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Growing talent in St. Charles County

It was playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde who penned the famous words, “It was only in the theatre that I lived.”

For many actors in the St. Louis area, those words ring true.

J. Jason Daunter

“It’s a love affair, it really is,” said J. Jason Daunter, production stage manager of the Tony Award-nominated production of “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” Daunter, a former Fort Zumwalt North High student, added, “It’s a horrible mistress named Theater, and it’s in your bones. You have to sacrifice a lot to do this, there’s no question.”

But he added, “If I hadn’t found drama [in high school], I wouldn’t be here today, there’s no doubt about that. Theater saved my life, and there was refuge in that group of people.”

For devoted thespians, it’s not just about reading lines off a script. It’s about spending hours practicing steps to dance routines, or wearing vocal chords raw to hit the perfect notes in a song. Rehearsing thousands of words of lines and withstanding the hot glare of spotlights is all in a day’s work.

Eric Hennig

“When I did my first play, we did acting classes twice a week outside [of] rehearsals,” Eric Hennig said. Hennig is the author of “Hourglass,” book one in a young-adult fantasy series; a YouNow partner; and a former member of Young People’s Theatre at St. Charles Community College [SCC]. “Working on a production was almost like you were hired for a job – 100 percent of everything went into the production.”

Endless practice and dedication are the routine of many thespians, and that dedication is originating right in West St. Louis and St. Charles counties.

On the stage

The 2017 Tony Awards proved to be another fruitful year for St. Louis talent.

“A Doll’s House, Part 2,” produced by Mike Isaacson, artistic director of The Muny, and partner Kristin Caskey, was nominated for eight awards and took home the Tony for best actress in a leading role via Laurie Metcalf of Carbondale, Illinois. Kevin Kline, a native of Clayton, also claimed a Tony for his role in “Present Laughter.”

But the annual awards aren’t the only time St. Louis is in Broadway’s spotlight.

Chesterfield-based STAGES St. Louis is celebrating its 31st anniversary of producing Broadway-quality theater. Opened in 1987 by Executive Producer Jack Lane and Artistic Director Michael Hamilton, with a budget of $50,000 and eight part-time staffers, the company now employs 25 full-time staff members overseeing a budget of about $4.7 million, with a maxed-out box-office record of about $2 million annually. Lane also was a producer of “The Humans” [2016 Tony for Best Play] and the St. Louis-backed musical “Fun Home” [2015 Tony for Best Musical]. Hamilton, a Kirkwood native, has produced and choreographed over 100 STAGES productions, some coming right off of Broadway.

“We came to St. Louis from New York in 1986 and wanted to make a statement,” Lane said. “We did a production of ‘A Chorus Line’ in 1988, which was still performing on Broadway, but we could get the rights. I thought, ‘If we can do this, I bet the production could put us on the map,’ and it did.”

[From left] Leah Berry, Ryan Cooper, Colton James Kastrup and Anthony Arpino in “Seussical” presented by STAGES St. Louis for the 2017 season. [Photo courtesy of STAGES/Peter Wochniak]

To date, STAGES St. Louis has produced over 106 musicals and is the top regional employer for local actors and actresses. Per season, STAGES typically employs 75 or more actors from St. Louis, New York, Chicago and other regions.

“I think in the town that you perform in, you should hire as locally as you can,” Lane said. “If you can’t find it here, then you have to look out of town. If we could be 100-percent local, I’d be thrilled.”

STAGES also maintains the Performing Arts Academy, which educates thousands of students in theater arts from preschool through high school. It’s the region’s only year-round performing arts academy with a comprehensive curriculum maintained by a professional theater company.

“Our secret? It’s a lot of hard work, getting to know your product, getting to know your audience and always listening,” Lane said.

According to its Associate Producer Andrew Kuhlman, one of the best parts of STAGES is introducing and fostering new performance experiences for those who otherwise might not have the opportunity. One such example is sensory-friendly performances.

“We had students on the autism spectrum with severe sensory conditions, and they’re entering a room, a theater, where they might have never felt welcome before,” Kuhlman said. “In creating a judgment-free area, you’re introducing theatre to those who have possibly never experienced it.”

Kuhlman currently teaches theater at SCC. He started at STAGES as an intern in 2012.

“Every day I count myself incredibly lucky that I live a life supported by the arts,” Kuhlman said. “I find myself using that phrase a lot, in that I have a full-time job as a producer in one of the top companies in St. Louis. I get to act, direct; I get to teach. There was not one point in my life that I thought [that] at 29, I’d be able to say all that.”

While some thespians stay local, others take their talents national.

Daunter is celebrating the 10th anniversary of his move to New York, where he has worked consistently on projects since 2003.

“It’s really about what you want to do and what’s going to make you happiest in life,” Daunter said. “My message has always been that if you want to work hard enough for something, there’s nobody that should be able to tell you that you can’t do it. Nothing is going to be handed to you, and at the same time, you really have to be willing to dive into it and really give it an honest attempt.”

