By Lynn Venhaus We have been enriched by Steve Woolf as a titan in regional theater, and his loss will be deeply felt.
For 33 years, he guided The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, until his retirement in 2019. He died Monday at age 75.
I had the opportunity to interview and talk with him on several occasions, and I am very grateful to have been in his orbit for a bit. It was an honor. His immense love of theater was obvious from the moment you encountered him – his eyes lit up like a kid at Christmas.
I have been reviewing plays at The Repertory Theatre since 2005. Their “Take Me Out” I consider to be the gold standard for plays in St. Louis. As a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle in 2012, I have presented him with a lion’s share of awards. Every year, from 2013-2019, he was always gracious and sincere, no matter how many trips he took to the stage.
During the past decade, The Rep has earned more than 100 awards. They have led the way in innovation and excellence – in acting, direction, set design, lighting design, sound and much more.
As an Arts For Life board member, I helped facilitate his Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018, for his “vision, passion and excellence,” and he was so genuine about the honor. But that’s what he did — lived an authentic life. He never forgot that he was a kid from Milwaukee living out his dream.
And so, he could inspire — he talked about the magic of live theater, being in a dark room, sharing a special experience with other people that changes us and connects us.
His work spoke for itself: He directed “Red,” one of my favorites, and he brought the complex “Oslo” to the stage as one of his final — and most intense — works. He committed to making it relatable, no easy task with a large sprawling cast.
During rehearsals for the stellar “All the Way” in 2015 (I was there to interview Brian Dykstra, playing LBJ, and Woolf, who was directing — https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article34672659.html), he told me about his experience seeing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” in London.
He had been gobsmacked. He didn’t think The Rep could do it — very technical show, intricate — but the wheels were turning. He was so excited about trying to bring it to The Rep. “I think I’ve found a way we can do it,” he said to me later. (And it would win the Theatre Circle’s Outstanding Production, which opened the 2017-2018 season, and Best Director, Marcia Milgrom Dodge, in 2018.)
The enthusiasm he had for the process and the collaboration of “putting it all together” were so obvious. I cherish a brief interchange I had with him — in a stairwell at The Rep — about “The Humans,” which was a thought-provoker, had many layers. I had made an observation, and he wanted to hear more of my thoughts. It had received a mixed reaction — but he was firm in his fervor. He was just so darn insightful.
During an interview before the 50th season, which opened with “Follies,” he recalled the first time he saw the show as a young man studying theater. We geeked out about our mutual love of Stephen Sondheim. “Follies” was brilliant, but his other major production at The Rep, in 2012, the magnificent “Sunday in the Park with George,” was breathtaking. Truly memorable.
Every year, he would go to New York to soak up multiple theater productions. And hearing about his experiences was always a treat. During intermission of yet another “Mamma Mia!” at the Fox, I went over to chat with Joe Pollack, and Steve Woolf also came over to talk to Joe, and he regaled us with tales from his recent Broadway adventures. How fortunate to hear his vision and just how he radiated joy about theater (I mean, he was at “Mamma Mia!”).
One of my favorite Steve Woolf remembrances was, in fact, at Joe Pollack’s memorial service on March 17, 2012, at The Rep, of course. His widow, Ann Lemons Pollack, had arranged for five main speakers — all from a different facet of Joe’s life/illustrious career. Steve was the representative for theater, only fitting. He said as a critic, Joe just wanted the theater groups to “get it right.” Oh, yes, what a perfect summation.
And yes, Steve, you “got it right” more often than not. You will be missed, for your wit, your wisdom, your humanity, your desire for theater to spark conversations — and how you appreciated St. Louis audiences.
May God rest your soul. Your memory is already a blessing to me. And I hope you and Joe can continue to have some great conversations.
Mark Bernstein, retired managing director at The Rep, summed it up perfectly in a statement: “Steve always had his finger on the pulse of the St. Louis community, programming plays that resonated in the here and now, and showcasing the work of outstanding directors, designers and actors. St. Louis audiences responded by filling the seats, night after night, week after week, year after year.”
