30 Years After Founding STL Shakespeare, Donna Northcott Takes a Curtain Call

Categories: Arts
Kim Carlson
Suki Peters at Kate in 2010's Taming of the Shrew.
It hasn't always been easy. As a small company with a limited budget, St. Louis Shakespeare's stock in trade has been to work creatively with relatively few resources. For Northcott that has always meant starting with the script, enabling actors and directors to clearly define what's on the page, but also giving them leeway to push the work in counterintuitive directions while still conveying the core drama.

"People get the wrong idea about Shakespeare. It's not about the text being sacred," she says. "You need to trust Shakespeare to know what he was doing. You need to trust the script."

The more famous works — the Macbeths, the Henry Vs — are so well known that the audience comes to the theater with a good sense of the dramatic stakes. The flip side being, of course, that there's precious little new ground to explore. Meanwhile, the more obscure works — The Two Noble Kinsmen, anyone? — can be more challenging. Sure, they offer a lot in the way of creative freedom, but any adaptation must also work hard to illuminate a story that is familiar to only a few audience members.

Over the years, some of those efforts have been more successful than others. There was a terrifically flawed Julius Caesar. "The costumes looked like something from the original Star Trek. The daggers looked like butter knives." But the fiascos have been few, and Northcott, who is known for building lasting relationships with actors, directors, designers and technicians, built an efficient company that often produces moving work. (Paradoxically, her favorite production wasn't a Shakespeare play, but rather a 1997 staging of Robert Schenkkan's The Kentucky Cycle.)

"These people have been doing this for a long time," says Jeff Roberts, a sound technician who started out with the company as a spear-carrier in 1987 before taking several years off. "When I went back I was stunned at the level they were at. Before I'd thought we were a pretty good semi-professional group, but now they're really professional."

While the company has grown, life as a small Shakespeare troupe hasn't gotten much easier — particularly over the past few years. Its popular Magic Smoking Monkey shows (live television and movie parodies that Northcott likens to a theatrical bag of Cheetos) may broaden its audience base and build revenue, but the company still struggles to distinguish itself from the well-funded new kid on the block, Shakespeare Festival St. Louis.

More importantly, the troupe suffered a major blow two years ago when the Grandel Theatre, which St. Louis Shakespeare called home for eighteen years, stopped leasing to theater companies.

"It was very difficult," Northcott says. "Partly because it was so sudden." As a result the company is staging this season's four productions at three separate venues, creating new challenges for the troupe and making it hard for its audience to keep up with the peregrinations.

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