Growing up in St Louis, there were two types of productions that struck me as vital to the community: the big shows that we all know and love and the smaller shows that we don’t always know we need. The first type had found good, strong homes in the Fox Theatre and in Forest Park. Thousands of St. Louisans crowd the Broadway tours and thousands more endure the sweltering humidity to see the big titles on display at the Muny.
But the chasm of support between these big venues and the small storefronts that showcased the second type of work, the shows we don’t always know we need… that chasm is wide, wider in St. Louis, I think, than in other cities.
When I think back on the shows that really impacted me, the ones that came along at the right time and made me sit up, pay attention, and say, “This is what theatre can do,” I don’t think of "Wicked," or "The Lion King," or "Evita," though those were all extraordinary productions. The ones that really impacted me were the shows like New Line Theatre’s 2004 production of "Reefer Madness," or Tin Ceiling’s 2009 "Zombozo," or The Rep’s 2006 Off-Ramp series production of "The Pillowman." Those were the shows that made me realize that theatre isn’t just what Rodgers and Hammerstein said it should be. There was room for off-kilter work, there was room for my work.
My work had a place on the stage. Those productions taught me that.
But the Tin Ceiling is gone. The Rep closed its Off-Ramp series down. New Line is still going strong, thank God, and new storefronts are emerging… but that chasm between what’s popular on the stage and what’s important for our lives doesn’t shrink. If anything, it grows.
I wanted to do my part to help change all that.
In 2008, I left St. Louis and moved to Chicago, where I was accepted into the arts management graduate program at Columbia College Chicago. I had a plan to help impact St. Louis theatre the same way it had impacted me. It was a simple plan, and it had three parts:
Learn every possible thing about successful arts management from the oldest arts management program in the country
Finagle my way into a job in marketing at the Goodman Theatre and soak up every lesson I could from one of the best regionals around
Bring the degree and the experience back to St. Louis and launch my own program dedicated to original works from new talents in a way that laid a few planks for a bridge across that chasm between Big and Small
The plan went really well, for a while. I did earn my master’s, and I learned a lot. I did get that marketing job at the Goodman, and I boosted it up with additional experience at Lyric Opera, Joffrey Ballet, and Piven Theatre to boot. But it was the third part that tripped me up. I built a life in Chicago, I got married, and suddenly, returning to St. Louis wasn’t in the cards anymore.
And then, eventually, over time, I forgot that part of the plan altogether.
But the St. Lou Fringe Festival brought it back to life, brought that part of me back to life. My new play was selected for production this year, and suddenly, I’m traveling back to my hometown and developing a new show with some incredibly talented team members. I’m working with local St. Louis organizations and small businesses to raise money to help produce a bit of that off-kilter work that belongs on a stage. I’m engaging with an entire community of artists who all want to help build that bridge across that chasm, and I’m doing my small part to help build the Fringe Festival into that enduring missing piece that connects the work we need with the audiences who will pay to see it.
In these ways, and in so many others, the Fringe Festival has helped me keep a promise to myself, and to my hometown, that I had forgotten I made over a decade ago. That’s a contribution to my life, and to who I am, that I wouldn’t find anywhere else but the Fringe. And I will be eternally grateful for that.
Clayton Smith is an award winning novelist and playwright from St. Louis, now based in Chicago, IL. His play writing credits include "Deus ex Machina: The 13th Labor of Hercules," which debuted at the Tin Ceiling Theater in St. Louis, and "Death and McCootie," which enjoyed a sold-out run at the 2013 New York International Fringe Festival. His novels include the best-selling works Apocalypticon, Anomaly Flats, Na Akua, and Mabel Gray and the Wizard Who Swallowed the Sun, which won a 2016 INDIEFAB Book of the Year Award. He is also an assistant professor of instruction at Columbia College Chicago and the co-founder of Media Empire Media podcast network. His work can be found at www.StateOfClayton.com.