Everybody needs a vacation. And if you can get paid while vacationing, all the better. That's why actors line up to work at summer theaters in America's resort areas. But how about something closer to home? It's just possible that local actors are about to become an even more prominent part of the Lyceum Theatre in the tranquil hamlet of Arrow Rock, two and one-half hours west of St. Louis.
Arrow Rock is a postcard-perfect, onetime Santa Fe Trail town where the houses always look as if they were repainted yesterday. (You can't smell the new paint, owing to the strong fragrance from the freshly mowed lawns.) For a community that boasts a population of just 70, there's a heckuva lot going on: antique stores, restaurants, B&Bs, an ice-cream parlor, hiking trails that meander down to the Missouri River. Then there's the historic Lyceum. When this converted Baptist church opened with a four-play season in 1961, audiences sat cramped in old church pews. Forty-five years and more than 300 shows later, the Lyceum mounts an eight-play season that extends until Halloween in a charming 408-seat theater. (The original church is now the lobby.)
Although Arrow Rock is closer to Kansas City, the Lyceum has always enjoyed stronger ties with St. Louis. Surely that's because its founder, Henry Swanson, was a former professor at Saint Louis University. Since 1979 all three successive artistic directors have been Webster University graduates. Michael Bollinger ran the place for 25 years, till 2004. He was replaced by Philip Coffield, who barely had time to appoint an associate artistic director before his untimely death. That associate, Quin Gresham, who graduated from the Webster Conservatory in 1999 and began acting at the Lyceum that same year, was thrust into the top job last summer and now is in his first full season as artistic director.
With such a quick succession of leadership, the Lyceum was on shaky footing. Attendance was on the decline; two years ago a fire destroyed the dormitory. Gresham, 28, wasted no time in addressing what he considered to be the theater's and his own shortcomings. His first act was to divvy up the chores. He created the position of managing director and then hired Steve Bertani, who spent twelve years at Stages St. Louis, including several seasons as general manager, to fill the new job. "The one thing Quin and I discussed early on," Bertani says, "was that we want to set a tone that will make this theater unique for the actors and the audience. We want to do good work, but we also want to have fun."
Gresham changed the season from rotating repertory to stock (one play at a time). He's convinced that the new approach will improve the quality of the productions: "We no longer have five actors who have to play every role in four shows. With rep, inevitably there were always one or two actors who weren't a good fit."
In order to avoid those poor fits, he has resorted to casting by who-you-know. "When I went to college at Webster," Gresham says, "there were great actors in St. Louis. I spent time around those folks at the Rep and admired their work. This is a wonderful opportunity for me to be able to say, 'Hey, let's all work together out here.' Our auditions last February were a who's who of St. Louis theater."
The current eight-play season includes an abundance of local actors, directors and designers. Among the more familiar names: John Contini, David Caldwell, Dunsi Dai, Alan Knoll, Leslie Lorusso, Christopher J. Schmidt and Whit Reichert. This week's production of Dial 'M' for Murder is directed by Joneal Joplin. In October Jim Butz will portray Dr. Seward (with Knoll as Renfield) in Dracula.
How do those visiting actors define the Arrow Rock experience? "You eat, live, breathe theater," says Reichert, who has appeared in three of this summer's shows. "It's back to basics, and back to the love of theater."
"The shows go up very quickly," Knoll adds. "It's what I imagine the old vaudeville circuit must have been like. You're compelled to work ahead. That really appeals to me."
Contini stepped into 1776 when a last-minute replacement was needed: "Quin called me at four o'clock, and I had to be in rehearsal at eleven the next morning. My head is still spinning." Contini only appeared in one Lyceum production, because he had to be back in St. Louis for last week's Gypsy at the Muny. "But if they ask me back next year, I'll be here in a New York minute."
Local auditions for the 2007 season likely will be held in February. Actors who are able to leave town during the summer should be on the lookout. It's a good gig.