Arts & Culture

American Stage: Story Tellers Past, Present and Future

todayApril 28, 2019 55

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>> Article originally published in St. Pete Life Magazine <<

As many of us who call St. Petersburg home know, American Stage Theatre Company is a crown jewel of performing arts right here in the heart of our city. Since 1977, American Stage has been producing both classic and cutting-edge theatre to the delight of its patrons and season subscribers, including the wildly popular “American  Stage in the Park”. Here are a few achievements, among many, that you can add to what you know about what was originally named the “Palisades Theatre of Florida”.

~ American Stage was the first non-profit theatre company in the Tampa Bay region to operate under a full contract with Actor’s Equity.

~ In 2017, American Stage became one of only 12 theatres in the world to produce, present and complete the August Wilson Century Cycle.

~ This is the 40th Anniversary season of American Stage and it enjoys the coveted designation of longest running, most critically acclaimed, professional theatre company in the Tampa Bay area.

Impressive, right? Well, buckle up, because while honoring a historic four-decade legacy is mission enough, American Stage endeavors to move forward with bold new programming initiatives that promise to open the world of live theatre to all. At the heart of bringing us memorable shows, innovative educational programs, show-casing the work of up and coming playwrights, and a commitment to accessibility, is a team of dedicated professionals that make it all look easy. They are the story tellers. They marry their formidable experience as performers with the administrative prowess necessary to bring artistic vision seamlessly to the stage and into the community.

Let’s start with lead story teller Stephanie Gularte, producing artistic director. In her third season at the helm, Gularte has garnered the acclaim that firmly establishes she is right where she belongs. “I really feel like I am home”, Gularte shares. “After being fortunate enough to oversee milestones like the 40th anniversary and the completion of the August Wilson Century Cycle, I found it enhanced the opportunity to establish and deepen relationships with our team, with the patrons, and with the St. Petersburg community. I am a part of that community now and it’s such a great feeling. I have had the freedom to be authentic to my own artistic aesthetic, while being respectful of the history of American Stage and its loyal audience base.” Asked about what goes into the season selection process (the new one will be announced this Spring), Gularte says “After roughly 18 years in this business, I have yet to come up with the perfect analogy to describe it. It can be as nerve wracking as it is exciting, but I keep a dynamic list of works that resonate with me and find ways to tell very different stories that come back to a central theme.”

Last year’s “In Search of America” season, the first selected by Gularte and the current “We the People” line up have proven to be eerily prophetic to the most current headlines, even though chosen months in advance. “One writer called me Nostradamus”, she mused. So, what about the future? When asked about moving American Stage forward, this “fearless leader” said she wanted to try something very bold, if not a bit “risky”. “It’s been a thought in my mind for years, so I discussed it with the team.” The “Young Americans Initiative” makes theatre admission for young people significantly more affordable or, in many cases, FREE. It breaks down in three parts:

  1. ApprenticeshipProgram–Participantsreceiveintensiveandfocusededucationwiththegoal of developing skills that produce well rounded, successful theatre professionals.
  2. Under 30 Pass – A “Netflix” style subscription offering unlimited theatre to people under 30 for only $15 per month.

3. Under 20 Passport – Perhaps the boldest of the 3 initiatives, free tickets to mainstage shows are offered to young people under 20! It began on January 1st, so, if you’re fortunate enough to be under 20 (sigh), get your tickets today.

Managing this exciting experiment falls to Community Outreach Associate, Colleen Cherry. “Studies have shown that younger audiences are dwindling either because admission cost is prohibitive, or exposure to the arts in school is diminished. We want to lead the way in reversing that trend and improving the accessibility of great theatre to everyone in the Tampa Bay area.” In addition to managing the “YA”, as it is called, Cherry also coordinates volunteers and manages another very innovative program at American Stage – “21st Century Voices”. Initiated two seasons ago, here’s how it works: The call goes out to talented and aspiring playwrights around the country. Finalists are selected from the hundreds of submissions and the final five are presented over several days in a series of readings. “It gives the voices of new playwrights a platform to be heard.” Cherry says. “And it gives great work an opportunity to be professionally developed and possibly produced down the road. We had hundreds more submissions this year than last, so we must be on to something.” One of those 21st century voices belongs to Andrea Lepcio, author of “Strait of Gibraltar”, the first play from the program to be brought to full production on the mainstage schedule. It will be directed by Operations Manager, Jim Sorenson.

Beside Stephanie Gularte, Sorenson has been an “all hat wearing” driving force behind the current success and future vision of American Stage offerings. A seasoned performer, director and performing arts administrator, Sorenson is excited about the prospect of bringing “Strait of Gibraltar” to life. “It’s a romance turned political thriller that brings to light relevant concepts such as cultural and political difference, immigration, and the questioning of government’s role in our lives.” Sorenson is also excited about second stage, or “And Beyond Series” programming. “We have “Hawke & Wayne Improv” shows, “House teams Live” featuring improv performers coming up through our educational programs, and the “Lobby Series” which features programming like the “Cabaret Series”, Paul Wilborn’s “American Songbook” and “American Stories”, a “Mothman Radio Hour” model featuring the stories of well-known local personalities.” Roman Black, Marketing & Communications Director, not only promotes all programming, but he also collaborates with visual artists to display their work in the lobby. “We commission them to do one piece that represents the show running at the time of their exhibit. It’s a great partnership.”

Jim Sorenson will also be performing in the upcoming “American Stage in the Park” production of Mel Brooks’ “The Producers”, starring local favorite Matthew McGee as Max Bialystock. Matt is thrilled to return to the Park stage beginning April 18th at Demen’s Landing. Park productions are eagerly anticipated each year and represent one of the richest elements in American Stage history. Coming off his wildly successful run as Edna in “Hairspray” last year, McGee quips, “I had a friend joke that last year I was wearing skirts and this year I’m chasing them.” McGee talks about the responsibility of undertaking some of pop culture’s most iconic roles. “It’s thrilling and daunting to reprise roles done by stars like Nathan Lane and Harvey Fierstein, but I have confidence, not only in my own “chops”, but in the ability of director Rye Mullis to bring it all home in a big way.” Many of Matt’s fans know him for his appearances in drag. You might be surprised when you hear him say, “My favorite part about being Max, is that I don’t have to wear any make up!” He goes on, “I love the crowds that come to the park. It’s a way for families and non-regular theatre goers to get the full live stage experience. I love performing for them.”

So, you see, for American Stage, story telling is the thing. Stephanie Gularte wonders aloud, “How will the stories of our next 40 years be told?”

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Written by: #HeliumRadio

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