Standing O, Steve!
”Here is an article I wrote for the Webster-Kirkwood Times when he was getting multiple awards before retiring:
By Lynn Venhaus As an ever-busy presence in the St. Louis theater community, Ellie Schwetye has created a diverse body of work — acting, directing, producing and sound design for a myriad of companies. While she has been recognized for her individual achievements with multiple St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, she thrives on collaboration.
But her name associated with a project means that there will be a high bar for quality and a sharp attention to detail, from selecting a soundtrack to a Jane Austen homage, “First Impressions,” for SATE; to guiding Will Bonfiglio to a third Circle Award for Best Actor in a Comedy in “Fully Committed” at the New Jewish Theatre; to bringing haughty Mrs. White to life in SATE’s “Classic Mystery Game” play; and portraying Emily Post, one of the hostesses in ERA’s “Trash MacBeth.”
She is the co-producer of SATE and has directed and/or worked with Equally Represented Arts (ERA), YoungLiars, West End Players Guild, New Jewish Theatre, Prison Performing Arts, The Tennesee Williams Festival St. Louis, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, The Black Rep, R-S Theatrics, St. Louis Actors’ Studio, The Midnight Company, Stray Dog Theatre, Mustard Seed Theatre and others.
Like many other artists, Ellie was eager to return to live theater when it was safe to do so — either on stage or behind the scenes. And now, it’s happening — she’s directing the one-man show “Here Lies Henry” starring frequent collaborator Joe Hanrahan, whose Midnight Company is producing.
It runs Thursday through Saturdays at 8 p.m. June 10 – 27, with a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. June 27, at the Kranzberg Arts Center’s black box theatre.
Most COVID restrictions have now lifted, so with larger capacity audiences allowed, tickets are now available at the door. Midnight was deemed MissouriArtSafe by the Missouri Arts Council, received permission from the City of St. Louis for the production, and followed strict safety protocols.
Written by Daniel MacIvor, Henry is a man on a mission to tell you something you don’t already know. It is an idyllic — sort of — miserable — sort of — storybook — sort of — nightmarish — sort of — remarkable — sort of — regular show.
Ellie said she was immediately drawn to the material.
“Initially, what I liked about “Here Lies Henry” was the opportunity to collaborate with Joe Hanrahan again. I’ve joked that Joe could hand me the phone book and I’d direct it, if it meant working with him,” she said..
“But, of course, the material of the play itself is a draw. The character of Henry is so quirky, he’s such an innocent — but trying desperately not to appear so. It’s a lovely, weird, off-beat meditation on love, life, and death. There’s a Virginia Woolf-like stream-of-consciousness quality to the text, as well as moments that have me thinking about David Lynch and Andrew Wyeth,” she said.
Ellie and Joe have collaborated multiple times.
“Working with Joe is always a treat. ‘Henry’ is, I think, the sixth project on which we have worked together. Joe finds and writes amazing scripts – all of which are real studies in personality,” she said.
” As both an actor-producer and a director Joe is very laid back. He comes into every project with really clear ideas, and a great sense of play and collaboration. We experiment and laugh a lot during rehearsals. Joe has a great affinity for incorporating rock and pop music into his shows, as I do. I appreciate that he lets me sound design the shows I direct, which he knows I love doing.”
Since the pandemic forced live theater to shut down in March 2020, she said she kept her theater itch scratched with some outdoor theater, video projects and “a few, now ubiquitous, Zoom plays.”
How does it feel to be ‘back in the saddle’ again?
“It’s fantastic! This is my first in-person indoor production since March 2020. It’s pretty cool to be doing this play. Directing a one-man show was the best choice to ease back into the process. The first rehearsal was both terrifying and exhilarating,” she said.
Now she is returning to produce and sound design the play “Top Girls” with SATE — Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble,
“It’s a play we had programmed and cast since before the pandemic. Both my producing partner, Rachel Tibbetts, who is directing the play, and I really love the story, the script, and non-linear storytelling of Caryl Churchill’s text and are thrilled we finally get to bring it back to St. Louis,” she said.
