Sitzer has a vision for the NJT stage


On the eve of the 10th season of the New Jewish Theatre, Kathleen Sitzer notes, “Turning 10 is such a statement. It says we are here to stay.” And so is Sitzer, who has found the perfect niche as NJT’s producing artistic director, a position that allows her to balance her passions for theater and Judaism.

Sitzer became interested in theater as a teenager in Frederick, Md., where she joined the high-school thespian group. “I enjoyed acting and that became my aspiration, although my family was less than thrilled about my career choice,” she says. She attended Washington University where, although there was no theater department, she majored in English and took every drama course and earned a bachelor of arts degree.

After graduating she returned to Washington, D.C., and worked as an admissions officer at George Washington University, where she took graduate courses in theater. She also met her husband, Bill. While he served in the Army the couple lived in a variety of places. Ultimately the family, now including two sons, settled in St. Louis, specifically in the former Laclede Town. “It was a great place for young students,” Sitzer recalls. Her husband attended law school, and Sitzer earned a master’s degree in theater at St. Louis University. “Then I plunged in and started doing theater,” she says.

Over the next several years, Sitzer performed with the Theatre Project Company, St. Louis Shakespeare Company and the St. Louis Black Rep, among others. She also acted in television and radio commercials and industrial shows and worked for the St. Louis Science Center, demonstrating scientific phenomena in a theatrical way. As a result of that experience, Sitzer wrote and produced four science-themed one-woman shows, which she performed at schools for several years. She also wrote, produced and directed, and stayed as busy as she wanted to while raising her daughter, who was born 10 and 12 years after her brothers.

“Once my daughter was old enough, I decided to pursue theater in some way on a full-time basis,” Sitzer says, “and I figured the only way to do that was to teach.” She never had never taken a single education course, so in 1995 she went back to school for two years to earn a teaching certificate. “I even had to take math again,” she says. “Fortunately, I passed.”

Armed with her new credentials, Sitzer searched for a position teaching theater. But then she saw an ad in the Jewish Light for a theater coordinator at the JCC. “I answered it and two weeks later I started working here,” she says. “I never taught a single day!”

At that point, the JCC theater program was “teetering,” Sitzer says. “Everyone was thrilled when there were 30 or 35 people in the audience of the 99-seat theater. I wanted to figure out how to expand and revitalize the program.”

Her vision was “to do plays that reflect some aspect of the Jewish experience. I still believe that is the place of a theater serving the JCC and that the Jewish community needs this as a cultural outlet,” she says.

Sitzer assembled a board to help her realize her goals. One of those was to rename the program, which had been known as the Shalom Players. “I suggested ever so tactfully that we change the name because I wanted to professionalize the whole theater experience here,” she says. “I wanted a name that suggested we were not going to hide behind anything in terms of what kind of theater this was and what we wanted to accomplish. So we named it the New Jewish Theatre.”

Sitzer says even after 10 years she gets asked, Is it still new? “It relates to a lot more than just the age of the theater,” she explains. “One of my objectives in creating a new Jewish theater was to help people understand there is a huge spectrum of what qualifies as Jewish theater, as opposed to just ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ and Neil Simon.”

Long-term board member and former chairman Stu Manewith says, “Kathleen had a tremendous vision. She saw the theater had a lot of potential. Thanks to her leadership, NJT is the fastest-growing small theater in St. Louis.”

“Obviously we are giving people something they want,” Sitzer says. “And we’re doing it on a very professional level.”

“We get some of the best talent in town, and the reason we do is because we have developed a reputation for doing good work, for treating our production and artistic staff well. Also, actors know at NJT they will have an audience — even though they (audience members) may talk back!” Sitzer says.

Edward Coffield, production manager at the Rep and frequent NJT director, agrees. “Kathleen takes great care of the artists she hires and the audiences that she serves, supporting both in a way that allows great work to happen on stage,” he says. “The work she has done in growing NJT into the best small professional in town is just remarkable. I hope everyone in the community understands how lucky we are that NJT exists and is such a vibrant part of the St. Louis theater community.”

Looking ahead, Sitzer anticipates the day when NJT will move out of its lower-level “black box” at the Sarah and Abraham Wolfson Studio Theatre at the JCC into a new, state-of-the-art theater; that’s part of the JCC master plan for the near future. “One of the things people love about this space is the intimacy and I don’t want to jeopardize that,” she says, “but it will be nice to have a street-level theater, plus bigger and better behind-the-scenes facilities.”

Sitzer also is looking forward to possibly performing in more NJT productions. She may sign on for a show next season. “I’m hesitating because it’s a huge time commitment,” she says. “During productions I’m already here more than 60 hours a week.” One role she’d truly like to play is Martha in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “When I decide it’s a Jewish play I’ll do it,” Sitzer says. She adds, “I will wear anything, say anything, do anything on stage because it’s not me, it’s that character up there. Theater is the only way I know to try on a totally different personality.”

In addition to time spent at NJT, Sitzer attends performances of all the area theater companies. “Especially in more recent years where the theater community is working to be more cooperative and supportive, I try to see my colleagues’ work,” she says. And she still would “love to spend more time seeing more theater!” she says. “It would be fabulous to go to New York for two weeks and see 20 shows.”

Sitzer enjoys attending classical music concerts with her husband, Bill, a lawyer and violinist. He is the president of the board of Hillel and past president of Central Reform Congregation. Sitzer also is “really into” Sudoku and recently took up landscaping. Between shows, the couple makes time to travel, and have visited Israel, Japan, Central Europe, France, Italy, Spain and India. Their sons, Josh and Scott, are entrepreneurs in the Kansas City area, and daughter Sara is completing a master’s degree in cello performance at the University of Wisconsin. The Sitzers have three grandchildren.

“I am a very strong believer in Judaism and what it stands for, morally and ethically,” Sitzer says. “As a result I feel very blessed to be doing something that allows me to use my personal skills and talents in a way that has made an impact on the cultural landscape of St. Louis and certainly on the Jewish cultural landscape.”