The region’s small and midsize theatre and dance companies offer a wealth of options. You just need to know where to look.
By Alison Gold
“When people say, ‘Oh there’s nothing to do here in St. Louis on a Friday or Saturday night,’ I think they’re crazy,” says Joseph Novak,
After living in several places across the United States, the tech director believes St. Louis’ art scene is particularly vibrant — for those who pursue it. “I think people just aren’t looking outside their box.”
Part of the reason small and midsize arts organizations get overlooked, he believes, is that there is such a vast range of options across the region. “Because there are so many arts groups in St. Louis, I think some tend to go unseen,” he says. “A lot of people are just not aware of their works.”
Novak has worked on a wide range of shows across St. Louis, including Max & Louie Productions’ June production of Indecent, the true story of a Polish-Jewish playwright who, in 1906, pens a controversial script dealing with prostitution, homosexuality, and cultural assimilation. “I think it has a lot of social impact,” says Novak, who hopes to work on similar projects in the future.
“I think the art scene is growing and blossoming here,” he says. “A lot of companies seem to be doing more shows, and the quality just keeps going up.”
Upstream Theater Company is about to start its 15th season, making it one of St. Louis’ longest-running small professional theaters. In fact, Upstream is “the oldest resident company in the Kranzberg ecosystem,” says artistic director Philip Boehm. “We’ve been able to produce plays where St. Louis audiences are the first to see these international works in the United States. That wouldn’t have happened without the Kranzberg Arts Foundation.”
To date, the company has produced more than 40 plays from nearly 20 countries, the majority of which has been the United States premieres from around the globe: Australia, Argentina, Croatia, and more. The company’s goal is to “move you and move you to think.”
This year, Upstream kicks off the season with The Agitators, the story of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass’ 45-year friendship that helped shape American society. Lisa Tejero, a Broadway veteran who’s also done work at The Rep, will direct Mat Smart’s powerful play, Sept. 27-Oct. 13.
Upstream is also expanding beyond St. Louis. This October, it will bring Salt, Root, and Roe (pictured above) — the story of a set of aging identical twins who live by the sea in Wales — to Houston. The theater company produced the U.S. premiere this past spring right here in St. Louis.
“We want audiences to think about what they see,” says Boehm. “It seems to me that theater in the United States, in general, could benefit from more international work.”
Dance has been a part of Ashley Tate’s life since she was a child. “I don’t really know myself without dance,” she says. “I’m a shy person, so it’s my way of being my most expressive self.” She started out with ballet, tap, and traditional dance. Eventually, she joined the St. Louis Rams’ cheerleading squad.
Then, in 2007, she launched her own dance company, Ashleyliane Dance Company. “I wanted to continue giving adults a place to train and dance, including those who worked full-time,” she says, noting that the company rehearses at night. The company started out dancing at festivals and fairs—“anywhere that promoted the arts.”
Now, it spans a professional dance company, an entry program, a summer junior program, and a full drop-in class schedule. Ashleyliane produces at least two main-stage concerts per year and hosts several other events, in addition to partnering with other organizations. “I want to inspire people to know it is hard, but you can make dance a full-time career,” she says. “We’re a small but mighty organization.”
In late October, Ashleyliane will perform Phantom of the Opera while playing up masquerade themes. Then, for Valentine’s Day next February, Ashleyliane will host a hair and fashion dance show focused on the theme of love, which diverges from the typical format of a dance recital in its imitation of a fashion show.
Tate says, “We wanted something interactive and fun for the audience.”
Freedom to Flourish
After working on productions across the country, Andrew Snyder can appreciate what makes St. Louis’ art scene so special. “Everyone is here to support everyone else,” says Snyder, the lighting designer, and stage manager at The Big Muddy Dance Company. “You don’t always get that in other cities. Someone is always there to help, no questions asked.”
On Nov. 9-10, the Inaugural Big Muddy Dance Fest will showcase all the company has to offer. Participants can enjoy classes, workshops, auditions, panel discussions, vendors, and networking with other dancers.
A few days later, on Nov. 14-15, the company will stage a Christmas Carol production — with a contemporary twist. The show will be set against live music of an original arrangement of Tchaikovsky classics, with themes of love and redemption at the forefront.
Then, early next year, Big Muddy will perform Beat Ballads, featuring the music of British composer Joby Talbot, whose work has ranged from a BBC comedy to a ballet of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Moves & Grooves will follow in April and feature the sounds of Henry Saiz, an electronic music artist. The historic Grandel Theatre will play host to both shows.
As Snyder notes, Grand Center Arts District‘s artistic hub offers endless variety: “You can walk in and see anything.”