And while filling up her plate after such an absence is tempting, she has reflected upon the next steps after the quarantine break.
“As for easing back into commitments, I think the pandemic taught me that being busy isn’t a virtue. I love the many facets of my work in the theatre, but I don’t need to do eleven projects a year anymore. Having said that, I am quite excited for some projects this fall including “Top Girls” with SATE, directing “The Miracle Worker” at Clayton High School, and another project with Midnight later in December,” she said.
Schwetye, 39, was born and raised in St. Louis.
During the down time, she explored activities that she had an interest in, but hadn’t given herself the time to dive in — and the opportunity was much appreciated.
“Unsurprisingly, much of it has been outdoors, since that’s been the safest way to socialize. I’ve been gardening a bit. The brilliant Nicole Angeli has been my hiking guru, and it’s been lovely to explore gorgeous conservation areas in eastern Missouri and central Illinois. Last summer, I supported my sister as her ground crew while she paddled the Missouri river — 340 miles! — from Kansas City to St. Charles. Now that was the ultimate stage management gig. Being on the river for four days and the fact that our team was representing the Missouri Confluence Waterkeeper organization opened my eyes to how precious and critical the Missouri river system is to our region,” she said.
“I’ve also gotten to spend a lot of time at my family’s property in Labadie, Mo., which we affectionately and unoriginally call the Farm. We completed building a house that was inspired by a one-room schoolhouse that once sat on the property. I’ve been working with my dad for the past year on much of the finish carpentry in the house, including framing and hanging doors and cutting and installing window trim and baseboards from hemlock,” she said.
Q &A WITH ELLIE SCHWETYE
1. Why did you choose your profession/pursue the arts?
“I’ve always been drawn to storytelling. Theatrical storytelling is a kind of magic. I’m also a bit of a show-off, so performing was a great outlet for that energy. As I developed though, I learned that I love directing and producing so much more. I find the process of bringing artists together in collaboration so much more rewarding than a curtain call.”
2. How would your friends describe you?
“Classic Aries: attention-seeking, passionate, optimistic, ambitious, independent, competitive, a bit selfish, impatient and impulsive.”
3. How do you like to spend your spare time?
“Recently. it’s been out at the Farm with my nieces and nephews, hiking with buddies, and reading my dad’s first edition “Foxfire” books.”
4. What is your current obsession?
“My meadow is my current obsession. It’s one little corner of the Farm. I’m keeping a path cleared through it to better observe the variety of grasses and native plants growing there. I have been trying to learn a lot more about our native species. Since I’m out at the Farm almost every week, it’s been amazing watching the changes from season to season.”
5. What would people be surprised to find out about you?
“I used to be a pretty fast runner. I won a state track meet in the 800m event.”
6. Can you share one of your most defining moments in life?
“My college theatre experience was a defining time. I went to a women’s college, which is certainly where my feminist theatre aesthetic was solidified. Knowing that my mentors were a fashion designer who got her start on London’s Carnaby Street in the 60s, a former Breck girl-turned radical feminist bass player, and an East German dramaturg with the Berliner Ensemble probably makes a lot of sense for the theatre I like to make and watch now.”
7. Who do you admire most?
“This is the hardest question of the ten! So many people. My parents, certainly – especially my mom; my sisters. I’ve been learning more about my grandparents and ancestors, and there are a lot of hard-working, gritty folks in my family tree to admire.”
“Artistically, I admire the folks I have the privilege of collaborating with – and there are so many amazing and inspiring artists in this group! I admire my teachers, like Kelley Weber, who encouraged me to be a theatre artist. And I admire the producers who took a chance on me, like Edie Avioli and Scott Sears, and Ron Himes and Linda Kennedy.”
“And I always admire the real women from history whose stories I often get to tell – like Henriatta Leavit, Annie Jump Cannon, Williamina Fleming, Rosalind Franklin, Sr. Jacque-Marie, or Helen Keller. Theatricalized stories of real women will always be the most fascinating to me.”
