After 13 years of producing contemporary plays with close-to-home talent, The New Theatre (TNT) is closing up shop because of financial reasons. "About five years ago we developed a debt, and we haven't been able to get rid of it," says artistic director Agnes Wilcox. "We spent the last five months exploring all our options, and this was the one that seemed most responsible to our community in that we can't incur any more expenses." Whom do they owe? "Everybody and his dog," Wilcox replies. With some $40,000 worth of unpaid bills, Wilcox and the board of directors chose to fold TNT at their August meeting.
Over TNT's 13 years of existence, the company has been known for selecting provocative contemporary works by such artists as David Mamet, Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, Eric Bogosian, Christopher Durang, John Patrick Shanley, Eric Overmeyer and Ellen McLaughlin (McLaughlin's Tongue of a Bird was the last TNT production, performed in June). The choice of material sometimes sparked controversy among conservatives who objected to language, nudity, sexuality, religion the usual suspects. A production of McNally's Tony Award-winning Love! Valour! Compassion! was abandoned in 1997 when Wilcox was unable to secure an auditorium for the play, which featured a coterie of actors playing gay men who were sometimes seen in the buff. In 1998, TNT presented the play at Webster University' Stage III performance hall, to critical and popular acclaim.
With each season, and sometimes with each production, TNT performed in a different venue. The vagabond company was always in search of rehearsal and performing space. One of the more curious venues was the International Arts Complex downtown, where audience members were met at the back of the building, then rode a freight elevator to a vast, empty warehouse space, with risers and tables nestled into one portion of it for Mamet's Speed-the-Plow.
In recent years TNT set out to engage the public in dialogue surrounding issues raised by individual plays. For example, Bogosian's subUrbia elicited pre- and postperformance discussions among psychologists, ministers, counselors, teachers, local teens and audience members on the plight of the latest "lost" generation. This approach too often threatened to denude the theater experience, turning an unnerving drama into a palatable commodity art that is good for you.
But onstage, where it matters most, TNT always gave solid professional productions its failures were always interesting, its successes inspiring. "Our mission was to premiere in St. Louis challenging contemporary theater and to showcase area professional artists," says Wilcox. "That's a challenging mission, and we were committed to it." Now it's up to newcomers such as HotHouse Theatre and Actors Renaissance Theatre who seem to be finding their legs to pick up the ball.