Writer-Director Helping Small Professional Theatre Sustainment Fund
By Lynn Venhaus
Cory Finley first came on my radar with “The Feast,” his original play that was produced by the St. Louis Actors’ Studio in fall 2017. Since then, he has received national acclaim for two films, “Thoroughbreds” and “Bad Education.” He is definitely one to watch.
Now he is giving back to the small theater company that gave him a shot by being one of the artists trying to help STLAS and others in St. Louis through the Small Professional Theatre Sustainment Fund. This was started to help these struggling companies pay their bills until they can safely re-open.
The coronavirus pandemic has threatened extinction for millions of small businesses all over the world, including theater companies, who will continue to be hit hard as they might not receive any funding in 2021, and if they do, it would be a small amount.
“The federal government has offered some help, but small professional theaters are not in line for major funding and the existing funding that relies on tax dollars is vanishing,” said William Roth, STLAS Founder and Artistic Director. “We decided to take matters into our own hands with the creation of the Small Professional Theatre Sustainment Fund and enlisted the help of well-known St. Louisans with careers in the arts.”
By donating to the Fund, participants are automatically entered into a drawing to win a virtual hangout with Finley or other famous St. Louis artists Sterling K. Brown, Jon Hamm, Sam McMurray, Beau Willimon, or Neil LaBute (longtime friend of the St. Louis Actors’ Studio).
For every $75 donated to www.stlas.org/sustain, the participant’s name is placed into a drawing for 50 chances to win. The more a person donates, the better their chances are for winning. Contest ends Sept. 17 and the winner will be drawn on September 18.
During the virtual meet-up, the winner will be able to discuss anything of interest with the artist—from acting tips and insights, to fans just wanting to spend a little quality time. Names will be drawn until all artists are spoken for. For official rules and regulations, please visit the FAQ page. Donations are tax deductible to the fullest extent allowed by law.
Finley wanted to get involved because he believes in their work and the mission they’re starting.
“I was lucky enough to have STLAS put on a production of my play ‘The Feast.’ I’m a huge fan of the work they’re doing and I’m very concerned about the health of theater in America generally in pandemic conditions. I think it’s a great initiative to help keep vital institutions alive,” Finley said.
In a short-take review, I described the play this way: “One act, three actors, five genres, so says director John Pierson, who shrewdly realizes an eerie “Twilight Zone”-type mind game by Cory Finley of Clayton, Mo. The twisty-turny original play, only 65 minutes’ long, benefits from an accomplished trio of actors and Patrick Huber’s customary meticulous set and artful lighting design. Pierson’s crisp direction and keen sound design enhance the mysterious off-kilter quality.”
Pierson, a St. Louis actor, director and teacher, has been at John Burroughs School since 1993 and is chairman of the Theatre, Speech and Dance Department.
Finley, 31, a Burroughs graduate, is based in New York City, where he is a member of the Obie-winning Youngblood playwrights group at Ensemble Studio Theater. He received a commission from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation for playwrighting, and was the inaugural recipient of the Gurney Playwrights Fund for “The Feast,” which was presented first at The Flea Theater.
Three years ago this month, Finley’s play “The Feast” fit into the vision at The Gaslight Theatre, STLAS’ black-box home.
“STLAS is committed to bringing engaging theatrical experiences to our community of actors, writers, producers, filmmakers and all patrons of the arts; and to provide a strong ensemble environment to foster learning and artistic expression. Through the use of ensemble work, STLAS explore the endless facets and various themes of the human condition by producing existing and original collaborative theatre,” Roth said.
Finley received high praise for the film “Thoroughbreds,” which he adapted from his play and also directed. It was accepted for the Sundance Film Festival in January 2017, and nominated for the Audience Award in the Best of Next! competition. It played at the St. Louis International Film Festival that November. Sold to Focus Features for $5 million, the film opened in theaters in March 2018.
Finley wrote the crime-drama-dark comedy about two upper-class teenage girls in suburban Connecticut, who rekindled their unlikely friendship after years of growing apart. Then they hatch a plan to solve both of their problems — no matter what the cost. The cast included Anna Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke, and was the last film of Anton Yelchin, who died in a tragic accident at his home in June 2016. The film is dedicated to him.
Indie Wire described the film as “Heathers meets American Psycho.” Rotten Tomatoes had a score of 86% and the critic consensus was: ” Thoroughbreds juggles genres with panache, delivering a well-written and refreshingly unpredictable entry in the teen thriller genre.”
In 2019, Finley scored a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay for “Thoroughbreds.” The annual awards, held since 1984, honor independent filmmakers working with small budgets. For more information on the film, visit www.thoroughbredsmovie.com
Last year, Finley directed “Bad Education,” which was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019 and sold to HBO for $20 million. HBO aired it April 25 this year (Currently available in HBOMax catalog) and as of Sept. 8, it is available on DVD and Blu-Ray. It is also available for rental or purchase on streaming platforms.
“Bad Education” is nominated for two Emmy Awards — Best Television Movie and Hugh Jackman for Lead Actor in a Limited Series or Movie. The Emmy Awards are Sunday, Sept. 20.
The film, based on a true story, focuses on the popular superintendent of New York’s Roslyn school district as well as his staff, friends and relatives who become the prime suspects as the single largest public school embezzlement scandal in American history unfolds. Former Roslyn student Mike Makowsky wrote the screenplay based on the New York Magazine article “The Bad Superintendent” by Robert Kolker.
Finley said he was drawn to the script for several reasons.
“I thought the script had a really unique tone, a complex character at its center, and themes about greed, institutional failure and systemic corruption that spoke to me,” he said.
And working with the cast was a positive experience.
Jackman played Frank Tassone, who was sentenced to 4 to 12 years for the $11.2 million embezzling scheme, and Alison Janney played Pam Gluckin, an assistant superintendent who took part in the scheme.
“I was enormously lucky that my A-list cast all had the work ethic and humility of actors just starting off: particularly Hugh and Alison made my job incredibly easy and were intensely collaborative and open, as well as super-prepared,” Finley said.
He said he is not at liberty to divulge his next project just yet..
How has he been coping with the pandemic in New York?
“My partner is a medical resident who got pulled into the COVID ward right at the height of the pandemic, so I had a very intense view of the worst of it through her. But she’s now back home doing tele-health and things are much more normal,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have a job that I can do from home — the writing and prep parts of my job at least — and so I’m far less affected than many New Yorkers have been.”
What has he learned during this time of quarantine?
“It’s a total cliche, but I’ve learned how important a sense of social community is, and how badly we all need it back,” he said.
Q&A QUESTIONS FOR “TAKE TEN”
1. Why did you choose your profession?
I always loved creating and managing made-up worlds: first pretend games, then Dungeons and Dragons, then school plays, then directing film.
2. How would your friends describe you?
Tall, polite, bad at remembering things, dad jokes, no sense of direction.
3. How do you like to spend your spare time?
Playing basketball with great enthusiasm and minimal ability.
4. What is your current obsession?
Youtube chiropractic adjustment videos. Also, archived Firing Line videos of William F. Buckley debating prominent leftists of the 60s — Noam Chomsky, James Baldwin, Huey Newton. They show at once how far our politics have come and how little our discourse has changed.
5. Who do you admire most?
In no particular order: Caryl Churchill, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Lebron James.
6. What is your favorite thing to do in the St. Louis Metropolitan Area?
Ted Drewes and the Tivoli Theatre.
More to Know:
Name: Cory Finley
Birthplace: St. Louis, MO (Clayton, specifically)
Current location: Manhattan
Day job: Many years SAT/ACT tutoring
Favorite movies: Brief Encounter, There Will Be Blood
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.