NJT still thriving after ten seasons


The New Jewish Theatre of St. Louis, which started off in 1997 very modestly with a mere 60 season ticket subscribers and a three-show season with eight performances, is looking forward to its 11th season in 2007-2008, with five plays and 15 performances for each show.

“We have gone from 24 performances our first season to a total of 75 for our upcoming season; we have indeed come a long way,” said Kathleen Sitzer, NJT’s artistic director since its founding at the Jewish Community Center in 1996. She added that the original list of 60 season subscribers has grown to 900 by the most recent season.

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“We have been not only pleased, but amazed by our continued growth, especially at a time when theaters nationally have been experiencing losses.” Asked why the NJT succeeds while others are faltering, Sitzer said, “I beleve first and foremost it’s because we are giving our audiences more of what they want to see. We have worked hard to improve the quality of our acting, directing and production values, and have made sure that our content is never just more of the same old, same old.”

Sitzer stressed that NJT strives not only to entertain, but also to inform and even occasionally provoke its audiences, by presenting not only the more traditional fare, but also some more off-beat, avant-garde and even controversial works, such as The Merchant of Venice and Via Dolorosa. “For such plays, where the content, characters or subject matter may be controversial, we provide talk-backs between the cast, crew and audience and invite in outside speakers to facilitate discussions.”

Kathleen Sitzer brought solid theatrical credentials to her position as artistic director of The New Jewish Theatre, which she established at the JCC in 1996, and which has already earned numerous prestigious Kevin Kline Awards nominations and awards, and has been listed in the annual “A-List” under theatrical companies in St. Louis Magazine. Originally from Frederick, Md., where she performed with her high school acting group, she earned her bachelor of arts degree from Washington University in St. Louis, where she took every available course offered in theater and drama. After a stint in Washington where she was an admissions officer at George Washington University, where she began graduate work in drama, she and her husband Bill moved back to St. Louis, where she earned a master’s degree in theater from St. Louis University. At this point, she told Jewish Light interviewer Pam Droog Jones, “I plunged in and started doing theater.”

Before answering an ad in the St. Louis Jewish Light which resulted in her job at NJT, Sitzer acted with the Theatre Project Company, St. Louis Shakespeare Company and the St. Louis Black Rep, among others, as well as appearing in TV and radio commercials and the St. Louis Science Center, and wrote, produced and performed in four science-themed, one-woman shows. She took on the challenge of becoming artistic director of NJT before she could begin a teaching career, but strongly feels it was the right choice for her.

When Sitzer took over at the Carlyn H. Wohl Building of the JCC, the existing theater program was a community theater model with modest attendance. In the anticipated Jewish Community Center capital expansion plan, an expanded venue will have 125-140 seats to better accommodate the current and growing season subscription list of over 900. Sitzer expressed appreciation to the “incredibly supportive New Jewish Theatre Committtee, which has been chaired until recently by Marty Weinstock, who continues to chair the play selection subcommittee. The new chairperson is Marilyn Spirt, the managing director of the Shakespeare Festival of St. Louis.

“Our committee has been amazingly supportive,” Sitzer says. “With the support of the committee, we have been able to present a wide range of artitistic sensibilities and styles and we have not backed away from material that is controversial or provocative. We are indeed fortunate to have such a dedicated group of volunteers who devote so many hours to our efforts.”

Sitzer said the major sources of revenue for the NJT included ticket sales, donations, event proceeds and advertising dollars. “We expect each program to pay for itself, and we have managed our finances well. It helps that we have a permanent venue with no additional costs; venue costs can really sink a lot of theatrical groups.”

Under Sitzer’s artistic direction, the NJT has developed into a professional theater company, in part by hiring actors and actresses who are members of the Actor’s Equity Association. “The addition of these accomplished actors and raised the professional bar. NJT hires both Equity and non-Equity (non-Union) actors. Union or not, all NJT actors are professional,” Sitzer said. She adds that both Equity and non-Equity performers have received Kevin Kline nominations and awards for their NJT work.

Looking toward the future, Sitzer said that when NJT can finally move to larger quarters with a fully equipped modern theater setting, that it will retain the warmth and intimacy of the current venue. “We want to remain loyal to our longtime and loyal audiences and supporters, while at the same time keep improving our product and output to serve the needs of our next decade and beyond.”