Episode 43: Night at the Muny Transcript


August 2023

Nature Boost Podcast


[Theme music playing.] 

>>Hey there, folks and welcome back to your friendly neighborhood nature podcast, Nature Boost. I'm your host, Jill Pritchard, with the Missouri Department of Conservation. 

I first want to send a huge, massive, big, wonderful thank you to all of the incredible wonderful listeners who sent me messages on what they'd like to hear on the podcast. You all had some great ideas from fish, to Missouri's streams, best places to see wildlife, prairies, and invasive species. And one lady wanted to hear something on beavers which I was definitely a proponent of. But you all have such great ideas and you really inspired me to work on some new content and overall it truly touched me with your kind words. 

This project was a big endeavor and it's kind of hard to know if people are listening or if they are liking what they hear. So reading your messages not only made me squeal with delight but also helped give me some guidance on where you'd like to see the podcast go in the future. 

So thank you, thank you, thank you! Also please don't be a stranger. If you have ideas or additional questions please keep reaching out. July's Q&A episode with naturalist's Sara Easton was so popular and I would like to keep this series going with her addressing your nature questions. So if you have anything you would like to ask her to send me those messages. You can send messages by logging onto our Nature Boost page at missouriconservation.org/natureboost. You can scroll down to the bottom of the page and it has the option to send me a message. 


Without further ado, let's get into today's episode. A little background about me. I was a theater kid in high school. Maybe that doesn't surprise you. I was in several high school and community plays, I was on the speech and debate team for a few years. I even did the morning announcements in high school. But then they replaced me when I made too many jokes. They didn't like that. 

But the point is, considering my history with being on stage, I was honored to be invited to see a musical at the Muny. If you are unfamiliar, the Muny is the largest outdoor theater in the country. It is located on six acres in the beautiful forest park in St. Louis and has been operating for more than 100 years. Take a listen to this awesome experience. 

[Music playing.] 

[In addition, we thank the Missouri Department of Conservation our supporting show sponsors . . . ]

The river goes underneath the stage? 

>> You will see the river goes underneath. 

>> Okay. 

>> You'll see it going through. Actually I have been down there before. Bill took me on a tour of the guts. 

>> The guts? 

>> The guts underneath the Muny. 

>> What does that mean? 

>> Like where the river goes through, where all the electronics are at and where all the lighting. 

>> Oh is that like a theater term? Like "the guts"? 

>> Yeah. 

>> Oh I see that. 

>> It's kind of cool. But I think we can see it from this bridge. 

>> Okay, so Karen Hudson is our wonderful marketing specialist at MDC. She does a lot of great work promoting the podcast and she is my little guide here today. I would not have known about the Muny had it not been for Karen. So Karen, I really have to thank you for exposing this to me today. I am from Missouri. I have lived in Jeff City basically my whole life. Like anywhere else we would come and visit St. Louis but I obviously am not as familiar with it as I thought I was. So this is the . . .

>> This is The River Des Peres. And as you see there is the Muny right there. Then you can see the fan there. 

>> I see it, yeah. 

>> So basically you are seeing the back of the stage area. You see the river goes right down underneath. 

>> I see it, yeah. 

>> If we walk over to the other side you see where it comes out. 


>> Oh, awesome! 

>> So it literally flows underneath the Muny. 

>> I love that. 

>> Isn't that cool? Isn't it beautiful? I'm so excited to have you here because I think you will enjoy the show tonight. You will see how the art and science of nature kind of come together and make it a whole experience. There will be stars out tonight, and hopefully a little bit of a breeze. 

>> Well if the fans are going we can at least count on that. 

>> You will get to see this performance which is not all that set heavy because nature is all around us. It all comes together and makes it a full experience. You are in a park setting - pristine. It is one of the best parks in the country. It is just memorable. It makes for an entire full experience that you are in the middle of a metropolitan area and there is all this nature right around you. 

>> I want you to talk a little bit about our partnership with the Muny. 

>> Gosh, I think we have been partners for about a decade now, I believe. It could be a little bit longer. At the time, that was when we as an agency were really starting to think about focusing on nature and settings that were not the more rural areas. Not that we do not continue to have our efforts in that. But there is nature and outdoor opportunities that happen in our urban areas and suburban areas. Forest Park is a natural setting. It has been here for over 100 years. There is so much recreational opportunity here. 