8. What is at the top of your bucket list?
I keep a Google doc of plays I’d love to direct or scripts I’d love to develop. Rachel Hanks and I started musing a while back about a play based on the Stevens Sisters (Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell). Writing something original is certainly on the bucket-list. And as a some-time performer, I’m ready for the challenge of a one-woman show.
9. What is your favorite thing to do in St. Louis?
“Discovering and exploring unexpected nature and conservation areas in the region.”
10. What’s next?
“I’m looking forward to the YoungLiars Summer Training Festival in July, then “Top Girls” with SATE in September. I’ll be directing “The Miracle Worker” at Clayton High School in the fall, then in December I’ll be performing opposite Joe Hanrahan in his new trio of short plays “Tinsel Town” about artists in LA, directed by Rachel Tibbetts. It completes a trifecta of work the three of us have collaborated on, which has included “Cuddles” and “Little Thing, Big Thing.”
More on Ellie:
Family: my parents, sisters, brothers-in-law, 5 nieces and nephews, and cousins (who are like sisters). Education: The St. Louis answer: Clayton High School; the real answer: Mount Holyoke College. Day job: Production Manager with my family’s business serving the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industry. First job: My first post-college job was as a professional Intern at the Black Rep. First role: Abigail Adams in the 5th grade musical “Dear Abby” (I still remember my big number!) Favorite roles/plays: My Ozark adaptation of “As You Like It”, Rachel’s and my adaptation, “First Impressions” based on “Pride and Prejudice” (and getting to play Elizabeth Bennet in it!), ERA’s “The Residents of Craigslist”. I’m also really proud of co-founding and producing SATE’s Aphra Behn Festival, celebrating women writers and directors. Dream role/play: There are two weirdo comedies I’d love to produce, direct, or perform in: “All Our Happy Days are Stupid” by Shiela Heti and “Freshwater” by Virginia Woolf, which she wrote for her sister Vanessa’s birthday party. Awards/Honors/Achievements: St. Louis Theater Circle Awards for Production, Sound Design, Directing, Script Adaptation, and Performance in an Ensemble; PopLifeSTL’s 2019 Artist of the Year 🙂 Favorite quote/words to live by: “have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves” A song that makes you happy: “Call Your Girlfriend” by Robyn
STAGES St. Louis Artistic Director and co-founder, Michael Hamilton, has announced that he will be retiring at the end of the 2021 Season.
“From our opening season in 1987 to our launch into the stunning new Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, every moment at STAGES has been an extraordinary one for me. As I explore and embrace the next chapter in my life, my heart will always remain at STAGES,” said Artistic Director Michael Hamilton. “It is truly a life legacy that I am incredibly proud of. But I am particularly proud and grateful of all the extraordinary people that I met and worked with in my 35 years at STAGES. That is something I will be able to keep in my heart for the rest of my life.”
A co-founder of STAGES St. Louis, Michael has directed over 100 productions in his 35-year STAGES history and has been the creative force behind the company’s most iconic productions that patrons have come to know and love. For his work at STAGES, Michael has been honored with multiple awards including the Art & Education Council’s 2019 Lifetime Achievement Award (with Jack Lane) and both Kevin Kline and St. Louis Theatre Circle Awards for Outstanding Director of a Musical. Michael’s list of award-winning productions include FOOTLOOSE (2005); THE FULLY MONTY (2007); PROMISES, PROMISES (2010); ANYTHING GOES (2015); and MAN OF LA MANCHA (2019).
Additionally, Michael’s acclaimed production of ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE (2013) was not only transferred to the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, but also played a record-breaking eight-month run at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza.
“When Michael and Jack asked me in my role as Kirkwood’s Director of Parks and Recreation to rent the Robert G. Reim Theatre for the first STAGES Season in 1987, I don’t think any of us imagined what would come of that meeting,” said STAGES Board President Dave White. “But Michael had a vision and knew what he could do with that stage at the Reim. Seeing the growth of the organization from that point is one of the proudest parts of my career. Under Michael’s direction, STAGES has absolutely raised the bar for what theatre looks like in St. Louis.”
