Sister Mary Reflections

Dec 04, 2023 | News & Events,

Sister Mary Reflections

by Sue Greenberg, executive director

A vile diatribe against all things Catholic? Not this time. Stray Dog Theatre’s production of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You is up and running without any public outrage.

That was not the case when Theatre Project Company (TPC) produced Christopher Durang’s biting comedy in 1983. I was the company’s marketing director by day and production stage manager at night. Earlier that season we staged Bent, Martin Sherman’s piercing play about the persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany. Much to our surprise, it was Sister Mary that erupted in controversy.

Thanks to the “vile diatribe” wrath of then Archbishop John May, we lost our performance space. Then we were threatened not only with the loss of our Missouri Arts Council grant but also with the elimination of the entire state agency. We were not prepared for the ongoing attention of the national media, the overwhelming demand for tickets, the fearful silence of our region’s major cultural institutions or the resignation of board members. It was both exhilarating and exasperating.

Founded in 1975 by General Manager Christine E. Smith and Artistic Director Fontaine Syer, TPC is also remembered for producing plays in a makeshift 150-seat theatre in the largely vacant Union Station. Some of my favorites were Lenny, The Hostage, Catch-22, Waiting for Godot, Getting Out, Hamlet, and The Tempest. We did a few shows, such as Bleacher Bums, outdoors at the Missouri Botanical Garden and several seasons at New City School in the Central West End. Our robust children’s program included touring productions, classes, and an annual mainstage production.

The Sister Mary uproar raised our gutsy profile. But there was fallout; we were unable to raise the money needed to renovate the dilapidated Lyn Theater (now known as The Sun) — a pre-controversy gift from the Koplar family — into a permanent home in Grand Center. We made do with New City’s dreary elementary school auditorium. Then, one by one, the members of our core group left to pursue other opportunities. By the early 1990s, TPC was gone.

Fontaine Syer passed away in 2015. When we gathered to celebrate her life and work, we were reminded of what we had accomplished: Theatre Project Company added youthful, homegrown energy to the St. Louis theatre landscape. We demonstrated that there was an audience for ambitious “Off-Broadway” theatre, paving the way for the small professional companies that followed us. For me, that’s a more gratifying legacy than our 15 minutes of fame.

Photo: Lee Patton Chiles and Brian Stemmler in TPC’s 1983 production