So where do we try to get to touch points with some of our audiences we want to share this with? Here is the Muny having 10,000 people in here for each show every night.


So why wouldn't we be here to share things like our Nature Center Powder Valley nearby or Bush Conservation Area, Colombia Bottom. All of these things are right here in the metropolitan area. Also within Forest Park we have fishing, hiking, biking, nature photography and nature watching. You can camp in Forest Park. 

>> You can? 

>> Yes, Kevin Lanahan and his grandson have camped in Forest Park. 

>> Shoutout to Kevin Lanahan. He is one of our web guys, we love him.

>> Yeah. The other partnerships within the park. There is the Natural History Museum. The zoo, of course, where we do hellbender work. We partner with them for that. The Art Museum, which also you know, art, again combines nature so many times. 

You can get a paddle boat and paddle through all of the river here. We are walking up on the gazebo right now. I can't tell you how many times I have seen people paddling around there and then they do their lunch at the gazebo. 

>> Oh my gosh that's so romantic! 

>> I know, right? 

>> That's beautiful. 

>> This evening what you will see is that people will come out. Even though the show doesn't start til eight o'clock, people will come out even in this heat a few hours early. There will be picnics happening. You will see all the picnic tables over here. People will bring and have their dinner out here before the show. 

>> Oh my god they really make an event out of it, a production. 

>> Absolutely. There will be other partners here tonight up on Liechtenstein Plaza sharing their connection to the Muny. I know that the trash company that is in this metro area, one of them, they do a lot of recycling and that kind of stuff. We share when we are here all the opportunities we have both in the metro area and then other great things like our conservationist magazine and other publications and nature opportunities to go to.  


>> What a wonderful outreach effort as well.  To connect with so many different people who come to this park and come to enjoy the art and culture.  

>> If you only come to the Muny just for the show, and you have never been here before, we get to have an interaction with you and share what else is available here or in the area. We come across your path and hopefully we can lead you to another path to continue to enjoy nature. 

>> Karen and I were so excited to see Little Shop of Horrors at the Muny. It is a horror comedy musical following a young florist, who finds career and romantic success with the help of a man eating plant. There is definitely an invasive species connection there. 

Oh my gosh! Oh! There is Conservation Ed! Serving nature and you! 

Before we attended the show, I got the chance to learn more about the Muny from its CEO Kwofe Coleman. 

Is this where the actors hang out right here? 

>> Oh yeah, so we're backstage. They are painting the backdrop for probably this Little Shop. We just came out of the Deli, everybody eats there. 

>> Aw, I love that. 

>> The neat thing about this place is whether you are an actor or admin or whomever, we all eat together typically. This Deli. The whole sense of backstage is a concept of community. I think it reflects out there. It doesn't really matter who you are or what you do here, we are all here together. 

Friendships are formed. It is a neat experience. So back here, they are painting sets there. Around the corner you hear the saws and everything. They are building. You want to take a look real quick? We can just see it. 

>> I mean if you have time, absolutely. 

[Music playing]


So you see like this is the backdrop for the next show they are painting. They are building. They are still building for Rent. That metal structure you see there will be the framework for the apartment. So when you get to summer there are like 800 people in here. 

[Music playing.]  

Position wise . . . I've been in this role for two years now. But I've been at the Muny for 25 seasons. I started here when I was 16. So you can do the math. 

>> You have such a history

>> Yeah, I've been here. But that is not specific to me. A lot of people are here. Some of the crew you saw backstage, those are second or third generation back there. They have worked here, their parents have worked here on that crew backstage. A lot of the admin staff have been here a long time. It is a mix of new folks, which is always healthy for an organization. But one that has this kind of history, for ones who want to stay and be a part of this for decades I hope it speaks to their experience here. 

We have the same thing in the audience. We have seats. We have ticket holders. We are blessed to have over 2,000 season ticket holders. Those are multigenerational, again, people have made this a part of their history or a part of who they are, and a part of their family's tradition. We are really thankful for that. 

>> That is special

>> Yeah, it is. It is how we make it. You couldn't build this and start it today with the same level of success. It needs history and legacy. That is how you get to a place where people who may not go to see musical theater everyday still go here because it is part of what they do. I think once you build that loyalty and that relationship, we continue to deliver a great product and also deliver an experience that feels like home. They reward us with their loyalty and longevity. We keep it going. 

>> Do you think 16 year old little Kwofe would know that he would be CEO of this place one day? 

