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What Makes St. Louis a Flourishing Ecosystem for New Plays and Cooperative Production Models

In the Missouri forest, the morel mushrooms, small dogwoods, and giant oaks may seem like separate entities, but beneath the surface, they are interconnected through a microscopic fungal web known as a mycorrhizal network. This network enables older trees, deeply rooted in the soil, to share resources with younger and smaller trees. Similarly, in the thriving new play ecosystem of St. Louis, Missouri, theatre artists have established a symbiotic and supportive community. Just like a forest, St. Louis new plays flourish through a concealed but collaborative network, allowing artists to sustain themselves via mutual support.

The importance of this unseen collaboration is multifaceted. Because St. Louis is on the edge of a deep red state not known for its support for the arts, St. Louis theatre artists utilize connection to keep the new play ecosystem healthy. The original plays created in the region would not be possible without this symbiosis. The low barrier of entry thanks to mutual aid increases the inclusivity of St. Louis theatre. The result? A robust new play development ecosystem in St. Louis even during the post-2020 downturn many theatres are experiencing. As the head of the closest MFA program in playwriting, housed in the School of Theatre and Dance at Southern Illinois University (SIU) in Carbondale, and as artistic director of Contraband Theatre in St. Louis, I have a vested interest in this ecosystem and its collaborative production model.

A group of actors in large dresses stand on a staircase onstage.

SATE's production of Brontë Sister House Party by Courtney Bailey at the Chapel. Director: Keating Pictured Lower Level: Rachel Tibbets. Upper Level from left to right: Cassidy Flynn, Maggie Conroy, Bess Moynihan Design by Bess Moynihan and Liz Henning. Photo by Joey Rumple.

St. Louis Shakespeare Festival: A New Play Hub

Within healthy forests the largest trees are called “hubs,” and the mycelium network allows them to distribute their resources. Similarly, at the center of much new play development is the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival. Though a Shakespeare company may not be where you’d expect to find new plays, the Festival’s artistic director, Tom Ridgely, states, “Shakespeare was writing new plays for his place and time, so supporting new plays is very much in line with our mission.”

The Festival has three programs that result in new plays: TourCo, Shakespeare in the Streets, and the Confluence Writer’s Project. TourCo creates stripped-down versions of Shakespeare plays for six actors that tour to area parks and perform at no cost to audiences. Shakespeare in the Streets creates new scripts related to a Shakespeare source but focused on a St. Louis neighborhood. Initiated in 2012 by then-artistic director Rick Dildine, the community-oriented program has evolved with contributions from artists such as Nancy Bell, Jacqueline Thompson, Alec Wild, Justin Barisonek, and Jennifer Wintzer. The Festival’s community engagement and education manager, Adam Flores, currently oversees the effort. Flores trained with Cornerstone Theatre in Los Angeles and describes Shakespeare in the Streets as making theatre “with people for people” in the community. Flores emphasizes the importance of asking “who is this play serving?” ensuring these new plays’ importance to St. Louis.

Everyone asked her, “How can I connect you to what you need?”

Finally, and most clearly a new play development program, the Festival's Confluence Writer's Project, which launched in 2019 and is currently led by Deanna Jent, supports Missouri and Illinois playwrights. It commissions three original plays unrelated to Shakespeare, providing a stipend and nine months of support including meetings, readings, dramaturgy, and public presentations. The Confluence New Play Festival draws large crowds due to the Shakespeare Festival's trusted brand. As Jent says, “An audience for new plays is primarily based on a trust of a company and its vision.” Impressively, many of these scripts are produced rather than trapped in development hell. From 2019-2022, four out of twelve commissioned plays received a production by other theatre companies. These productions are in part because many theatres in St. Louis are involved in Confluence as directors, actors, and dramaturgs. These collaborations can lead to productions.

For instance, one of the scripts that received a production was Feminine Energy by Myah Gary. Jacqueline Thompson directed the Confluence staged reading and then was a driving force behind the production, which Jent produced as a swan song for Mustard Seed Theatre where she was artistic director. Gary and Thompson attributed the play’s success to its unique exploration of Black women navigating family and fertility, as well as ovarian cancer, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), and endometriosis. Gary and Thompson also both spoke about the cooperative ethos in St. Louis. Gary said everyone asked her, “How can I connect you to what you need?” and Thompson felt that everyone just “wanted the work to be seen” rather than competing for resources. And Confluence is just one of the successful new play festivals in the region that utilizes this cooperative ethos.

