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.

Anton Yelchin, Cory Finley, Anya Taylor-Joy. Photo by

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.

Cory FInley at Film Independent Spirit Awards. Photo by Kevin Mazur.

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
Age: 31
Birthplace: St. Louis, MO (Clayton, specifically)
Current location: Manhattan
Day job: Many years SAT/ACT tutoring
Favorite movies: Brief EncounterThere Will Be Blood

By Lynn Venhaus
Managing Editor
You go, girls! Local singer-actors get national attention, and the St. Louis-produced Broadway musical “The Prom” made Thanksgiving Parade television history.
BREAKING OUT: We have a talented trio of local ladies who are living their dreams right now.
Lexi Krekorian, 27, of Waterloo, Ill., is one of the nine struggling musicians featured on the Netflix reality series, “Westside,” now available. She goes by the stage name, Alexandra Kay, and has released her first single, “You Think You Know Someone,” and several music videos of songs on the “Westside” soundtrack. She started out in school and community theater, and is chasing her dream in L.A. Here is the feature I wrote for the Belleville News-Democrat about her rising star.
https://www.bnd.com/living/magazine/article221600685.html
Kennedy Holmes of Florissant, the John Burroughs student and Muny Kid who is wowing the nation as a contestant on “The Voice,” made it through to the Top 11 Live Playoffs on Nov. 20. She sang “Wind Beneath My Wings” and is on Jennifer Hudson’s team, headed for the Top 10 showdown Nov. 26. Here is her Top 11 performance:
https://www.nbc.com/the-voice/video/kennedy-holmes-wind-beneath-my-wings/3832852
Thirteen proved to be lucky for Kennedy, as she was not among the 12 eliminated from the Top 24 Live Playoffs in Episode 13. She sang Beyonce’s “Halo.” “The Voice” is on Mondays and Tuesdays on NBC, with live voting the first night and results the second night. She is 13.
Meadow Nguy, providedMeadow Nguy, 23, of O’Fallon, Ill., performed in two musicals at Stray Dog Theatre (Marta in “Spring Awakening” in 2012 and the female lead in the original musical “Spellbound” in 2015), and in community and school theater. She guest-starred on the Nov. 18 episode of “Madam Secretary” called “Baby Steps,” as a Southeast Asia surrogate caught up in a human trafficking imbroglio . She made her crime-drama debut in ‘The Blacklist” earlier this year. Both shows available on demand. Here is the news article I wrote for the Belleville News-Democrat:
https://www.bnd.com/news/local/article221829910.html

***ATTABOY: Congratulations to Cory Finley, who scored a Film Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best First Screenplay for his “Thoroughbreds.” The annual awards, held since 1984, honor independent filmmakers working with small budgets. The awards are always announced the day before the Oscars, and this year, it will be Saturday, Feb. 23.
Focus Features photoIn fall 2017, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio presented Finley’s play, “The Feast.” A John Burroughs School grad, Finley’s movie opened nationwide in March after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It played the St. Louis International Film Festival in 2017.
Olivia Cooke (“Ready Player One,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Anya Taylor-Joy (“Split,” “The Witch”) play upper-class Connecticut teenagers who rekindle their unlikely friendship and hatch a plan to solve both of their problems — no matter what the cost. It’s the last film of Anton Yelchin.                                                                    Finley, who grew up in Clayton, is based in New York City. He is a member of the Obie-winning Youngblood playwrights group at Ensemble Studio Theater, has received a commission from the Alfred P. Sloan foundation for playwrighting, and was the inaugural recipient of the Gurney Playwrights Fund for his play, “The Feast,” at The Flea Theater. Check out www.thoroughbredsmovie.com
***STANDING O’s: Standing ovation for stand-up guy, Kwofe Coleman, who started as an usher at the Muny the summer of 1998, and now has been named managing director! He has served as Director of Marketing and Communications since 2013.
Kudos to the Cinema St. Louis team on their record-setting attendance of 28,723 at this year’s St. Louis International Film Festival Nov. 1 – 11. SLIFF screened 413 films, including 88 narrative features, 77 documentary features, and 248 shorts. Local actors are often seen in the regionally produced short films.