>> 16 year old me, no. I can say that probably I don't know 3, 4, 5 years in . . . I didn't think I would be CEO of the place. But I was old enough then to appreciate it for what it is beyond a place of entertainment. I could see that I have made friends and relationships here with people I would have never met if I hadn't worked here. This is a place where our lives intersect. I think that is the beauty of not just this place but entertainment. Whether it is theater, art, or sports. Those are moments where you bring people together to share the same thing at the same time and the value of that is increasingly important. At the same time we have those things, we are in a world where we are hyper aware of the things that make us individuals but also inherently make us different from the next person. The concept of being together is really important. That is what 10,000 people do at a time. That is the goal. You want to go up? 

>> I do. I want to see more. 

>> We will do a perimeter lap so you can see. Look at the setting we are in. 


We are in Forest Park. We have the greatest neighborhood popsicle. I look out my window and it's trees, there's water. When my friends come through to visit or family from other policies and they are like this is where you work? I'm like yes, this is where I work, this is also where I play. I live outside the park. To be here in this setting, I don't even know how to describe how grateful we are for that. We talk about loyalty and relationships. But truly part of the success is also where we are, right? We are around all these other art institutions. We are in a place that everyone in St. Louis, the region, wants to come to. This has been the #1 municipal park in the country I think for multiple years running. When you live in a good neighborhood, your friends come to visit. That is where we are. We are here in this park. Whether they are also coming to the zoo, or the history museum or just to walk around the park. They also end up seeing this and this being a part of what they want to do. We have the most gorgeous setting possible when we look outside of our windows. We also have this phrase in the office. Some people say, "I'm going to take a lap" which means they are just taking a walk outside out front to get outside and see something. 

If we have a phone call meeting, you will see AirPods or phones walking around because you don't want to skip or miss this. 

>> It is something to definitely take advantage of - just having this nature right here. Working in it and being around it everyday. I want to talk to you about . . . you were talking about history. The Muny has been around for over 100 years? 

>> This is season 105. So yeah, we have been here. You asked about this job. It is new to me. The team and the staff here, we are just a moment. We are a blip in the history of something really major. But yes, we have been here for over a century. We continue to evolve. After we turned 100, we made a lot of renovations to the campus. We joke that when you turn 100 you get a face lift. We did it. A very very expensive one but also very valuable in what it provides for the experience here. 

The stage has been the exact same position for 105 years. It is a new stage. 

>> How big is the stage? 

>> 95 ft across. The opening is 95 ft which is significantly larger than the 30-40 ft you see in other places. You see 11,000. That is multiple times of other theaters. I say that not in a way of comparison, but just to say that we are blessed to be able to welcome that many people and for that many people to call this a place they want to come to. It is a unique experience and a unique setting. We call it the intersection of art and nature. You can sit there and look in the theater. You sit in the theater and look at the stage and you are watching the show but there is also this canopy of trees. People ask us if that is a real tree. You can't buy a fake tree that big. You definitely are not. I shouldn't say definitely, but I am decently confident that you can't buy a fake tree that is that big. That would be interesting. 

We get to do this. There are funny moments. There is a family of racoons that may or may not like to make an appearance in the house every so often. 

>> You're kidding. 

>> Oh my gosh, no, I'm not. They are lovely and whatnot but they should have their own time which is not the time people are here. 

>> I imagine if they make an appearance they steal the show a little bit. 

>> They pull focus. It is an occasional thing though, you may see them running up the side ramp. That's just part of being in a park. It is also the cicadas or the crickets that are a beautiful chorus at a certain time. It is all part of being here. Whether it is the audience, or the performers. We have talked to performers backstage and they truly seem to love it here, not just for the work but for the environment. 

>> This is special. Who can get to say that they can perform for thousands of people in such a beautiful setting in nature. That is special. 

>> You are truly under the stars. There is nothing like it. 


Obviously, nature also doesn't always cooperate. Like we would prefer it to not rain. Other than what the environment needs for rain, we would prefer it to not rain after 8:15 p.m. and before 12:00 p.m. But I am here for rain, no droughts and none of that stuff. But if the rain could just not happen at night, that would be great. 

There are those realities. But that is the point of that. People are like, why didn't you ever cover the place? Well then it wouldn't be this place, it would be something else. We have played Mother Nature's game, and she is in charge. Then if we roll with it. It is a gift. I know I keep saying that, but it really is. Like this is what we do for a living out here. You know, people often ask how is your day going or what is going on? My day is going great. This is where I work. 