Three actresses sit on a couch onstage.

Mustard Seed Theatre's production of Feminine Energy by Myah Gary at Fontbonne University. Director: Jacqueline Thompson. Pictured from left to right: Erin Renee Roberts, Ricki Franklin, and Andréa Purnell. Costumes by Shevaré Perry, Set Design by Patrice Nelms, and lighting design by Michael Sullivan. Photo by Jon Abbott.

Some St. Louis New Play Festivals

Another important new play festival is the Aphra Behn Festival at Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble (SATE). If the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival is a giant oak acting as a hub of resources, SATE is a large dogwood providing support to many saplings. SATE began in 2001 as a company dedicated to supporting women theatre artists. According to SATE co-producers Ellie Schwetye and Rachel Tibbets, “If we’re not seeing ourselves authentically portrayed onstage, we can be the agents of change.” The Aphra Behn Festival began in 2017 to provide early-career women directors an opportunity. Schwetye and Tibbets say, “We did not necessarily intend for it to become a new play festival… however, logistically, it made a lot of sense to pair new writers and new directors together.” In the fifth festival iteration, SATE paired women theatre artists further in their careers with early-career artists. Crucially, the festival is not comprised of readings at music stands. These are produced plays, so this is not a development process, but a production process. The connections made at this festival lead to further collaborations, sometimes simply between spectators and artists. For example, I first saw the work of playwright/dramaturg/producer e.k. doolin at an Aphra Behn Festival, and doolin is now the associate artist and co-producer at Contraband Theatre. We might not have met without the Aphra Behn Festival connection.

Another new play festival in St. Louis that fully stages works, though not necessarily from local writers, is Tesseract Theatre’s Summer New Play Festival. Staged over three weekends, this festival of new works from emerging writers seeks to fill gaps in the theatre canon. For instance, in 2019 Tesseract produced Earworm by Shualee Cook, which Tesseract’s then artistic director Taylor Gruenloh describes as a “witty trans comedy,” that was a reaction to being “tired of the trauma” in most plays that center trans characters. Shortly after, Cook was named to the first cohort of the Confluence Writers Project, again showing the interconnectedness of the new play community.

Finally, the MFA playwriting program at SIU in Carbondale also has an annual new play festival. The two-hour drive between Carbondale and St. Louis means that material resources are not shared between the university’s School of Theater and Dance and St. Louis companies. However, many SIU playwrights contribute their work to the St. Louis ecosystem. For instance, three of the fifteen Confluence Writers Fellows have been graduate students from SIU—Myah Gary, e.k. doolin, and Cameron Noel—and the 2022 Confluence Festival also hosted a reading of the thesis play by graduating MFA playwright Pearl Moore. So the SIU MFA playwriting program provides local playwriting training which then helps the St. Louis ecosystem flourish.

St. Louis is on an upswing for providing the arts—including new plays—necessary infrastructure, and the interconnectedness of theatre venues in the Grand Center Arts District helps the new play ecosystem.

Venues, Human Connections, and Resources: Cross-Collaboration

Another aspect of the healthy new play ecosystem of St. Louis is the sharing of tangible production resources that allows new plays to be produced outside of festivals. One of those resources is collaborative rather than competitive venue space, particularly in the Grand Center Arts District.

The Grand Center Arts District is a half-mile radius neighborhood that is an arts crossroads. The Grand Center Arts District website lists “60+ Arts & Cultural Organizations, 16 theatres, 17 museums/galleries, 10 music venues, 18 event space rentals, 22 bars/restaurants, 8 schools/universities, [and] 4 religious institutions.” In June 2023, Forbes Magazine called the Grant Center Arts District “the most exciting emerging arts district in America” and the 2023 Arts Vibrancy Index by SMU Data Arts ranks St. Louis twentieth in the nation. Outside the arts, Popular Mechanics named St. Louis the number one city for startups, meaning the city is attracting the type of educated, monied folks who are often audience and donors for the arts. In short, St. Louis is on an upswing for providing the arts—including new plays—necessary infrastructure, and the interconnectedness of theatre venues in the Grand Center Arts District helps the new play ecosystem.

