For architect Rob Lippert, being able to design the theater where he also serves as scenic and lighting designer was serendipity.
“It’s rare that a designer gets to build his space,” said Scott Miller, founder and artistic director of New Line Theatre.
Miller knew he wanted to hand the reins to Lippert when the Kranzberg Arts Foundation partnered with the St. Louis-based musical theater company to establish a new home.
New Line opens its 25th season with its 75th show, “Heathers,” a pitch-black musical comedy based on the 1989 cult movie, this Friday in a new black box space. The Marcelle Theatre, in the north end of the Grand Arts Center, at 3310 Samuel Shepard Drive, is home to New Line and the Big Muddy dance company, and will be used for other events, too.
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“I wanted a black box. We loved being at the Art Loft,” Miller said. “The set-up here is different — oh it’s different.”
The new space seats about 120 currently and offers modern conveniences.
Miller said he defers to Rob for the technical aspects. Lippert has quickly drawn acclaim for his New Line work — he won a St. Louis Theater Circle Award for his lighting design of “The Night of the Living Dead,” and has been nominated for “Bonnie and Clyde” and the set of “And Then There Were None” for Stray Dog.
For Lippert, who grew up in Belleville and now lives in O’Fallon with his wife, Kathleen Dwyer, the opportunity to work in professional regional theater has been a dream come true. With an extensive background designing, acting and directing in community theater, Lippert knew every aspect of the art form, and could translate that into the new space. He also attends around 40 to 50 shows a year.
Lippert has been designing New Line’s sets and lights for the past three years, and also designs sets for the Stray Dog Theatre, which performs in the Tower Grove Abbey. For Theatre Lab last summer, he designed the set for “The Pillowman” at the Gaslight Theatre. In community theater, he has worked with Looking Glass Players, Brass Rail Players and Cathedral Players.
Lippert started drawings last Nov. 1, and the contractors began work Feb. 2. What he dreamed, he could imagine.
“There is power everywhere,” Lippert said, smiling. He explained that some operations used a single extension cord, but now he has circuits every 6 feet on the four walls. The acoustics were a priority, too, as was quiet heating and cooling.
Dressing rooms and a green room are adjacent to the stage. Actors can exit through the lobby to meet family and friends.
For the audience, the building is completely handicapped accessible and bathrooms are located off the lobby.
The lobby includes separate areas for the box office and concessions.
“We wanted ultimate flexibility,” Lippert said.
He is also excited about the big garage door leading to a dock. Those who hauled up a dismantled truck to their performance space at the old CBC High School in Clayton can appreciate the ease of access.
His architecture company, U-Studios Inc. with partner Gary Karasek, has a warehouse in Swansea. That’s where the foundations of his set pieces are built.
Intimate spaces present challenges, but Lippert eagerly embraces the tasks at hand. He boils things down to the essentials, but with meticulous attention to detail and a flair for dramatic.
“For ‘Bonnie and Clyde,’ the original concept opens with machine gun fire and they’re in the car. Their life flashes before they eyes in the seconds that they’re dying, and that’s what the play is. So I worked with pools of light, some muted colors and unusual colors, to indicate what was in their heads,” he said.
The Marcelle is the eighth theater New Line has used for its bold, sometimes edgy and always fearless productions.
Miller, 51, said after years in other groups, he sought somewhere to perform works offering an alternative to commercial Broadway-type shows. He’s been part of that vanguard since 1991.
“Nobody else was doing the kind of shows I wanted to do, so I decided to go ahead and do it myself,” he said.
The shows must be interesting. “Does it deal with important and relevant issues?” he said. His vision has been the same throughout his career: “Tell the story, nothing else, in the clearest way we possibly can.”
Miller, a voracious reader, pays attention to what’s produced in New York, and will snatch up plays that New Line is the first to do here. “Heathers” and “American Idiot” next year are regional premieres.
He has gained a national reputation for taking shows that did not fare well in New York, and turning them into compelling theatrical productions. Licensing companies have New Line on their radar and call Miller directly when certain shows become available.
“The shows that we rescue were all misunderstood,” he said.
“We don’t change them. We do them as written, and respect the writers and the audience. The writers love us. We have a fair amount who come see their show here,” he said.
“A cool thing is that sometimes writers learn what didn’t work and do a major rewrite before we do it,” he said. “They love that we treat their script with respect. We don’t change things and screw with it. Sometimes, working in a small space with a small audience works better.”
He credits their presence on social media, how they discuss the behind-the-scenes process in blogs, with increased awareness.
“High Fidelity,” “Cry-Baby,” “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Hands on a Hardbody” are some of the musicals New Line has finessed into successful shows.
“They know that other groups around the country will know about it. We get amazing reviews, and then other people will want to do the shows,” he said.
New Line’s production of “Hands on a Hardbody” was lauded by composer Amanda Green, who attended the show opening night.
“The truck was a means to an end. All we did was tell the story. The truck’s not the story. On Broadway, they spun the truck and had it moving,” Miller said.
As for “Heathers,” a cast of 16 – including Fairview Heights native Anna Skidis as the lead Veronica, in addition to Chris Kernan of Belleville, Kevin Corpuz of O’Fallon, and Colin Dowd of Glen Carbon — immerses itself in big hair, shoulder pads and scrunchies and plenty of attitude.
Miller, who co-directs the “pitch-black big-hearted and homicidal” “Heathers” with longtime collaborator Mike Dowdy, was drawn to the musical because of what it says about the lack of empathy in the United States and its cultural tone.
“It’s important, it’s still relevant. It’s outrageous and surprising, and really profound and moving, and when I can get all that together, that is my nirvana,” he said. “The cast is in love with the movie, and are now in love with the play,” Miller said.
Miller’s shows typically feature a cast of about half newcomers and the rest veteran players. However, with “Heathers,” there are more new people because of the ages required.
“We have 10-12 new people almost every year, and then about 15-20 who come back. It’s really easy for an actor of color to get a lead, and they all love that we are racially diverse,” Miller said.
For the set, Lippert took the ’80s time period and ran with it, with bright colors and geometric shapes.
“It’s high school again,” he said. Lippert is a graduate of Althoff Catholic High School and Washington University school of architecture.
“Heathers” runs at 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays until Oct. 24.
To celebrate the 25th season, they have implemented a “25 for 25” ticket discount. For every show’s Thursday preview, they will set aside 25 tickets, and the first 25 people in line at the box office will pay only 25 cents for a seat.
For more information, visit www.newlinetheatre.org.