Wednesday, 04 February 2015 21:26

Where Theatre Goes Boldly

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R-S Theatrics doesn’t play it safe.

The innovative St. Louis based theatrical company just announced two upcoming shows of its 5th season, and audiences will be confronting themes they might not experience with traditional theatre: Animals Out of Paper and Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play.

Yes, that Mr. Burns. It’s your basic story about survivors of a global catastrophe after all our power plants fail. The group of remnants reminisces about the First Family of American Sitcom. They decide to form a troupe and perform all The Simpsons episodes they can remember, along with commercials. Mr. Burns then takes us decades into the future. There will be musical numbers. There will be overbites.

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R-S isn’t one to shy away from daring, progressive material that separates itself from mainstream St. Louis theatres. While they could reach a wider audience if they stick to the tried and true classics like Showboat or even edgier shows such as Rent, this company not only strives for performances of substance that get people talking, R-S goes a step further.

Popular shows can be thought-provoking, but we’ve seen them before. R-S wants to give audiences something new. Last season, we experienced the surrealistic First Lady Suite. In one scene, reporter Lorena (Hick) Hickok steps out on the wing of Amelia Earhart’s plane to smoke and analyze her jealous feelings. Inside the cockpit, Eleanor Roosevelt gabs to the focused young aviator, oblivious to her friend’s pain.

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Rachel Hanks, Belinda Quimby, and Kay Martin Love in First Lady Suite, Photo Courtesy of Gerry Love

The season before, R-S Theatrics explored an infamous story of discrimination and murder with the Tony Award-Winning Musical Parade.

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Pete Winfrey in Parade, Photo Courtesy of Gerry Love

But why is it important to see these shows? Why does R-S continue to produce heavy dramatic material and offbeat comedy? What makes a theatre-goer lean forward in their seat with fear and anticipation of what a character will do next, someone they’ve only known for thirty minutes? It is because what we see onstage is so close to the truth, a reflection of humanity in its rawest form. We ache in their hopelessness, and rejoice in their liberation.

Artistic Director Christina Rios discusses her role of holding the reins as Artistic Director, a position she has detained for the past four years.

R-S Theatrics is recognized for presenting lesser-known shows the general public has never heard of. Because theatre-goers may be reluctant to give an obscure play a chance, how does R-S prove such stories are important and need to be experienced?

Rios: I have always said that if I can get patrons in once to see one of our shows, I can likely get them back time and time again - the tough part is that first time. There is a certain "leap of faith" that is required to be a faithful R-S patron: we do shows you've never heard of by playwrights you don't know...but it pays off.

I actually love that the shows that we produce typically aren't the easiest things to find information on - I don't want you to come in with preconceived notions or knowing what to expect, that leaves you like a blank page. And then the production gets to unfold the story on you without battling against anything.

We don't produce theatre "for everyone". I never wanted to. I doubt if anything we ever do will be universally praised - and that's just the way we like it. We're not in the business of upsetting people or offending people, but we're also not in the business of creating something "easy". And after 5 years, I think our patrons have come to expect that and look forward to it. You may never know what you're going to see at an R-S show, but you can be guaranteed that it is going to make you want to go out with your companion(s) and talk about it afterwards...and then maybe next time, you'll bring someone who's never seen one of our productions before, and that's how we grow.

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Photo courtesy of Michael Young

St. Louis Theatre tends to be a tight-knit community. What have you learned about heading your own theatrical company from others in the area?

Rios: I could probably spend too long talking about this, but yes, St. Louis is extremely tight-knit. And, in many ways is very reminiscent of a high school cafeteria: everyone seems to have eked out their own style and have their own group of people who they work with and who follow them and for the most part everyone keeps to themselves.

But I will say that just in the last 5 years in my position, I have seen some real change - more and more it seems that the smaller companies are reaching out to each other for help: finding actors, finding crew, asking demographic questions, everything. And THAT'S, I think, how we'll ultimately all survive.

I think one thing that we tend to forget is that a small community like this is a very symbiotic one: if one of us fails, we all suffer and if one of us succeeds, we all reap the benefits. If you come to an R-S show and love it, you're more likely to check out another theatre in town next month, and so on and so forth. At most, the companies in this town do 6 or 7 shows a year - that's not enough for an audience to be dedicated to any one theatre, and if we care about them the way we say we do, then we don't want patrons who are ONLY R-S patrons. We want them to experience all the great live theatrical opportunities that this town affords - and that's a lot.

Starting off, I know that I wasn't taken very seriously at all: I was an young, female, actor with no prior Artistic Directing experience who was suddenly in charge of a theatre company - but I did what I think anyone in my position would or even should do: I asked for help. And the theatre community responded. I had coffee with Assistant Directors that I respected and who I hoped would answer my very-green questions, I asked my extremely talented friends to help me build a lighting plot, or to build a set piece: and then I paid attention while it was happening so that I could do it myself next time.

