A group of costumed people

Nonprofit Spotlight: Arts for Life

In June 1994, a group of talented musicians and thespians made the decision to put on a show. This small group worked through the St. Louis Hills Arts Council to raise funds for Love Songs … Between Friends, Among Friends, and For Friends. This musical revue, which was a benefit for the St. Louis Breast Cancer Coalition and the St. Louis Effort for AIDS, premiered at the Sheldon Concert Hall. Because this was an effort by the arts to raise money for life-saving charity groups, founder Lucinda Gyurci named the group Arts for Life (AFL). Since that first show, AFL has evolved and refined its mission to become an organization dedicated to the healing power of the arts through its work with youth, the underserved, and the community. Mary McCreight, president, says she thinks of the group “Primarily as an arts service organization because it serves the community through service to community theatre and community nonprofits. AFL is dedicated to benefiting and enlightening the community at large by supporting, recognizing, and promoting community theatre.”

An individual dressed in an elaborate costume.
A youth actor from the Goshen Theatre Project in Collinsville, IL participates in a musical number from The Lion King as part of the 2018 BPA.

AFL offers scholarships for youth pursuing a college education in the arts, provides mentorship programs with area high schools, and hosts two annual events honoring outstanding community theatre in the region. McCreight, compares AFL’s awards events to Broadway’s Tony Awards or the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Oscar Ceremonies.

The Best Performance Awards for Community Musical Theatre (BPA) has taken place annually since 1999. These awards recognize and encourage excellence in the Greater St. Louis and Metro East Illinois area community musical theatre productions. The AFL Theatre Mask Awards, which is in its ninth year, honors the best drama and comedy productions in the region. McCreight says, “We have judges that visit all the different St. Louis region theatres to review their shows. When the year is over, we get the best of the best, and we have our awards festivals which feature productions from some on the nominated shows.”

“Arts For Life provides a community recognition program to spotlight the incredible talent we have in St. Louis community theater and honor the passion and dedication of those who build this amazing and unique theatrical community,” said McCreight. “St. Louis is unique because it has so many vibrant and successful community theaters. You can see a show almost any weekend of the year!”

Two women and two men wearing formal attire.
Guests are encouraged to wear cocktail attire to the BPA Event. These well-dressed people were at the Hilton’s Clayton Ballroom in 2022.

AFL also rewards talented St. Louisans who have dedicated their lives to theatre in the area. McCreight explains that “Lifetime Achievement Awards honorees are diverse in both race and gender, as are the award and trophy presenters on stage.” Recipients are grateful for the award and the opportunity to mentor the next generation of theatrical talent. “We allow students to intern with the professionals by helping with the annual show.”

In addition to their awards programs, Arts for Life publishes a regular newsletter promoting area shows to help theatre lovers learn about what’s happening across the region. AFL helps put the community in community theatre by acting as a platform where groups can contact one another for scenery, costume, and prop help. “The synergistic relationship between AFL and the community theatre groups benefits the community in a way it never could without the existence of these yearly shows,” McCreight explains. “Plus, all of this is done on a volunteer basis.”

McCreight says Arts for Life is always looking for support. Those interested in helping St. Louis area community theatre, can visit their website to learn more ways to support St. Louis’ thriving community theatre. Another way to support AFL is through events like the St. Louis Community Foundations Give STL Day. “AFL loves the exposure we get from participating in Give STL Day, and we like the gamification aspect of it. The first year, we won about one thousand extra dollars!”

A group of smiling people near a sign that says, "Food Outreach."
AFL volunteers aren’t always in costume or fancy dress. They sometimes dress down like this group who helped Food Outreach.

Some may believe that theatre is purely entertainment, but McCreight recognizes that community theatre can significantly impact people. “When we were performing at a Veteran’s Day benefit for 9-11 victims, I looked in the audience and saw a veteran in his uniform sitting in the front row. He had to be around 80. We sang ‘America the Beautiful,’ and he stood up and saluted. I thought this is what I do this for. I know he loved it.”