Cast members from “Disney’s Aladdin” presented “Sultan’s Soiree,” an exclusive cocktail reception, Nov 18 to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Guests mingled while enjoying cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, photo opportunities, live entertainment and karaoke. To learn more, visit www.broadwaycares.org. Michael James Scott, a Webster University Conservatory graduate, is playing the Genie while Jonathan Weir, formerly of Belleville, is Jafar. “Aladdin” is at the Fox through Nov. 25.
***BIG SPLASH: The reviews are in, and it’s all raves for the new original musical comedy “The Prom,” which opened on Broadway Nov. 15 at the Longacre Theatre, following previews that began Oct. 23.
The New York Times said: “Makes you believe in musical comedy again.”
Variety said: “This original musical has laughs, tears and joy — not to mention jaw-dropping star-turns — in a clash-of-cultures hoot that earns a big Broadway corsage.”
Vanity Fair photoThe show has multiple local connections – Centralia, Ill., native Chad Beguelin is the co-book writer, with Bob Martin (co-creator of “The Drowsy Chaperone”) and lyricist, with music by Matthew Sklar. Beguelin wrote lyrics to Disney’s “Aladdin” and both he and Sklar were Tony-nominated for “The Wedding Singer.”
Some local producers include Jack Lane, executive director of Stages St. Louis; Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, Patty Gregory of Belleville, Terry Schnuck, Andrew S. Kuhlman of St. Louis and Fairview Heights native Joe Grandy. St. Louis performers Jack Sippel and Drew Reddington are part of the ensemble, and stars Beth Leavel and Christopher Sieber have appeared several times at The Muny. The Broadway cast also includes Brooks Ashmanskas (Tony nominee for ‘Something Rotten!”),
Casey Nicholaw, Tony winner for “The Book of Mormon,” directed and choreographed the show.
“The Prom” is about a canceled high school dance – a student is barred from bringing her girlfriend to the prom — and four fading Broadway stars who seize the opportunity to fight for justice — and a piece of the spotlight. Its tagline is “There’s no business like getting in other people’s business.”
***
NOBODY RAINED ON THEIR PARADE: “The Prom,” one of four musical acts in the 92nd annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade Nov. 22, made parade history with the first same-sex kiss televised live. As the number, “It’s Time to Dance,” closed, cast mates Isabelle McCalla and Caitlin Kinnunen embraced and kissed. The LGBTQ community cheered.
Here is that performance: https://youtu.be/VDZDLJjzJBI
Tony nominee Taylor Louderman of Bourbon, Mo., performed with the cast of “Mean Girls.” She plays Regina, the snotty leader of the cool girls’ pack. Taylor was last seen locally on the Muny stage in 2016’s “Aida” as Amneris.
Fun Fact: The dance company, Radio City Rockettes, was founded in St. Louis in 1925 by Russell Markert. First known as the “Missouri Rockets,” the precision chorus line has performed in Radio City Music Hall since 1932.
***HANNUKAH HULLABALOO: The eighth annual Brothers Lazaroff show to benefit Metro Theater Company will take place on Saturday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. at The Grandel Theatre, and all ages welcome.
The show will feature Rabbi James Stone Goodman and the Eight Nights Orchestra, DJ Boogieman, tributes to Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and more! As always, free latkes will be fried on-stage! Food vendors will include Taco Buddha, The Dark Room and STL-Style will be selling their St. Louis-inspired apparel.
***AROUND TOWN: Legendary Wilco founder and Belleville native Jeff Tweedy took to The Pageant stage with Jon Hamm Nov. 17 to discuss his storied career. The book tour stop was sold-out.
St. Louis Post-Dispatch photoThe Grammy-winning singer-songwriter’s memoir “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back”): Memoir of Recording and Discording with Wilco, Etc.,” features stories about his childhood, putting Uncle Tupelo together, and recollections about St. Louis record store, rock clubs and live-music scene during his formative years.
Now based in Chicago, Tweedy can be spotted in the indie movie “Hearts Beat Loud” as a customer, in what else, a record store.
Playwright Vladimir Zelevinsky was in town for the opening weekend of West End Players Guild “The Great Seduction,” and graciously spoke to Tina Farmer of KDHX and I about his interesting life and writing process.
 
