St. Louis Has An Incubator For Performing Arts: The .Zack

Using a model pioneered by the tech industry, Kranzberg Arts Foundation’s .Zack seeks to incubate performing arts and raise the bar for theater and dance in St. Louis.

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The Kranzberg Arts Foundation operates a handful of venues, galleries, and office space for nonprofits, including the Kranzberg Arts Center, The Marcelle, the Grandel Theater, The Dark Room at The Grandel, and the Big Top Tent (where Circus Flora performs), but their most innovative addition to the St. Louis arts community yet to date may be the .Zack, a 40,000-square foot multi-use building, a theater and a performing arts incubator space located off Locust in the Grand Center Arts District.

Kranzberg Arts Foundation was founded by St. Louis philanthropists Ken and Nancy Kranzberg on the hope that St. Louis may be the most culturally rich city per capita in the country, a concept that Chris Hansen Director of the .Zack Incubator, calls “Cultural Density”. The incubator is a way to provide not just financial support to artists, but a physical space in which the business behind the art can inhabit, build a network; an embassy of art they can operate out of.

“The .Zack is a way we can centralize our efforts and provide a shared infrastructure, resources and space to theater and dance companies,” says Chris Hansen.

Grands Center Arts and The .Zack

Kranzberg’s mission to build and promote arts in St. Louis has been mainly focused on the Grand Center Arts District in part because of the neighborhood’s long history as an entertainment district. Grand Ave is anchored by the Fabulous Fox, The Sheldon, The Grandel, and Powell Symphony Hall– world-class institutions and storied venues. Then there’s the district’s proximity to historic Gaslight Square and that jazz heritage (Kranzberg sponsors a Jazz crawl every Wednesday night).

But the District still sits a bit isolated in the City, between a nascent but growing creative arts district down Locust and the far east end of the Central West End. The neighborhood lacks a MetroLink and there’s not enough loft development yet to bring out resident strollers and window-shoppers. Recent development near SLU promises some traffic in the not so distant future, but there still exists a certain destination-only quality to the district.

The strategy that the Kranzberg Arts Foundation is taking is to build more destinations. The idea is that more attractions will bring more visitors.

Incubating Crowd Pleasers

Currently, the incubator provides resources for over 30 dance and theater companies. It’s fair to say that if you’ve seen any independent theater in St. Louis lately, it’s most likely associated with the Kranzberg Arts Foundation.

The .Zack building, once the Plush night club, has undergone an amazing remodeling. Upon entrance, you are greeted by a ticket booth in the lobby and the entrance to David Kirkland’s (of Cafe Osage) newest restaurant Turn.

The second floor houses Music Record Shop (selling real vinyl!) and Sophie’s Artist Lounge & Cocktail Club, a bar designed to service the industry for after hours opening and closing night parties, and a work in progress venue for cabaret and open-mic, including a crowd favorite, Piano Man Sam, KDHX Dj and piano player, Sam Golden.

The third floor has office space with multimedia companies like StoryTrack and the fourth and fifth floor houses the Incubator, Kranzberg offices and a large event space respectively. The Kranzberg staff was excited to show us the roof garden and space, created and maintained by Urban Harvest, a nonprofit that grows food sustainably by leveraging roof spaces. 10% of the food goes to the restaurant and a portion of it goes to nonprofit partner St. Louis MetroMarket, the nonprofit mobile farmer’s market bringing healthy vegetables to food deserts in underserved North-side neighborhoods.

It is tempting to make a parallel between this type of sustainable community garden giving, and Kranzberg’s mission to sustain the arts, but sustaining the arts isn’t the Foundation’s primary mission. The Foundation, and Chris Hansen and the .Zack in particular, want to “raise the bar” for all theater in St. Louis: Bigger, better, nicer venues that fit the performance, more equity actors, higher quality set design, and enough theater companies putting on plays that there will always be something to choose from. The Incubator is a way in which the Foundation can fundamentally support these efforts by fostering community and not just providing money.

Among the resident artists at the .Zack, is the Insight Theater company a solid producer of high quality work, most recently the Oscar Wilde classic The Importance of Being Earnest, and a newer work, Silent Sky. Insight moved from Nerinx in Webster in part because they had to work around the Venues limited performance schedules. Moving to .Zack allows them access to Kranzberg’s resources.

Ignite Theatre Company is another venue, producing kid and family friendly productions like Annie Jr., Sweeney Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street (School Edition) and Bye Bye Birdie. More experimental outfits like ST LOU Fringe, the Black Mirror Theater, and the Terreseract Theater reside there as well and offer a steady diet of new and interesting fare.

What they’ve done with the building is amazing in and of itself, but what the Kranzberg Foundation and the Grands Arts District is becoming, through the Big Top tent and the .Zack Incubator is truly innovative. Already a place of vibrancy and diversity, one hopes the center will also gain acclaim as a world-class theater district.