Daunter first wanted to dive into theater after seeing a 1993 production of “Phantom of the Opera” at the Fabulous Fox Theatre.

“Talk about a life-changing moment,” Daunter said. “On my worst days, when I just don’t want to do anything, I remember there’s another kid out there experiencing theater for the first time, and that’s who I’m doing it for.”

Lindenwood University’s production of “Oklahoma!” [Photo courtesy of Chris Duggan]

According to Daunter, all levels of theater in the St. Louis area help theatrically inclined people grow their talent.

In St. Charles County, Lindenwood University is home to the J. Scheidegger Center for the Arts, and the Donald D. Shook Fine Arts Building at SCC has the Center Stage Theatre. SCC also is home to the Young People’s Theatre [YPT], a youth program in which volunteers provide learning, performance and training opportunities for local families and younger performers.

“What St. Charles is doing is providing a lot of opportunities for people to create their own experiences,” Daunter said. “The high school theaters, the educational theaters and the community theaters are cultural backbones for people to start developing and honing their skills.”

Since 2008, Daunter has honed his skills working with Kline, after initially meeting during a production of “Cyrano de Bergerac.”

“We began a working relationship that has spanned to a nine-year friendship,” Daunter said. “We’re both just boys from St. Louis who worked really hard. I don’t put myself near the same level as him, but he’s been a great mentor and a great friend.”

Daunter believes one of the reasons for the popularity of local theater is that St. Louisians aren’t afraid to create opportunities.

“I think there’s this Midwest work ethic,” he said. “A lot of times, you’re not going to have everything handed to you. I think, especially around here, if opportunities don’t present themselves, then you find a way to make them for yourself.”

Daunter’s former national tour of “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” ran at The Fabulous Fox Theatre from Sept. 13-25, 2016, while his current tour of “A Doll’s House, Part 2” is scheduled for an extended run in New York.

On the big – and little – screen

For some, local experience has led to professional opportunities across the country and on social media.

For Hennig, who got his start with YPT after landing the lead role in the group’s production of “The Homecoming,” his love of theater led him to Los Angeles.

He continued doing YPT plays before signing with an agent his senior year of high school and moving to LA in 2014. In addition to a role in the 2012 film “The Hunger Games” as a Gamemaker, Hennig also has appeared on several television shows and in films, including a guest-starring role on Lifetime’s “My Haunted House.” Hennig moved back to St. Charles in March 2016 to focus on the second volume of his young-adult fantasy series “Hourglass” and also recently finished writing his first feature film, “Camouflage.”

“Even when I was acting in Los Angeles, I found myself writing a lot,” Hennig said. “I lived in LA for three years and that’s pretty much where a lot of my good friends live now, so coming back here and kind of secluding myself helped me recharge and refocus on my career.”

Hennig has partnered with YouNow, a live broadcasting service where users from across the globe can stream live video content. Hennig became a partner about two years ago while acting in LA. His first two livestreams resulted in about 12,400 fans; he started streaming routinely in April 2017. After only two months of producing regular content, Hennig was invited to VidCon, an online video conference for notable internet personalities.

Hennig’s topics range from relationships to bullying.

“I had one girl [on the livestream], maybe three or four weeks ago, who said that she started singing when she was really young, and she had stopped because she got made fun of a lot,” Hennig said. “She was really self-conscious, and when she started to sing, the amount of viewers I have fluctuates, but about 40,000 people had clicked in throughout the two hours. When she started to sing, I had tears in my eyes, and I’m not an emotional person. Fast-forward a week later, she sends me a long letter about how happy she was to have her confidence back after thinking she would never sing again.”

Hennig and his viewers have bonded over lighthearted experiences, like making homemade slime or reading fan mail. “When you’re broadcasting, you’re still yourself, but you still having people watching you that you want to entertain,” Hennig said.

According to Hennig, his acting experience has been a contributing factor to his success on social media and in front of the camera, and one piece of advice from former YPT director Kay Christopher still applies: “Be original and authentic.”

“I’ve learned throughout my experiences, especially when I started auditioning. I would go into a room and do what I thought they wanted me to do, or portray the character how I thought they wanted to see it,” Hennig said. “I remember learning in an acting class that you should read the script, then get your own opinion of the traits and actions, because if you do that, it’ll come across more real and genuine. I can be a shy person, and theater really helped me come out of my shell and made all this possible.”

The show will go on

While St. Louis talent spans the coasts and everywhere in between, local talent shows no signs of slowing down. Whether it’s entertaining patrons or inspiring an aspiring thespian, the show always goes on.

“Being at the Tony Awards and actually sitting in Radio City Music Hall for the awards show, I knew there has to be some other 13- or 14-year-old out there that was me,” Daunter said. “I wouldn’t trade any opportunity because of all the experiences made me who I am today.”

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