“As the saying goes, there will be very big shoes to fill with the departure of Michael Hamilton,” said Mosbacher Family Executive Producer Jack Lane. “But, I have no doubt that there is a future artistic leader of STAGES out there waiting for us. As we enter our new phase in the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center, STAGES is setting sail onto a national platform that no doubt will unfold in dynamic new ways and be embraced by both our loyal patrons and newcomers alike.”
Jack added, “We are also pleased to announce that we are establishing The Michael Hamilton Artistic Fund, where contributions will support the advancement of artistic needs at STAGES.”
The entire STAGES family wishes Michael the best in his well-deserved retirement and thanks him for his steadfast leadership and dedication to the mission of STAGES for 35 years. A national search has begun for the new Artistic Director role.
The organization looks forward to the curtain rising again with the return of Michael’s critically-acclaimed and audience-loved production of ALWAYS… PATSY CLINE (August 6-September 5) this upcoming season, followed by the STAGES premiere of JERSEY BOYS (September 24-October 24).
For more information, please follow STAGES on Facebook and Instagram or visit the organization’s website. STAGES St. Louis is the region’s foremost not-for-profit company committed to preserving and advancing the art form of Musical Theatre through excellence in performance and education.
In 2021, STAGES celebrates its 35th year of producing Broadway-quality theatre, as well as the grand opening of our new home, the Kirkwood Performing Arts Center. STAGES Performing Arts Academy is regionally renowned for its innovative and multi-disciplinary programs that transform lives through immersion in the Musical Theatre arts. Celebrating its 16th year, it is also the only such program in the St. Louis region to be connected to a professional theatre company. Whatever the age or experience level, whether a new or continuing student, aspiring performing artists throughout the St. Louis region have the opportunity to explore and cultivate their talent at STAGES, and set the stage for life changing experiences.
For more information or to register today please call 636.449.5775 or visit us online at www.StagesStLouis.org. Two-show subscription purchases for the 2021 Season will go on sale on May 17. Single ticket sales begin June 1. For more information, please call 314.821.2407 or visit www.StagesStLouis.org.
With the St. Louis theater community continuing to be severely impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the St. Louis Theater Circle has officially canceled its 2021 awards event.
The St. Louis area is now nearing the one-year anniversary of pandemic protocol, including the virtual shutdown of all in-person theatrical events since mid-March 2020, less than one-fourth of the way through the calendar year, on which nominations are based. So few productions were mounted in 2020 that there is no way to have an awards ceremony on a scale similar to the previous eight ceremonies hosted by the organization.
Some, if not most, of the more than 30 categories wouldn’t even have a full set of our traditional five nominees. After reviewing the numbers, Theater Circle members thus have voted not to hold our traditional presentation in 2021.
With more people getting vaccinated against COVID-19 every day in St. Louis, Missouri and Illinois as well as elsewhere, we look forward to the eventual return of live theater. Our hope at this time is to combine shows produced in 2020 with any mounted later in 2021 for consideration for nominations for our ninth annual event, which is tentatively scheduled for 2022.
The mission of the St. Louis Theater Circle is simple: To honor St. Louis professional theater. Other cities around the country, such as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Washington D.C., pay tribute to their own local theatrical productions with similar awards programs.
For more information, contact [email protected] or the St. Louis Theater Circle’s Facebook page.
The St. Louis Theater Circle members are: Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Tanya Seale at Broadway World; Tina Farmer at KDHX; Michelle Kenyon at Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts; and founding members Steve Allen, Stage Door STL; Mark Bretz, Ladue News; Bob Cohn, St. Louis Jewish Light; Gerry Kowarsky, HEC Two on the Aisle; Chuck Lavazzi, KDHX; Judy Newmark, Judy’s Second Act; Ann Lemons Pollack, St. Louis Eats; Lynn Venhaus, www.PopLifeSTL.com; and Bob Wilcox, HEC Two on the Aisle. Eleanor Mullin is the group administrator.