News Column

Theater director Milton Zoth takes his bow (sort of)

July 13, 2014

By Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

July 13--Some theatrical directors "sign" their work as boldly as John Hancock.

Milton R. Zoth hopes never to be one of them.

"To me," he said, "a director needs to be invisible.

"And you can be. Of course, you answer the actors' questions. And you do the staging, like a traffic cop, trying to create stage pictures that work.

"But theater is really an actors' medium. I think if you cast a play well, the actors will do most of the work themselves."

Currently, Zoth is directing three short plays in the St. Louis Actors' Studio'sLaBute New Theater Festival, including one that playwright Neil LaBute wrote specifically to premiere there, "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush."

The festival starts this weekend. One of its events: a farewell party for Zoth.

After more than 30 years in which he always seemed to be directing someplace in town, he's stepping down as artistic director of the St. Louis Actors' Studio. He and his wife, Molly, are moving to Austin, Texas.

Although Zoth is 65, this is not retirement. He will be the facilities manager at a new, modern theater at a prep school; he's also working on a play.

None of that comes as a surprise to theater artists who have seen the hard-working, white-haired, soft-spoken director in action behind the scenes -- maybe at the old Orthwein Theatre Company (where he also was artistic director), the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Muny 1st Stage, City Players, HotCity Theatre, New Jewish Theatre, St. Louis Shakespeare or the Arrow Rock Lyceum.

"He's never overbearing," said William Roth of the Actors' Studio. The men have been friends for more than 20 years, ever since Zoth cast Roth in "a bunch of small parts" in "Much Ado About Nothing" at St. Louis Shakespeare. "And he never has a problem with a cast, no matter how big. Sometimes you don't even know he's there -- and that's his gift. He makes things clear without any apparent effort."

Seven years ago, Roth, Zoth and David Wassilak formed Studio, which generally performs in its own theater, the Gaslight (named for its neighborhood, the old Gaslight Square).

With Roth -- who owns the renovated building -- as executive producer and Zoth as artistic director, they turned the sleek little theater into a magnet for theatergoers looking for self-assured work, whether canonic ("King Lear") or offbeat ("Killer Joe"), classic ("A Doll's House") or experimental ("Pterodactyls"), ancient ("Antigone") or brand-new (the world premiere of "Day of the Dog," which the company later mounted in New York).

Zoth directed all those productions and more, right down to the last play of the 2013-14 season, "The Homecoming." Peter Mayer, who starred in Harold Pinter's acid-etched family portrait, says Zoth is just the kind of director that he strives to be.

"Milt's great ability is that he knows how to encourage an actor to give his best performance," Mayer said. "Some directors make you feel you aren't measuring up, and rob you of your confidence. Not Milt. He is very good at capitalizing on actor's strengths."

The Zoths are moving because their daughter, Amanda, and her husband live in Austin "with two babies and no support system," the director said. "And her husband is a football coach, which in Texas is like being a deity. We're going to help out."

On a tour of the prep school where their son-in-law coaches, the Zoths were shown the school's new theater. The drama teacher mentioned that they needed somebody to run it. "He's right here!" Molly Zoth said. Soon Zoth, who taught for years both at Kirkwood High School and Mary Institute Country Day School, had his new job, running the Dell Fine Arts Center at St. Andrew's Episcopal High.

That sounds like goodbye. But the Zoths aren't selling their house in Sunset Hills, and he will be back in the spring to direct the Actors' Studio production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

"We'll just see how it goes," Zoth said.

That sounds like a pretty good description of much of his life. Growing up in a tiny Waynoka, Okla., Zoth had little exposure to the arts except from his father, an electrician who loved music and taught him to play guitar. He grew up killing rattlesnakes on the lawn so his little brothers could play outside; he took any available odd job, as a ranch hand or banding bats for science, to make money. For fun, he played in a band, but it fell apart "because we kept getting drafted."

He was drafted, too, but was sent to missile school instead of Vietnam. ("I was assigned to a mountain in California with 18 nuclear warheads.") He used the GI Bill to study psychology and drama, planning to teach.

But the band stumbled on, and one night a man who heard him singing liked Zoth's voice so much, he invited him to join a touring company of "Godspell." The theater bug bit him hard.

Moving on to Kansas, he got a job teaching English but got busy with community theater and decided to pursue it. Somehow -- he's not sure how this happened -- Webster University accepted him into its MFA program for directors, "even though I was as green as I could be. Maybe I had instincts, but I certainly had no technique."

But, he said, he got the chance to learn from great teachers: costume designer Dorothy Marshall Englis, lighting designer Peter Sargent, and especially the legendary Marita Woodruff (who died in February). "She really cleaned up my act," Zoth said. "And she taught me how to block action for big casts.

"She taught me to use M&Ms for the actors, with different colors for different parts. Move them around on the table so you can see how they can be grouped. It's all about what you see.

"And in time, I began to see stage pictures as a director, instead of just reacting."

Zoth thinks St. Louis has a lot of good theater now, much more than at the start of his career. Pointing to the number of midsize troupes, like the Actors' Studio, that flourish now, he can't say just what changed. "Things used to be very territorial, people very protective of their turf," he mused. "But something happened in the '90s -- we started talking to each other.

"And the new play festivals, the Shakespeare Festival, the Fringe Fest bring together people (who didn't previously work together). Now I think St. Louis theater is thriving. The acting pool is strong. I love the little theater (houses) all over and the black boxes. I love that kind of flexible space. And the Rep remains our anchor."

Those midsize theaters have to differentiate themselves from one another, and Zoth thinks that the Actors' Studio -- with its acting workshops, its LaBute Festival and its venture into New York -- is doing so. But in the end, he thinks, what counts most is the play.

Over time, he's refined his ideas about what makes a good play. "Story is paramount," he said. "and it must be compelling enough for the audience to suspend disbelief. The director guides the actors, and the actors guide the audience. When it works, you don't have to try to make it real. It's real in its own way."


Zoth's directing wish list

Milton R. Zoth, who has directed everything from splashy musicals to edgy dramas on stages all over St. Louis, still has some shows he's love to do. His wish list includes:

--"A Streetcar Named Desire"

--"August: Osage County"

--Anything by Anton Chekhov "because I want to understand him better."

--"Rent" because "I think it would be fun. I love ensembles. They make theater work."

--Another crack at "Waiting for Godot." It was the first professional play he directed here, fresh out of the MFA program at Webster University, at the Studio Theatre at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis. "It's my favorite play," he explained.

--And another crack at "Hamlet." "I have done 'Hamlet' a couple of times," Zoth said, "but I still go back to it. Of course."


LaBute New Theatre Festival

When -- Through July 20 (first set of short plays); July 25-Aug. 3, second set of short plays). A new play by Neil LaBute, "Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush," will play at every performance. Performances at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Winning plays by high school writers will be staged at 11 a.m. on July 26.

Where -- Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle Avenue

How much -- $30. The presentation of plays by high school writers is free.

Post-show festivities -- On July 25 and 26, Neil LaBute will be on hand.

More info -- 1-800-982-2787;

Judith Newmark is the Post-Dispatch theater critic. Follow her on Twitter @judithnewmark.

Judith Newmark is the Post-Dispatch theater critic. Follow her on Twitter @judithnewmark.


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Source: St. Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

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