By Sam Clancy, Contributing Writer
For nearly 50 years, Webster University and the Repertory Theatre have been engaged in a mutual agreement. The two organizations shared facilities, time and experiences to help develop student actors throughout the history of the Webster University Conservatory of Theatre Arts. Some of these graduates, which include Tony, Emmy and Kevin Kline award-winners, say they owe their success to the Conservatory and the Repertory Theatre.
“I wouldn’t have a career if it weren’t for Webster and the Rep,” said Norbert Leo Butz, a two-time Tony Award-winner and 1990 Conservatory graduate.
Butz was cast by Artistic Director Steve Woolf in two professional shows as a student: “Noises Off” as a junior and “The Matchmaker” as a senior.
“As a kid from South City, it was the first look I had at professional theater,” Butz said. “I was lucky that Steve saw that I had ability and cast me in those roles.”
Butz has won two Tony Awards for “Best Leading Actor in a Musical” and said the program helped him transition into the professional world.
“When you’re an 18- or 19-year-old kid, you have all this enthusiasm, but you don’t know if you can make a career out of it,” Butz said. “But the program is like an apprenticeship, and you get to follow around the journeymen of the theater.”
This apprentice-style agreement didn’t spring up overnight, but was developed over time.
Long before the Repertory Theatre, Webster College had an educational theater arts program. In the summer of 1961, Sister Marita Michenfelder Woodruff created Webster College’s Theatre Impact. Theatre Impact was a summer theater program with an ensemble of professional and student performers.
This program was the beginning of a new theater philosophy for the school: learning the theater profession from professionals. After five years of success with Theatre Impact, Webster College erected the first facility in the United States to house a professional acting company and an undergraduate theatre arts department: the Loretto-Hilton Center.
The Loretto-Hilton Center was completed in 1966 and was the cornerstone of the college’s new philosophy. Former Vice President Jacqueline Grennan Wexler, who was then known as Sister Jacqueline, promoted this philosophy.
“The Center’s aim is to get our students and our faculty involved in the real work of professional theater as opposed to the mock-heroic world of the educational theater,” Wexler said in a bioagraphy on the Repertory Theatre’s website.
After four years of professional performances by the Loretto-Hilton’s resident company, there was a season break from 1970 until the fall of 1971. No performances were put on because the company’s rotating repertory style was expensive and exhausting for the actors.
When the company started back up, they had a new name and a new agreement. The Loretto-Hilton Repertory Theatre took the stage with a rent-free agreement at the Loretto-Hilton Center with the help of endowments, private donations and ticket sales. This was the beginning of the Repertory Theatre as an independent organization and the beginning of the agreement that still exists between the school and theater.
The rent-free agreement struck in 1971 was contingent on chances for students to work on stage crews and be cast in the professional performances. These opportunities have been key to students’ education in the Conservatory of Theatre Arts.
Butz was not the only member of his family to find success after graduating from the Conservatory. Jim Butz – a Class of 2000 Conservatory graduate – was never cast in a professional performance while he was a student, but his time on crew was influential for him.
“I was ‘on crew’ for the Rep quite a bit, and I found that experience to be very profitable,” Jim Butz said. “It gives a young student-actor a glimpse into the kind of day–to-day discipline that goes into making professional theater.”
This summer, he will star as Prince Hal in “Henry IV” at the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis. Norbert Leo Butz has earned two Kevin Kline awards – which honor outstanding stage performance in St. Louis – for his performances in “Julius Caesar (2006)” and “Hamlet (2010)” in Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.
In addition to his work in the Shakespeare Festival St. Louis, Jim Butz returned to the Loretto-Hilton Center for three different shows over the past eight years. His performances in “Lobby Hero (2005),” “A Number (2007)” and “Freud’s Last Session (2013)” were all performed in the basement Studio Theatre, which Jim Butz described as a challenging space.
“In the intimacy of the studio space, you have to really be locked in and focused,” Jim Butz said. “You also have to be very honest, because the audience is right on top of you and can see every tick and facial expression. When it goes well, it is wonderful; when it goes poorly, it is purgatorial.”
Dean of the Leigh Gerdine College of Fine Arts Peter Sargent said the agreement with the Repertory Theatre and the use of the Loretto-Hilton Center helped make Webster University one of the finest theater arts schools in the country.
“If we played basketball, we would be an elite eight team,” said Sargent. “When you get that far, you never know who the best is, but we are right up there.”