News Column

An actor dreams big

August 4, 2013


Aug. 04--Ryan Foizey isn't the first actor to start a new theater company, and he knows what people say: Oh, you started the company so you could play the parts you wanted.

That may have a grain of truth, he concedes -- with one important twist.

He's not the actor he has in mind.

He wants Theatre Lab, the company that debuts Friday with "The Sunset Limited," to be a troupe where lots of actors -- along with other theater artists, such as directors and designers -- will be able to bring their "passion projects" to fruition.

"I want Theatre Lab to be a place where people can choose their own projects," he said. "I know lots of actors who have read something and loved it, then stashed it in a drawer. They want to do that play, but how?

"I want this company to say, let's talk about it. We can help with production issues. You concentrate on the art."

Foizey, 25, has made a bit of a splash on the St. Louis theater scene since he moved here from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a couple of years ago. At New Line, he starred as the low-class, hard-rocking hero of "Cry-Baby" and the son of a deeply troubled woman in "Next To Normal"; at Stray Dog, he played the despairing Moritz in "Spring Awakening."

The two troupes -- both known for a smart, edgy style and for productions with more imagination than money behind them -- introduced Foizey to people he now counts among his closest friends (including his girlfriend, New Line regular Marcy Ann Weigart). They were already interested in fresh approaches to theater; they were intrigued by the idea of a theater in which artists themselves, rather than an artistic or producing director, proposed the work. Some have already lent a hand to get Theatre Lab on its feet; some will serve on the board that will, ultimately, decide which proposals to follow up on.

But the hardest aspects of any new project are hidden pitfalls -- problems you don't, or can't, anticipate until you're forced to deal with them. With that in mind, we asked some other actors who have started theaters here what advice they would offer Foizey (apart from the good wishes that they all spontaneously extended).

RAISE AS MUCH MONEY AS YOU CAN. With a starting budget in the low four digits, Foizey is planning to concentrate on simply styled shows that don't demand lavish sets and props. ("The Sunset Limited" takes place in one shabby room.) In terms of pay, Foizey expects to follow the New Line model: Any money at the end will be divided among everyone.

Those savings will help, says Kim Furlow, who's currently hard at work trying to choose the plays for the coming season at the theater she founded, Dramatic License Productions. Still, "as much money as you think you need, you need twice as much. Three times as much," she said.

"We have been extraordinarily lucky -- we have ended in the black every year. But you are up against the big boys with money. We have been able to get support from RAC and the Fox Foundation, which is key. But you also need a good board, a board that will do grass-roots work."

"Ryan has to be very cost-conscious," agreed actor Larry Mabrey, who will appear next month in "My Fair Lady" at Stages St. Louis. He and his wife, Erin Kelley, founded Avalon Theatre, which performed in the old Crestwood Plaza arts district. Avalon had a small, but devoted following, but costs caught up with it. Now Avalon simply produces Kelley's traveling one-woman show, "Portrait of My People."

"Remember," Mabrey said, "you are competing with everything -- other theaters, the Cards, the movies. Keep the ticket prices low."

FIND A HOME. Furlow, who transformed a former retail space in the Chesterfield Mall's ARTropolis wing, thinks a permanent address is a huge plus, "though finding a home is easier said than done."

Mabrey agrees: "It's crucial to find a home to build an audience. Found spaces are great as long as you don't have to worry about how many people come."

On the other hand, Christina Rios says the troupe she founded, R-S Theatrics, is doing better than ever despite having lost two "regular" homes. (The Crestwood arts district, its first home, was never intended to last forever; the second, the Black Cat Theatre in Maplewood, also shuttered.) It's a nomad troupe now.

Recently, however, R-S staged "The Cherry Sisters Revisited," an offbeat comedy, at The Abbey, a theater space in a church off Skinker Boulevard; next month comes "Parade," a musical about anti-Semitism, at the Ivory Theatre in Carondelet. "Ideally, you have your own theater," said Rios, who also started as an actor. "You do want people to find you! But for us . . . look, we do things that are weird. That kind of lends itself to moving around." She pointed out that another troupe, OnSite Theatre, makes a point to be in a different place for every show, each play written specifically for its location. "They are amazing," she said. "Of course, do a play in a Laundromat! I love the whole idea of that."

Foizey seems to love it, too. "The Sunset Limited" will be performed in a well-known St. Louis theater, the Gaslight. After that, who knows?

DEVELOP A COMMUNITY, ON BOTH SIDE OF THE LIGHTS. Foizey says that although troupes along the lines of Theatre Lab thrive elsewhere -- and although any actor might ask an artistic director he or she knows well to look at a script -- he isn't aware of anything quite like this in St. Louis. This might turn into a plus, Mabrey predicts.

"I think Ryan will get support from the non-Equity theater community," Mabrey said, "even though doing one-off shows, instead of a season, is a challenge. But on the other hand, a lot of people make last-minute decisions (about going to the theater)."

Avalon staged a lot of serious drama; so does R-S, which presents only shows that have never been professionally staged here. Furlow understands the appeal: "Actors love those meaty plays with juicy parts," she said. "But that's not necessarily what people want to see.

"We always do at least one comedy, at least one musical, and one well-known drama like 'The Glass Menagerie.' If you don't know what your audience wants, poll them! And what extras can you offer? Free beverages? A good talk-back? You want them to have a good evening from the moment they walk in until they leave."

Foizey, of course, doesn't really seem to be heading for popular titles. He does want to make sure that, even if Theatre Lab concentrates on meaty material such the two-man Cormac McCarthy drama that will be its debut, people won't think of it as a vanity showcase or, worse, the amateur hour.

That's why he felt he should direct the first show himself (he directed a lot in Iowa), that it should not be elaborately produced so that it could be produced well, and that it should feature performers that the St. Louis audience already knows and respects (Robert Alan Mitchell, who founded the old NonProphet troupe, and Zachary Allen Farmer, New Line's go-to character actor).

In November, Theatre Lab teams with the Washington Avenue Players Project to produce a 24-hour play festival at Webster Groves High School. (These festivals, which can be a lot of fun, involve creating short productions in a very condensed time period. The writers often get more time than the other artists.) The productions will be judged, and the leader of the winning team will choose the next Theatre Lab show.

Some time after that, the board that will choose among proposals from different artists should be up and running; ultimately, Foizey hopes to produce about three shows a year.

But to start, "I wanted to set a bar, to set a tone," he explained.

"I don't know what Theatre Lab will do. Maybe it will be dark, maybe it will be funny, maybe it will be the kind of stuff you don't see very often. But I hope it will be a forum that gives theater artists a chance to say, 'I showed you what I meant. I took my shot.'"

"The Sunset Limited":BC feature-->

When --8 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Aug. 11; Aug. 15-17

Where --Gaslight Theatre, 358 North Boyle Avenue

How much-> --$14

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