Space to perform is one of the most important, and often most crowded, pieces of infrastructure in a city. The Grand Center Arts District contains several spaces, all of which have resident companies that produce new works. Those venues offer cross-marketing opportunities such as posters with one-another’s seasons in the spaces. Plus, all are in an arts neighborhood with heavy foot traffic. For instance, the Grand Center Arts District is home to the young-audience-focused Metro Theatre that creates new work, such as Spells of the Sea, a new young adult musical. Metro Theatre is very close to the home offices of the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, so a family seeing a show at Metro might see advertising for the new plays offered by the Shakespeare Festival.

Additionally, the Shakespeare Festival has offices, shops, and rehearsal spaces that are available to rent and are sometimes donated for staged readings, performances, and rehearsals, furthering collaboration. Also using some of the Shakespeare Festival resources is Prison Performing Arts. For two decades, Prison Performing Arts has served incarcerated men, women, and youth throughout the St. Louis region, including facilitating the creation of original plays. In fact, through the Alumni Theatre Company, Prison Performing Arts often presents those works—or works developed in St. Louis—to the public. Most recently the Alumni Theatre Company produced The Privilege of Being Second by Eric Satterfield and David Nonemaker which in 2024 was nominated for Outstanding New Play by the St. Louis Theater Circle. Prison Performing Arts most recently performed in the Shakespeare Festival rehearsal space, but it more often performs at the Chapel, a space outside of the Grand Center and another hub of new play collaboration.

A row of actors read from scripts on music stands.

A staged reading of Brontë Sister House Party by Courtney Bailey at the Confluence New Play Festival. Director: Lucy Cashion. Pictured from left to right: Colin McLaughlin, Nancy Bell, Chrissie Watkins, Sophia Brown, Rae Davis, and Alicen Moser. Photo by Phillip Hamer Photography.

The Chapel Is a space attached to the Memorial Presbyterian Church that charges no rent. (Yes, you read that correctly.) So it is no surprise that this venue is in high demand, particularly by theatres that do new works. In 2008, Memorial Presbyterian felt it was underutilizing a portion of its building and wanted to expand its mission of hospitality to the arts community. The Chapel was originally conceived as a music venue, and then SATE theatre utilized it for Viewpoints training. SATE began producing at the Chapel soon after, and other theatres followed suit, with regulars now including Prison Performing Arts, Equally Represented Arts (ERA),Midnight Theatre, First Run Theatre, and, most recently, Contraband Theatre, all of which do new work and share resources in the Chapel.

St. Louis’s newest theatre space is the Greenfinch Theatre and Dive, another venue opening its doors to new work and collaboration. A bar open seven days a week with live music, it also has a black box theatre. This flex venue—bar, music, theatre—is perfect for its home institution, Fly North Theatricals. Fly North Theatricals promotes education through performanceby utilizing students and local actors to create new, accessible, high-quality musicals. Bradley Rohlf, Fly North’s managing director, states that many musical theatre companies brand themselves as “Broadway in your town,” but since “all art functions as a means for humanity understanding itself… local creation is important to the health of our culture.” Colin Healy, the artistic director at Fly North, says it began as a venture to produce his work, but now produces shows beyond his with “plans to begin a new works program that not only showcases new work but continues to use that vessel to provide wages to local creatives, which feeds back into the community and maybe (just maybe) gives one more person a reason to consider St. Louis as a place to continue their career as a creative long-term.” This idea of producing one’s own work but “putting in more than I take out,” to use Healy’s words, came up again and again when speaking to the leaders of the St. Louis new play ecosystem.

For instance, Nancy Bell is a director, writer, and actor across St. Louis (and beyond), and is also theatre faculty at St. Louis University (SLU). Bell directed the premiere of Healy’s Big Machine at the Center for Creative Arts (COCA) in its COCA Writes Program, which is a multigenerational workshop process. In December 2023, Fly North auditioned for a multi-generational cast of actors of all races, ethnicities, and genders to record a Big Machine cast album and headline the St. Lou Fringe Festival in 2024. Additionally, Bell was instrumental in the creation of Shakespeare in the Streets and the Confluence Writers Project. Bell’s work creates dominoes of support: Confluence commissioned Gary’s Feminine Energy and introduced Gary to another Confluence playwright, Delaney Piggins. Piggins suggested Gary dramaturg for the Action Art Collaborative, which was creating Action, a docudrama about Black activists in 1970s St. Louis. Action Art Collaborative connected Gary and Piggins with Colin McLaughlin, a playwright and actor in many new plays, including new plays for young audiences at Metro. The director of Action was Kathryn Bentley, who is also a faculty member at nearby Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville (SIUE), where she has been artistic director of SIUE’s Black Theatre Workshop for over a decade.