I think people WANT to help. They WANT to be a part of something, and not just "something", but something they can believe in. I have never asked anyone in my

company to do something that I was not willing to do. Heather and I have to work twice as hard as most people in our positions, because most people in our positions are men. And we could sit around and complain and cry out about the inequity of different situations - or we could lead by example.

And I think, given the two options: one seems to be far more healthy than the other.

R-S’s tagline is “Where the Story is Everything.” Like any storyteller, are you always imagining a future audience while you’re reading through a play and say to yourself, ‘I want R-S to share this. People need to know about this’? What do you find essential when choosing a story?

Rios: Absolutely. Just because I "like" a piece, it doesn't automatically go into the running for production. I'm always looking for: a piece that would be a St. Louis premiere, something that doesn't wrap up neatly at the end but rather challenges the audience to discover what their ideal ending would be, and something that I think speaks to a universal human truth - but doesn't hit you over the head with it. I'm looking for something that makes it feel safe for the audience to feel safe investing in, because it's a story about someone else, only to discover at some point - that's it's actually a personal story about them.

Aside from continuing to produce material that makes people think, what else do you see on the horizon for R-S?

Rios: I think there is no place to go but up. This company began with every reason in the world to fail, but because of the work that we produce, we have found patrons who trust us implicitly. And because of their trust and belief in us, we've been able to continue to expand year after year in terms of staffing as well as the size of the productions that we are now able to do.

A brilliant, kind, female Artistic Director once told me that if I could make it past our 4th year, then I'd be okay. And she was absolutely right. The 4th season was very character-building. But here we are, going into our 5th season with a larger staff, the largest production we've ever attempted on the horizon, and every reason in the world to smile.

 

Being a small, independent band of thespians (including Heather Tucker, Managing Director, and Elizabeth Van Pelt, who recently accepted the position of Associate Managing Director), R-S may seem like they have the freedom to bring almost anything they want to their stage. There is a flip-side to this. R-S is in the process of getting the essential funds to house their merchandise, theatre props, and sets from past productions. In addition, they must pay for script rights, venues to perform, and stipends to their hardworking actors and crew.

Along with their season run, they hold three major fundraisers to help keep them afloat. Being R-S, you can count on experiencing something unique. What other theatre company holds a spring Prom with a Jurassic Park theme, a FUNrasier Cabaret with a comedy skit by ‘Poor Richard’s Dry Fuss,’ and a Fall family-friendly KIDaret with a smattering of Weird Al songs? Last summer, they hosted a "super secret" performance of Romeo and Juliet--complete with themed courses. 

R-S's heart is as big as their dreams. In 2013, they dedicated a night of Cabaret to Songs for a Cause to help the Visiting Orphans Organization. Every season, they designate "Pay What You Can Afford" nights, in addition to the "You Never Forget Your First Time" discount--a two for one price. On a Saturday night performance of Parade, a percentage of proceeds went directly to The Anti-Defamation League.

R-S understands the industry. The passion of theatre and making show business your life means you have to make sacrifices in order to keep doing what you love. But don’t expect R-S to stay “the little theatre company that could.” Even though they are not a powerhouse like The Muny, R-S Theatrics has been getting its share of press in the past year. St. Louis Theatre Circle just nominated Eat Your Heart Out for Outstanding Ensemble in a Drama and also for Outstanding Production of a Drama. Eat Your Heart Out was named one of St. Louis’ best dramas by Lynn Venhaus of The Belleville News Democrat. R-S’s past season was a frequent mention on the Stage Door St. Louis website.

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Casey Boland in Eat Your Heart Out, Photo Courtesy of Michael Young

Last Fall, Deborah Sharn, Company Manager of The Rep, and Scott Miller, New Line Theatre’s Artistic Director, spoke with Christina Rios on KDHX’s Break a Leg, promoting the complex First Lady Suite.

Scott Miller quips at the beginning of the interview, “This is quite an ambitious project you’ve taken on!”

But Ms. Rios knows this better than anyone. “It is,” she answers. “But I feel like every year I do something that people [say], ‘You probably shouldn’t be doing that.’”

Don’t expect R-S Theatrics to stop anytime in the future.

 

To find out more about R-S’s upcoming projects, their new season of shows and Season Tickets, or even make a tax deductible donation, check out their website at: www.r-stheatrics.com

R-S’s next fundraiser, the 3rd Annual PROM (its theme is the terrifying ‘PROM NIGHT’!) will commence on May 2nd at Shrewsbury Community Center. Don’t be surprised if you see a few Carries and Jamie Lee Curtises.

To help out ‘S.O.S.—Store Our Stuff,’ please consider donating at Gofundme.com: http://www.gofundme.com/ixj9xs

“Like” R-S on Facebook: www.facebook.com/RSTHEATRICS

Follow R-S on Twitter: @RSTheatrics

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