December 2, 2016

The Repertory celebrates 50 years

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis has changed in many ways, both artistically and financially, as it celebrates its fiftieth season.

Production Manager Edward Coffield has seen the company grow in his 25-year tenure. He has seen a stage hold a swimming pool. He was there when Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Lanford Wilson premiered his new play at the Rep. He had a goat live outside his office for a production.

“I was a goat handler there for a while,” Coffield said. “It was pretty crazy.”

Dean of Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts Peter Sargent has been there since the beginning as resident lighting designer. He is the only person still involved who has been these since the beginning.

“What’s happened over the period of time is that the quality of the productions has increased significantly,” Sargent said. “We’ve improved facilities, we’ve improved resources, and we’ve improved the number of people on staff.”

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis was founded in 1966. The company started out as Webster College’s Theatre Impact, an ensemble of professional actors and students who performed classical plays in an outdoor summer theatre run by the theatre arts department from 1961 to 1966.

Theatre Impact’s popularity grew when plans for a better year-round stage started coming together. Marita Michenfelder Woodruff (who was responsible for the program along with Wayne Louie) wanted a different space. A new concept of theatre education was being tested at Webster College, where undergraduate students and professional actors worked together. What was needed was a new stage, so Theatre Impact tested one.

The stage was built in the exact dimensions proposed for the Loretto-Hilton Center for the Performing Arts. Newspapers started reporting on Webster College dedicating an art center, which brought eyes and ears from outside the region.

The new company, which consisted of theatre department faculty, opened on July 1, 1966. In the beginning, a different play was being performed each night. The actors were consistent, but the roles changed.

Sargent said a rotating repertory challenged the actors and was labor-intensive.

“It’s a very significant area of development and training,” Sargent said. “There are still theaters that still do rotating rep.”

The rotating repertory model ended after three full seasons due to high costs and exhausted actors. Sargent said the current model of performing one show for a period of time allowed for shows to be ideally cast.

“That quality on the stage is going to be improved than when you’re trying to do it with a company, unless you’ve got a huge company that’s very, very expensive,” Sargent said.

Then college president Jacqueline Grennan resigned in 1969. At the urging of financial advisors, the college shut down operations of the company before the end of the season. Sargent said there would be some nights where there were more actors on stage than there were audience members. The company took a year off.

New president Leigh Gerdine proposed a theatre company independent from the college be formed. The company reopened in 1971 as the Loretto-Hilton Repertory Theatre. It was an uphill climb, with the 1971-1972 season racking up some unpaid bills and directors coming in and out as seasons went on.

It was when a younger theatre manager, David Frank, was brought in 1972 that a mission to achieve a blend of contemporary and classic led to a rise in subscriptions.

His tenure also saw hardships as the years went on in both subscriptions and reviews. After eight years, Frank resigned.

Steven Woolf took over as artistic director and still holds the position today. Sargent said Woolf really understood the St. Louis audience and brought in new and challenging work.

When Sargent came to Webster College in 1966, he promised his wife that he would only stay for two years. That did not happen because he said the job never got boring. Even after half a century, he still finds excitement in the challenges.

“You don’t get that redundant activity,” Sargent said. “There’s always something new coming along to screw you up or keep you going and you’ve got to be thinking in new directions.”

Sargent also said that because the Repertory sets such a high standard, he sees the students in the Conservatory working to meet that standard.

“It’s more opportunity for the students to be in the productions,” Sargent said.

Coffield said he is incredibly proud of where the Repertory has gone in its 50 years. In terms of the future, Coffield said the Repertory has an obligation to continue its growth and to continue to serve the St. Louis community.

“I can’t imagine living or working anywhere else at this point,” Coffield said.

The fifthtieth season opened with the Stephen Sondheim musical Follies, which Coffield said is one of the best the Repertory has produced. The show goes until Oct. 2. A gala will be held Sept. 24 featuring actress Bernadette Peters. For information, visit www.repstl.com.

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