Reconstruction of the Little Theater was made possible again by a $2 million donation from an anonymous former teacher who had a special relationship with the school district.
The return of the Little Theater benefits a plethora of groups at Webster Groves High School, including but not limited to the drama department and the music department. It will also offer a space to host guest speakers and a modified revival of the All Write Festival.
The Little Theater was shut down because of water damage that eventually led to mold. Originally, there was a gym against the back wall of the Little Theater; however, it was removed when the Auxiliary Gym was constructed. The original wall remains. However, it was not constructed to function as an exterior wall and does not handle rain well.
Todd Schaefer is in charge of the drama department at WGHS. Schaefer began teaching in Webster in January of 2006. When he arrived, the Little Theater was a mess.
“I remember going to Ms. (Mickey) Erb and going, ‘I need another dumpster,’ It was in bad shape, and the space itself was foul, dirty; it needed a full clean up,” Schaefer described. He filled 13 dumpsters with trash. His first tech theater classes played a big role in cleaning out the Little Theater because they were in a rush to get it ready in time for the spring production.
Schaefer’s first show was a play called “Marvin’s Room.”
“The opening night of ‘Marvin’s Room,’ I discovered the flaws of the Little Theater, which was it leaked, terribly bad,” Schaefer said. He explained that when he entered the Little Theater, that night, there were almost three inches of water in the front row of seating that had come up through the floor.
“As I get close, I realize there is a waterfall coming through the back doors and running across the front of the stage and down off the front of the stage,” Schaefer said.
This posed an issue because it threatened the electrics, lighting, the set, the curtains on the stage, and everything else that was needed for the show. The rain stopped almost as soon as Schaefer walked in the door. He and a few custodial staff who were still at the school cleaned up the water, and the show was able to open that night. The set was on wheels and did not suffer any water damage. Water and flooding remained an issue throughout Schaefer’s 12 years in the Little Theater.
“We just prayed it wouldn’t rain when we were in there for a show,” Schaefer said. Schaefer used the Little Theater as his classroom. Every time it rained, he had to deal with this issue.
“I was dumping trashcans full of water out of there, once, twice, three times a year,” Schaefer said.
“If I’m hearing it right, it’s probably going to be demolished and rebuilt,” Schaefer said.
“I think the donation came in to revitalize that square footage, we didn’t want a space on campus that was not being used,” Schaefer theorized.
Senior Ava Musgraves was invited to be a part of a redesign advisory committee for the Little Theater. Musgraves is a member of various artistic groups at the high school like choir and drama.
The committee also included a student who has now graduated representing the music department, a member of the Statesmen Stars dance team, interior design experts, someone who designed theaters throughout St. Louis, the executive director of Webster Arts, and a few others. Schaefer also was involved in committee meetings.
“The Little Theater movement was really big in the 20s and 30s,” principal Matt Irvin said. The Little Theater was modeled after the Yale Little Theater, which has since been redone. The redesign of the Webster Little Theater will be based on the Yale Little Theater once again. The goal of the Yale Little Theater is to be a double duty space, according to Irvin.
“When the donation was first announced, there were a lot of question marks,” Schaeffer said. He mentioned that one of the most important things was figuring out what the high school needed. The committee determined that the most important thing would be to make the space versatile.
“This will be kind of different where there can be a stage; the stage can be taken away; the seats can be taken away; it can be used as a rehearsal room; it can be used as like an event space. I think that’s just really cool and like really smart to make it versatile, also just to accommodate all the different groups at school. I think there’s a lot of groups that just don’t have that kind of a space,” Musgraves said.
Musgraves compared the plan for the Little Theater to The Pageant, an event venue in The Delmar Loop often used for live music performances or concerts.
Irvin also mentioned that the Staenberg Performance Lab at COCA is part of the inspiration.
“After going back and forth with Dr. Irvin, we kind of thought that the most versatile way to use the space… would be to have kind of seating options, where the seats can be like tucked away, or they can be out, and that’s something that The Pageant features. It’s kind of like bleacher seating… but it looks nicer than bleachers,” Musgraves explained.
Schaefer said the drama department does not necessarily need it for productions but may use it for presentational work, monologue showcases, Broadway reviews, or One Acts. It is also intended to be used for small ensemble music performances, an art gallery, or guest speakers for any department.
Dr. Irvin is excited to bring back the All Write Festival and hopes to tie in the Webster Art Fair.
“It should be a neat community space. It’s right there on the corner of Bradford and Selma, so the parking lots are really close,” Schaefer explained. He also noted it is easy to get audiences in and out of the Little Theater and that it is handicap accessible.
Shannon Daniel is the head of Webster Groves Alumni Relations and an alumnus herself. Before the Little Theater was shut down, Alumni Relations often used it to bring in guest speakers.
One of Daniel’s favorite things about the Little Theater was a wall that was signed by the cast of each production done in the Little Theater.
“Everyone would write their name on there and say, you know, ‘I was here,’” Daniel explained.
“It was a beautiful space. It was really, really pretty,” Daniel said.
This will be Emily Goben’s first year on ECHO staff, but she made several contributions while taking journalism class her sophomore year.