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St. Louis Actors Studio | Political Theater With a Youthful Hook

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theat_stlas.jpgThis year, the company hopes to hook patrons with notion of "Power and Politics," with eight shows all given over to those dynamics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last season saw the debut of the St. Louis Actors Studio, a theatrical collective combining the talents of founding members William Roth, Milt Zoth and David Wassilak, along with a host of technical mainstays. The trio set about creating a first season of five plays, all grouped under a theme of familial relations, with productions that veered from the clearly dramatic to the overtly comedic; even plays with some years on them were given a contemporary feel and the entire season seemed to speak to American family realities of the late '00s.

This year, the company hopes to hook patrons with notion of "Power and Politics," with eight shows all given over to those dynamics. Seven of the productions will be housed at the intimate Gaslight Theatre in St. Louis' Central West End, while a single, larger production will be crafted at nearby Saint Louis University. Along the way, the group hopes to ignite conversation about both "Power" and "Politics," with shows running from September (Jean Anouilh's Antigone) through June (an original STLAS production, which will be workshopped throughout the season).

All the works have a political tinge. The opener, for example, is billed thusly: "St. Louis Actors' Studio opens its Power and Politics season on Sept. 19 with Antigone by French playwright Jean Anouilh." This adaptation of the Greek tragedy is set in modern times. As the STLAS preview notes, "Originally produced in Nazi-occupied France, Antigone's tragedy is not based on her inability to change her fate; rather it is founded on her futile struggle against the all-powerful state."

Antigone is quickly followed by Tim Collins' one-man show in October, A Fire as Bright as Heaven. Says the STLAS site: "Since 2001, Tim Collins has been writing and performing his own comedic, political, multi-character one-man shows. And now he's bringing his newest full-length tour de force to the Gaslight Theater for two weeks only. Collins will present A Fire as Bright as Heaven -- a play that pits the individual amid the alienation and anxieties of national and global realities in the 21st century."

Despite the heady nature of the productions, Roth hopes that STLAS is confident that a broad audience will catch onto the action, as well as the already-theatre-going audience.

"When I founded the theater last year, we set both season's themes," says Roth, who appears in Antigone. "Last season, we compiled lists for things that might work for this season and we spent months and months reading scripts and saying ‘yes' to this and ‘no' to that, or ‘this has too many people in it.' This was a long and arduous process, frankly. Luckily, we eked it out."

One of the neat things about this season's early response, Roth says, is that the season-opening Antigone has drawn a strong response among local educators, with a variety of schools (including Riverview Gardens and Thomas Jefferson School) buying blocks of tickets for students in their theatrical and literature clubs and programs.

"I can tell you that if Antigone is any indication, it's going well," says Roth of this year's ticket base. "We have added three performances to that show's run to accommodate high schools that are interested in bringing a ton of students. Most of our shows have been 11-show runs, but we're adding three matinees for them, with Thomas Jefferson coming out to a regular Saturday-night show.

"I think when you put a season together, you attract different groups," he continues. "You have a subscriber base that will come back and see anything you do. But on the academic side, this year's program has helped. If you get kids used to coming out to the theater, it's nice. You get them used to leaving the house, or leaving their school to actually attend a show in the theater, whereas a lot of times, schools have touring programs come to them. This will certainly help us build a younger demographic. We have a wide breadth of plays that go all across the board, but with the restaurant next door (The West End Grill and Pub) and the talk-backs afterward, we hope this is something they'll want to see on their own."

From an organizational perspective, Julie Layton does much of the heavy lifting for the STLAS. As an employee of Roth's The 11 design agency, she attends to many of the behind-the-scenes needs of the theatrical company, which has a symbiotic relationship to the neighboring The 11. But she's also an actress and will appear in this season's Back of the Throat, a play that appeal to her because of "the very topical, controversial nature of the show. It's interesting to me, because it's relevant to society today."

(For those looking ahead to Back of the Throat, here's the gist of the performance: "Since Sept. 11, 2001, many Arab-American playwrights have gained prominence as they attempt to expose their reality in light of the World Trade Center attacks and the implementation of the Patriot Act. Yussef El Guindi's play about an Arab-American writer under Homeland Security scrutiny brings to light America's fears and prejudices, and exemplifies how this collective paranoia allows us to infringe upon our own citizens' rights -- demonstrating that history has a talent for repeating itself.")

Citing the relevance of her own show, Layton says that the entire run of eight shows can claim contemporary relevance, with themes that should provoke not just an ovation at the end of the evening, but full discussion afterward.

"What's interesting about all the plays of this season is that you could replace names and times and they're still very relevant" to today's audiences, she says. "I don't know if the [early school] response will carry over into other shows, but they're all quite educational. I don't see why students wouldn't want to come see them and how they relate to today's society.

"It's good that they're being exposed to this," she adds. "I know from my experience as a kid, I enjoyed seeing theater come into my school, but nothing beat being in a real theater seat. It felt magical. But then again, I wanted to be in theater. But it does impress in you a certain kind of etiquette, a certain way to behave."

And, hopefully, a certain way of questioning the world through the prism of the arts. | Thomas Crone

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While the STLAS season is obviously tied to an American Presidential election cycle, local theater-goers of all ages will benefit from the bold programming through the end of June '09, when the final production goes live. A special note should be made of the final performance, simply titled, for now, "STLAS Original Production." That work "will be the result of collaborative workshops in which actors, directors and writers are encouraged to explore Power and Politics in the form of improvisation, scene work, monologues, and writing. Through this process, we thrive, hone our craft, and continue to grow as artists."

When group members get together to discuss politics over lunch -- at the restaurant neighboring their venue -- they're pretty bold in their statements. We have a feeling that a lot of those opinions will be given voice in this final production.

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For ticket and production info on the shows: http://www.stlas.org/season.html.

For info on the affiliated West End Grill: http://www.westendgandp.com/.

Press from the STLAS debut season: http://www.stlas.org/press.html.

And a spotlight on young actors working the boards in St. Louis: http://www.stlbeacon.org/arts_life/theater_dance/spotlight_on_young_actors.

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