“What I want people to know more than anything is that we will have a 37th season,” said Ron Himes, Founder and Producing Director of The St. Louis Black Repertory Company. “Losing that space is not the end of The Black Rep.”
Irony is the only way to fittingly describe the timing of news that the theatre company would have to search for a new home.
They are on the cusp of a season that paid homage to having Grand Center’s Grandel Theatre as its home for the past 20 years.
“Needless to say it was a shock and a devastating blow this close to that celebration to be homeless,” Himes said.
Grand Center said that The Black Rep shouldn’t be surprised, because knew about the organization’s intent to sell the building since last season.
“Well, over the years there have been talks from time to time about the theatre being sold,” Himes said. “Sometimes they were talking about selling; sometimes they would talk about raising money to fix it up. So for them to say a year ago that they said they were going to sell it, they never sent us any official correspondence saying, ‘this is your last season and we are ready to put this building on the market.’”
Michelle Stevens, marketing director for Grand Center, said members of its board, Ken Kranzberg, board chairman, and Juanita Hinshaw, met in person with representatives of the Black Rep board over a year ago, and informed them that they intended to sell the building and that The Black Rep should plan on 2013 being their last season in the Grandel.
“At no point did we ever get an official notification saying that ‘we’re selling the theatre and that this is your last day,’” Himes said. “I think we deserved that. We could have prepared for this had we known in advance. I’m not questioning their right to sell the theatre or how they handle the business as far as how they deal with the real estate that they own. I’m merely talking about what has been – or supposed to have been – a 20 year partnership.”
Himes says the relationship between the two organizations began when Grand Center approached the Black Rep about becoming the resident theatre company for the Grandel.
“For ten years we were on 23rd and St. Louis Avenue,” Himes said. “And Richard Gaddes of Grand Center came down to North St. Louis and invited us to move to the arts and entertainment district. I told him that we couldn’t afford to move to Grand Center – that, ‘we aren’t paying rent where we are.’ And his comment was, ‘you don’t have to worry about that. Grand Center will do fundraising and we will subsidize your existence in Grand Center.’”
So they moved to the Grandel in October of 1992.
“During the time that Richard Gaddes was in leadership in Grand Center we had a pretty mutually beneficial relationship,” Himes said. “When he left, the relationship has changed drastically. We were partners in developing a new venue. We were partners in pioneering the arts and entertainment district – because in 1992, a lot of different organizations didn’t want to come to Grand Center and a lot of patrons were leery of coming to the district in 1992. The relationship went from a partnership to a landlord-tenant relationship. And over the years there have been times when the relationship was good, and there have been times when the relationship was not so good.”
Where do they go from here?
“We are proud to have the Black Rep as part of the Grand Center arts community and are willing to work with them to find other space within the District,” Stevens said. “Currently, Grand Center has capacity in other venues, including the Kranzberg Arts Center and the Sun Theater will be open in February 2014.”
Himes thanked Grand Center for 20 years of providing a space, but said the relocation options that Grand Center has presented are not viable for The Black Rep.
“The Sun Theatre is now being developed for the Grand Center Performing Arts Academy. Grand Center has offered that to us as an option. But if the Grand Center Performing Arts Academy is building a theatre, it’s because they need a theatre,” Himes said. “When I said that to Grand Center, they said ‘Well, oh you can use it in the summer.’ Well, we don’t produce over the summer.”
The Kranzberg only seats 80, which would be too small for The Black Rep’s subscription base.
They need a venue to produce their upcoming season – which typically begins in January – so they feel that they are being forced to look outside of Grand Center.
“I also think that the Black Rep is the only major African American institution that performs in Grand Center,” Himes said. “I would’ve thought that the arts district – of all places – would be some place where we would want diversity and the diversity of cultural experience and performance experiences. So now that the Black Rep is basically out of Grand Center – and that seems to not be of any concern to Grand Center.”
The Black Rep has met with Washington University (which hosts their annual fall production), St. Louis Community College, The Missouri Historical Society and several others to discuss interim options.
“We were homeless before we moved to St. Louis Avenue,” Himes said. “And we won’t be homeless for long. We’ve been getting plenty of calls every day about potential spaces.”
The Black Rep will be opening their fall production in September at Wash U.’s Hoetchner Theatre and their hope is to have secured other venues and be able to announce the full season during the run of that show.
“At this point our plan is to produce a five-play subscription series – just as we’ve done for the past 20 years,” Himes said. “And we feel confident that our audience will follow us around and we’ll prepare the most luscious, movable feast that we can for them.
I’m hoping that the next home will be a space that we own or a home that we are able to sign a long term lease – well beyond my years and tenure.”