The lights go down. A hush falls over the audience. When the curtain rises, everyone in the room is transported to a completely different world. There is nothing quite like the experience of live theater, and St. Louis is lucky to be home to several local companies, many with unique and extensive histories. We spoke with two to share their stories.

stray dog theatre
For 16 seasons, Stray Dog Theatre (SDT) has brought innovative performances to St. Louis. The company takes its name from a bohemian cafe in turn-of-the-century Russia. “For us, it represents people coming together through art,” says artistic director Gary Bell. “It matches my own philosophy of making theater accessible and communal.” SDT operates out of Tower Grove Abbey, a century-old church that was in danger of going defunct, but the company repurposed the building into its offices and performance space.

As it has grown, the company has developed its outreach programs, too.“We have an obligation to share our talents with the community to make it safer, healthier and more vibrant,” Bell explains. Created in partnership with Area Resources for Community and Human Services (ARCHS), Arts-In-Mind is a free after-school program that uses theater to help underserved students develop academically, physically, socially and emotionally. SDT also offers free summer camps through the city’s parks and recreation department. To extend theatrical opportunities to all ages, the Silver Stage program is open to older adults.

SDT also supports playwrights through its New Works Laboratory. Every year, writers from around the world submit short plays, and the company picks four to produce with local directors and actors. For the regular, six-show season, Bell likes to include a wide variety of productions. “I think about political and cultural issues I want to address, but I also pick shows just for entertainment and fun,” he explains. “The line-up might include people’s favorite shows, or they might be motivated to try something new.” The 2019-20 season kicks off Oct. 10 with The Who’s Tommy.

The guild’s intimate theater (Photo: Britteny Henry)

theatre guild of webster groves
In 1927, 20 people met at a home in Webster Groves and organized a non-professional theater group. Now, an impressive 92 years later, the Theatre Guild of Webster Groves has gone from performing shows in church parlors and high school auditoriums to producing its annual season on its own stage at 517 Theatre Lane. “Our building has a lot of history,” says board president Barb Mulligan. “We purchased it in 1951, and the lobby has photos of every production we’ve done there.”

The guild has strong ties to St. Louis’ creative history. In the 1930s, Tennessee Williams submitted a one-act play to its writing contest. Naturally, he won. The company no longer produces original shows, but its programs still include youth theater, which is how Mulligan first joined the organization in the ’80s. “Theater is a great way to broaden kids’ horizons,” she says. “Local groups are good for everyone. People can find a creative outlet or experience something new as an audience member.”

Each season, the guild puts on five productions selected by a committee. Because of limited space in the theater, those chosen can’t require a large cast or extensive set, but even with restrictions, Mulligan says the group always manages to create great line-ups. “We have a really solid season this year,” she notes. “The first show is The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940, which is just hysterical. The director, Bekah Harbison, was in our youth theater. It’s great to have her back, and she brings a really fun energy.” The Theatre Guild of Webster Groves’ 2019-20 season starts Sept. 6.

Pictured at top: Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Guy & Dolls
Photo: John Lamb