St. Petersburg’s heralded professional theater company amazes with thoughtful, provocative and entertaining performances that reach out to everyone.
BY CINDY STOVALL
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 theater 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 the company that started out as Palisades Theatre of Florida.
American Stage celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2018, and enjoys the coveted designation of longest running, most critically acclaimed, professional theater company in the Tampa Bay area.
American Stage was the first non-profit theater 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 companies in the world to produce, present and complete the August Wilson Century Cycle. This series of 10 plays chronicles the African American experience across the 20th century.
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 theater to all. At the heart of bringing us memorable shows, innovative educational programs, showcasing 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 storytellers. 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 storyteller 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 March 17), 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” theme season and the current “We The People” theme 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 theater admission for young people significantly more affordable or, in many cases, FREE. It breaks down in three parts:
Apprenticeship Program – Participants receive intensive and focused education with the goal of developing skills that produce well-rounded, successful theater professionals.
Under 30 Pass – A “Netflix” style subscription offering unlimited admission to people under 30 for only $15 per month.
Under 20 Passport – Perhaps the boldest of the three initiatives, free tickets to Mainstage shows are offered to young people under 20. It began on January 1 so, if you’re fortunate enough to be under 20 (sigh), get your tickets today.
Managing this exciting experiment falls to Colleen Cherry, community outreach associate. “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 theater 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 Sorensen. Beside Stephanie Gularte, Sorensen 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, Sorensen is excited about the prospect of bringing “Strait of Gibraltar” to life.
Paul Wilborn & Eugenie
“It’s a romance turned political thriller that brings to light relevant concepts such as cultural and political differences, immigration, and the questioning of government’s role in our lives,” he explained. Sorensen is also excited about second stage — the And Beyond series programming that includes improv and intimate performances by locals. “We have improv performers coming up through our educational programs, and the Cabaret Series with Paul Wilborn’s “American Songbook.”. American Stories is a Mothman Radio Hour model featuring the personal stories of well-known local personalities.”
Roman Black, marketing and communications director, not only promotes all programming, but he also collaborates with visual artists to display their work in the lobby. “We ask them to do one piece that represents the show running at the time of their full exhibit,” he explains. “It’s a great partnership and right in line with the arts culture of St. Petersburg.”
COMING UP ON THE MAINSTAGE
Marjorie Prime – Through April 1
This sci-fi drama explores the mysteries of human identity and the limits – if any – of what technology can replace. It’s the age of artificial intelligence and 86-year-old Marjorie is worried that her memory is fading. But when a mysterious and charming young visitor appears to help Marjorie uncover the intricacies of her past, questions emerge about the limits of technology and the possibility that memory might be a purely human invention.
Strait of Gibraltar – May 23 through June 17
Selected from among more than 300 submissions of new plays from across the country, this sexy romance turned thriller starts when, Miriam, a young American woman, and Sameer, a Muslim man from Morocco, meet at a party and fall in love at first sight. When Sameer tells Miriam he’s undocumented, she offers to help, but is everything as it seems?