well. "He certainly was my first choice -- nobody asked me, but I'm just saying in my own mind he was my first choice for the job," Bliss responds forthrightly.
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Steve Woolf has known Robin for 15 years: "I think the season looks good. I think Charlie's a smart guy." Woolf was a little distressed about seeing Copenhagen on the schedule. Anyone who knows Woolf's penchant for smart, talky theater knows Copenhagen is the kind of show he'd want the rights to for a long run at the Rep, rather than being scooped by a touring one-night-stand at the Edison Theatre. "When I finally heard about this and [Robin and I] saw each other, I said, 'It would really help to have some discussion.' When Agnes [Wilcox, of the defunct The New Theatre] was in business, when Evy was here, there was some discussion amongst us about things we were doing or looking at.
"If you haven't been in the trenches, seriously doing it, you might not think that there is discussion that goes on among the entities. We've talked about the fact that we really need to talk about this stuff. There's no bad will here."
Warshawski, contacted in Ann Arbor, delivered her say on the opportunities Robin has before him, as well as the minefield he may have to traverse. Her most alarming observations have to do with the relationship between the Edison and the university. She notes that although Washington University is in the midst of a building boom, there's no groundbreaking going on for a new performing-arts space, even though the limitations of the Edison are notorious. "I was once told that the budget of the Edison was staying flat because all we provided was 'enrichment.' We constantly had to justify our existence there," Warshawki says by fax.
The small staff, the facility, the less-than-prime dates for presentations, the facility, the incremental budget increases each year -- these all are included in Warshawski's words of warning for Robin.
Robin, sitting over a morning coffee he doesn't really need, addresses these concerns without even being asked. "One thing's clear with a 28-year-old facility," he says. "If it was going to continue, it was going to have some significant investment."
Which Washington University has done, lo and behold, to the tune of $300,000 earmarked for the Edison. Robin's getting a larger staff, including a crucial assistant technical director (the strain of the technical-director position has sent talented people running from the Edison in annual spring migrations). Ovations! is getting new office space, "so the operations manager will no longer be at the box-office window," says Robin.
Although the Edison remains under the ominous bureaucratic rubric of "central fiscal unit," Robin explains, the support Warshawski argued for has arrived. A university committee took a year to review the Edison, finding, most importantly, that the Ovations! series was something to keep. Of almost equal significance, Robin and the Edison no longer come under the purview of the performing-arts department. The two are now separate, a determination made in a committee that, curiously, avoided having a member of that department at the table, perhaps to avoid those territorial impulses.
Robin isn't interested in the old baggage. He's planning on creating "in-the-round arena space" on the stage, which the Edison was originally designed for, to help alleviate the terrible sightlines on the left side of the house. He's looking to commission new works and is in negotiations with Anne Bogart and her SITI Company, who just completed this year's series with War of the Worlds. He's talking to Gene Bradford at Jazz at the Bistro about a partnership that would expand jazz offerings in St. Louis. He's ready to bring back the edgier work that appeared in the old Stage Left component of Ovations!, with the possibility of staging intimate works in small black-box spaces emerging about the campus as part of that building boom.
He's got the vision thing too, and he's impressively earnest and committed, without those cynicism issues. "I can't change the way this city is designed," he says. "I am interested in impacting it. The divisiveness and separatism this city is known for do not exist at the Edison. I'm looking for as many connections and collaborations as I can. Art has the power to change, to change the mindset, to change people. To whatever extent I can do that, that's what I'm up to."