This dense root system of human connections in the new play ecosystem of St. Louis allows for the sharing of material resources. 

To show the dizzying ways new plays support one another through personnel and material, we can trace the ways two devised theatres connect to one of the most successful St. Louis playwrights, Prison Performing Arts, and one of St. Louis’s newest theatres. At SIUE, the chair of the Department of Theatre and Dance is Chuck Harper, who is also co-artistic director with Maggie Conroy of Young Liars, a company that devises new works. Young Liars was inspired by, and has collaborated with, Equally Represented Arts (ERA), a theatre company begun by Lucy Cashion, which devises from the premise that each element of theatre is equal. Cashion describes her surprise at other companies’ generosity when she arrived in St. Louis. She said people asked, “What do you need?” and when she asked, “Can I rent that?” folks instead replied, “You can borrow it!” up to and including a thrust stage SATE built for the Chapel that ERA borrowed. Conroy has acted for many St. Louis companies, including ERA and SATE, very recently in SATE’s production of the new play Brontë Sister House Party by local playwright Courtney Bailey, who was recently recognized by the Riverfront Times as the “best St. Louis Playwright” and by St. Louis Magazine as the city’s “promising playwright.” Bailey was a Confluence Fellow as well, and Brontë Sister was the play commissioned from her by the Shakespeare Festival. One of the actors in Brontë Sister was Rachel Tibbets, the artistic director for Prison Performing Arts, and Tibbets recently directed Waiting for Hecate by Confluence Writers Project playwright e.k. doolin, and both doolin and Bailey have worked as playwrights with the Prison Performing Arts workshops. doolin was also the co-producer at the newly-formed Contraband Theatre of my script See You in a Minute, which was directed by Ellie Schwetye, the co-producer with Tibbets of SATE. Phew!

Two actors speak onstage.

Contraband Theatre's production of See You in a Minute by Jacob Juntunen at the Chapel. Director: Ellie Schwetye. Pictured: Foreground, Ricki Franklin, Background Joseph Garner. Set design by Caleb D. Long, Lights by Morgan Brennan, and costumes by Carly Uden.

This dense root system of human connections in the new play ecosystem of St. Louis allows for the sharing of material resources. For instance, for See You in a Minute, SATE loaned Contraband lights, a projector, sound equipment, a QLab license, a computer, and seating risers. Contraband’s small budget, provided primarily via a local grant from the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), could not have sustained the same quality of production without SATE’s generosity. And this is a typical story. doolin states Contraband “had so many members of different arts collectives involved and that greatly assisted our efforts at amassing resources and encouraging attendance.” For the same production, the Shakespeare Festival donated space for a workshop reading and shop space for the minimal build, which brings us full-circle back to the Shakespeare Festival as a hub tree that supports so many. But, as Bell says, “The best thing we have going for us is that playwrights support each other. They have readings at each other’s houses. They give each other feedback. They say yes to serving as readers and producers” instead of competing.

The new play ecosystem in St. Louis has much going for it: a low cost of living for artists, affordable and plentiful venues, folks willing to share equipment, new play festivals, and theatre companies dedicated to new work in a variety of styles. Healy suggests that the best thing in St. Louis is “the audiences. People want new work. We’ve produced new work on pennies and sold out most shows. It’s really remarkable. That and it’s relatively cheap. That’s kind of all you need right? A little cash and a great crowd—that’s St. Louis!” All the artists I spoke to described St. Louis artists unanimously encouraging newcomers. On that, I’ll let Nancy Bell—a hub herself of resources and programs for new plays—have the final word: “Playwrights here are constructing an alternate reality that centers creators instead of donors, makers instead of boards. It’s radical and messy and organic and there is love in it. It’s mutual aid of the soul.”

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