>> How can it not be? 

>> Yeah, what is the bad version of this? 

>> You know what we call that? We call it a nature boost. That is the name of the podcast. 

>> Oh, full circle. Full circle. Alright. I am with you now. I thought that was a good name. I have heard that. Nature boost that sounds familiar. 

>> You are getting your nature boost everyday so how can you not be happy? 

>> There is no way to not be. This is great. Even at the toughest moments we had everyone in the region or the city experience the same flood just a year ago. You know those were tough moments, and yeah, that affects how you do business. But even in that, that was a moment where the staff showed their resilience. We came back, we cleaned up ourselves. We were open the next day. It is just a reminder of how we exist in a space with forces that are greater than us. We do our part and make sure that what we are doing is not adversely affecting how this environment goes. 

We renovated the stage. We had some very very old trees that were not in the best health anymore. When the last one came down, it was an opportunity to plant seven new trees that decades, maybe centuries from now there will be people sitting on a hoverboard or something or maybe there will be holograms of people, who knows. Whatever it is they will discuss someone who laid the foundation for them as well. We do our best to keep this environment feeling and looking and being as natural as possible and using our resources to support that. 

When we replanted those trees and rebuilt the stage, we put a foundation and a system underground to better support the root system of trees in that area. Part of the issue is that these grew for centuries and they grew into the metal framework. It wasn't the healthiest situation for those trees. We are also trying to be conscious of that at the same time. We wanted to integrate that. The goal is that outside of the seats and when you look at this place, you can't even tell. You are seeing something nestled out of the way here

>> I love the idea of instead of working against the natural environment you are working with nature and incorporate the art and the culture and you are promoting nature in a way as well. 


>> Yeah, I hope this place is an example of a lot of positive things. But one of them is to say that again we can coexist. You can take 11.5 acres and put a 10,000 seat in it in the middle of a municipal park and not feel like you have lost something. I feel like you gained in a way. I am not going to sit here and say the Muny is the only group that does that. 

I think these park institutions as a whole, because of Forest Park and the city and the parks department, there is a real concerted effort to make sure that these institutions and the park are growing together. They are deliberate about where roads go and the use of land like creating more green space. It all works together to be shining a bright example of a successful way to bring these two things together. 

A lot of the world tells us that to build success you have to lose some type of environmental consciousness. I don't think that is true. I think you can do both at the same time, you just have to be willing to make an investment both financial and time and be conscious and deliberate in the action. 

We have taken this lap around here. This is gorgeous. This is great. 

>> The payoff for investing in this is . . . yeah. 

>> When people come here for the first time from other cities, we host other theaters and whatnot. Even the stuff we start to take for granted. When you see how much it blows their minds it reminds us how great of a situation we actually have. 

>> Is it true that you guys will occasionally give away free tickets to people who may not be able to have that in their budget to come to some of these shows? 

>> Every night. The last rows of the theater are free every single night. There are 1500 free seats that are first come first serve from our first day everyday. 

>> So people can just show up and see if there is a free ticket available? 

>> Yeah, just show up and see if there is a free ticket. On Saturday and Monday we have our community access program. You know, the only challenge of free seats can be coming and waiting in line. If you have a group that has different needs or just the accessibility challenges are different. So we also do community access tickets every Monday and Saturday. Groups have pre registered. We give out another 2,000 seats to community groups and group homes and those kinds of organizations. 


Cost should never be a barrier to access art. Not like this. We have to sell some of the seats to keep the lights on. 

>> Of course. 

>> We have 1500 free seats every night. Then we give away another 2,000 free. We looked at the 100th anniversary, and 25% of the audience had attended a show at the Muny at no cost. 

>> That is a big chunk. 

>> That's who we are. That is built into the fabric, the fiber, whichever word you want to use of who we are. This is always going to be a place where cost is not a reason you don't experience this. Look at some of the folks that now sit in the box seats and have those season tickets. They started in the free seats at some point. In my first experience here I was in the free seats. My sister had won tickets on the radio but she only won two. I had two sisters, they sat in those seats. My parents and I took some time and swapped out. But yeah, it is important. 

We want everyone to get a chance to come here and experience these things together. Money shouldn't be the reason that they don't. So long as we can make that possible we will do that. 

>> You are a very busy man and I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me today. 

>> My pleasure. 