Zelevinsky also wrote “Manifest Destiny,” performed at WEPG in 2016, which was nominated for Best Ensemble by the St. Louis Theater Circle.
***SANTA’S COMING! I KNOW HIM: With the holiday essential film “Elf” as its next movies-for-foodies event, Tenacious Eats returns to the St. Louis Banquet Center in Holly Hills, at 5700 Leona Street, on Saturday, Dec. 15.
Guests will feast on five courses and have cocktails themed to the movie, and the event also includes contests and live music. Chef Liz Schuster has left West End Grill and Pub to devote more time to her cinema-and-theme-dining experience – and Tenacious Eats is known for its “full-contact dining experiences.” Tickets are on sale now at BrownPaperTickets.com.
***GO SEE A PLAY POLL: Ah, Church Ladies and Christmas Pageants are customary fixtures during the holiday season, so the folks behind the Lutheran laugh-apalooza, “Church Basement Ladies: Away in a Basement” have returned with a warm, sentimental and uproarious show.
Now playing at The Playhouse @ Westport through Jan. 6, this is a perfect show to take your mom or grandma to – and you can win two free tickets to the show if you enter our drawing.
Select a show from the list below to answer our question: “What is your favorite holiday-themed play or musical?”
 
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Story
Elf
Inspecting Carol
It’s a Wonderful Life
White Christmas
And send it via email, along with your name, cell phone and email address by 5 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 25, to [email protected] and you will be entered in a drawing. Winner will receive 2 tickets to an upcoming show.
In our last “Go See a Play” poll, Graham Emmons of St. Louis won two tickets to Rebel and Misfits’ “Macbeth: Come Like Shadows.” The survey’s response to best mystery play landed the 1952 classic “Dial M for Murder” by Frederick Knott op top, with “Wait Until Dark” – another Frederick Knott play from 1966 — a close second.
***FOSSE, VERDON AND ALL THAT JAZZ: The next show-biz limited series for FX will be “Fosse/Verdon” in 2019, about the legendary Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse and his professional and personal relationship with dancer Gwen Verdon.
Oscar winner Sam Rockwell is cast as Fosse while Oscar nominee Michelle Williams will be Verdon, returning to the network 20 years after “Dawson’s Creek.”
The cast features St. Louis native Norbert Leo Butz as writer Paddy Chayefsky, Margaret Quall as Ann Reinking and Nate Corddry as Neil Simon.
Lin-Manuel Miranda is executive-producing the eight episodes and “Hamilton” choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler is creating the dance.
***WHISTLING A HAPPY TUNE: The lavish acclaimed Tony-winning revival, “The King and I,” will be shown two nights at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema, on Nov 29 and Dec. 4 at 7 p.m. The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical filmed during its run at the London Palladium, June 21 to Sept. 29 and features more than 50 performers.
Kelli O’Hara reprised her Tony Award-winning performance and Tony and Oscar nominee Ken Watanabe played The King again. Tony winner Ruthie Ann Miles returned as Lady Thiang and West End “Aladdin” star Dean John Wilson and Na-Young Jeon played Lun Tha and Tuptim. Director Bartlett Sher reunited the original creative team.
***TRIVIA TIME-OUT: With St. Louis performers making a name for themselves on the national stage, here’s a little flashback to the halcyon days of “American Idol,” the big-bang of reality competition singing shows.
1. Who is the only St. Louisan to make “American Idol” Top Ten Finalists?
2. What “American Idol” winner tried out in St. Louis one of the two times auditions were held here?
Answers (both Season 4):
Nikko Smith, born Osborne Earl Jr., son of Cardinal Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith, who wound up ninth overall in 2005. He had been voted off in the third round of the semi-finals, but the producers asked him back to take the place of Mario Vazquez, who left for “family reasons.”
Carrie Underwood, who drove up with her mom from the family farm in Checotah, Okla., in 2004, sang “I Can’t Make You Love Me” by Bonnie Raitt.
Here’s that audition: https://youtu.be/P0j9NGV-Jm4
She just won CMA Female Vocalist of the Year, killed with a live awards show performance of “Love Wins” at six months’ pregnant, and has to date seven Grammy Awards, including Best New Artist in 2007, the only second country artist to win it.
St. Louis has hosted auditions for Seasons 4 and 11.
***WORD: “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.” – Plato