The oldest continuously operating theatre company in St. Louis isn’t the biggest in the city. Or the most famous. But in the heart of the Central West End, the West End Players Guild (WEPG) has entertained and enlightened theatre-goers for 107 seasons with thought-provoking, cutting-edge drama.This “big theatre in a small space,” is the embodiment of underground theatre, not only because it is, well, underground, bringing literature to life in the basement of Union Avenue Church, but because it brings to St. Louis shows many other companies would never touch.
Remarked Renee Sevier-Monsey, president of WEPG, “We tend to do stuff other companies won’t do. They look at a play and think the subject matter is too touchy or that audiences would never go for it. They can’t figure out how to make the transitions work or stage it out. When it’s a story that deserves to be told, we’ll work it out in order to share it with the audience. As long as there’s a good story and intriguing characters involved, we’re going to do it. That’s why we’re here – we’re storytellers.”
More than 100 years of history
The West End Players started in 1911 when a group of Washington University professors got together to perform live readings of their favorite pieces at the former Artists Guild on Union Blvd. “It was early 20th-century nightlife at its most exciting,” laughed treasurer Mark Abels. “I’m sure there may have been a few drinks involved.”
Over the next few years, the players welcomed in a growing audience, branching out into full-fledged performances featuring local actors and directors. As this professional, non-equity theatre has evolved, it’s kept its focus on developing productions that are unique to the city, whether they are St. Louis premieres, pieces rarely staged by other companies, or classic plays many audiences have never seen performed live.
“We want to tell stories about the people who live where we live, but also tell the stories of people who are different from us,” said Sevier-Monsey, who has been with the company for 30 years. “It’s all about character-driven storytelling that’s meaningful to the person watching and meaningful to the community as a whole.”
For the company, bringing these stories to the stage can be a challenge, especially in a small, intimate setting. But each member accepts the challenge wholeheartedly, manipulating the props, scene and lighting to bring it to fruition. To illustrate, for last year’s acclaimed Oedipus Apparatus, WEPG used every square foot of floor space. According to Abels, that meant bringing the action into the aisles as a bridge between Oedipus’s palace at one end of the house and a talk show hosted by the Greek gods at the other.
“It was a weird spectacle, but amazing,” he said. “The performance was very creative, and reviews were spectacular. We really got a kick out of doing it – that’s the kind of things other companies wouldn’t try. If they can’t do it on the stage, they won’t do it. The house isn’t even a possibility. We see a challenge, and we just roll right into it.”
Through its imaginative engineering and inspired staging, WEPG will bring an animatronic horse to life on stage or turn the ceiling into a galaxy of stars. They may take a Broadway play that’s had millions of dollars thrown at it and reimagine it with seven people and a chair to get to the true heart of the story. Or, present an original play hot off the presses with passion and vigor that only a company with no constraints can.
Just as important, WEPG welcomes guest directors and offers a variety of opportunities for those wishing to expand their repertoire. Explained Sevier-Monsey, “We offer so many opportunities to people with a passion for theatre. Someone doesn’t have to retire or die before someone else with the artistry and creativity has the chance to direct, light or perform.”
Theatre based in community
While WEPG is led by St. Louis theatre veterans, it also gives a voice to its loyal fan base that makes the theatre the renowned company it is. WEPG fans are glued to their seats at the closing show of each season to hear what’s coming up the next year, and are invited to share their own recommendations for performances they’d like to see. Abels noted the moment the season ticket renewals are up for grabs, the crowd jumps back into action, ready to secure their seats.
“What’s so great about WEPG is that we’re inclusive, welcoming and challenging,” said Sevier-Monsey. “When you come and see the audience, you would be amazed. I’ll have an audience member who is in their 70’s come up and want to discuss what they saw with the same passion as the teenager an aisle over. They are truly theatre people who don’t just see shows with us, but want to hang out and discuss them. I think that’s wonderful since theatre is such a living art form.”
This season, you can be part of the audience by taking in its 2017/2018 series. This season, WEPG is launching a lineup of shows to intrigue and engage audiences. These include Cardboard Piano in its St. Louis premiere, Silent Sky, which spotlights female astronomers, and the Pulitzer-nominated Walk in the Woods, apropos for the contentious political climate we are all living in.
For more information on the series or to purchase tickets to this local company, visit www.westendplayers.org.