>> I have one final question to ask you. Have you ever been in any of these? Did you ever want to be an actor or anything? A singer? Any of that? 

>> No, no. I'm a shower singer, strictly. Only. I don't know how the neighbors feel. But that is its own thing. But no, no, gosh, no. We all have our skill set. Performing is not mine. You know. Especially when you see these folks. They do this. 

>> These are professionals. 

>> Whatever the superlative is - these are experts, pro-level. Whatever you want to call it. No, I did not grow up performing. I don't have that background. I would dare not. But my appreciation for what they do is an immense appreciation and remarkable respect. These are high level occupations that they have beyond a God given talent, they work really hard at what they do. Especially in the schedule here. 

No. My best place is behind the desk, maybe a spreadsheet. You know. 

>> You are being too modest. 

>> That kind of thing. I'm okay with one-on-one. I can't imagine. Even thinking about being on stage, I feel my breath getting tighter. Oh my God. This is not me. It is not for me. 

I think a lot of it is because I have spent a lifetime seeing people that are remarkable. There's not a chance I could do that. 

>> There's no way. 

>> I don't have the right genetic makeup. No, no. Not for me. We all have our jobs. 

>> I truly appreciate you taking us on a little tour today and I am really looking forward to seeing Little Shop of Horrors tonight. It will be a first for me. 

>> It will be a first, not a last. 

>> I like that. I can guarantee that. 

>> Same. I'll just keep giving you tickets. 

>> I will keep taking them! I will keep taking them! 

>> That's the deal. 

>> Oh my gosh, we have such amazing seats. 

>> Don't we? It is so beautiful. 

[As a courtesy to the actors and fellow patrons, we ask that you remain at your seat until after the curtain.] 

>> What's this about? Oh my gosh. 

>> I will wait here. 

>> It is about a plant. 

>> Little Shop of Horrors. Is it an evil plant? Is it an invasive plant? 

>> It might be. It might actually be invasive. 


[Music playing.]  


>> Oh my gosh, what a great show!

>> If you had to say a favorite part or what most memorably sticks out for you . . .

>> Just all of the people enjoying this area. You know? I think that was really cool to see how popular this place is. This is such a tradition and this is something that people keep coming back to and that generations of people not only see these productions and being in the audience, but also the people that work here, too. I think that is really unique and really really special. I mean, gosh, the play itself was so impressive. 

>> Right? 

>> It blew my mind. It blew my mind. It was not at all what I was expecting and I am just . . . I am still . . . I'm not kidding, you, Karen. The whole time my eyes were bugging out of my head and my jaw was on the floor. The singing was so terrific. Their singing was so great. The set design was so incredible. 


The choreography. The music. That show, Little Shop of Horrors, was actually really funny. I'm glad I saw it. 

>> I love that. I love that as we came in you got to see how many people came way before the show enjoying the park and out here picnicking. All the picnic tables that are out. They bring their picnic baskets. They enjoy a meal here in the park on a very hot day before they go in and enjoy the show. 

>> They make such an event out of it and like you say, it seems to be kind of a tradition for some people to come out and do that. I think that is so beautiful. 

>> You know so you park here and you get to walk in and see the parks. What I hope is that they come back and enjoy other aspects of the park when they are not just coming to a park. 

>> Absolutely, yeah. 

>> There is so much to offer here. 

>> They are getting a nature boost before they get a little art boost. It's awesome. Come to the Muny! By the way, we found out it stands for the Municipal Theatre. 

Muny sounds so much cuter. 

>> Much cuter. 

[Music playing.]  

>> Visiting the Muny in Forest Park was a fantastic experience I soon won't forget. I know I will return for another show in the future. I encourage you to check it out if you can. I want to thank Muny's CEO Kwofe Coleman for giving us a behind the scenes look at the facility. Of course, my amazing St. Louis guide and MDC’s outreach expert Karen Hudson, for planning such a great trip for us. Visit the Muny, visit Forest Park, get a nature boost! Learn more at muny.org. 

I'm Jill Pritchard with the Missouri Department of Conservation, encouraging you to get your daily dose of the outdoors! 

[Music playing.]   

>> Okay that was the coolest thing I think I've seen in a long time. Probably ever. 

[Music playing.]  

>> You're going to have to come to more! 

>> I think I am. I think I'm going to come back a lot. Oh my gosh. 

That's incredible! That was incredible! Oh my gosh!