American Stage Freeze Out?

Rumors abound that the new artistic director doesn't like to cast Bay area actors

click to enlarge CASTING NOTICED: American Stage's new artistic - director Todd Olson expects to expand his local - casting in the future. - AMERICAN STAGE
CASTING NOTICED: American Stage's new artistic director Todd Olson expects to expand his local casting in the future.

It's not usually my policy to publicize rumors. But when a rumor is so widespread that virtually everyone in the Tampa Bay area theater community has heard it, I think there's good reason to take a hard look. Is it true or false? And how is it affecting the local theater community?

The rumor goes as follows: There's no point in local actors auditioning for parts at American Stage, because new artistic director Todd Olson doesn't want to cast Bay area actors in his shows. A corollary rumor: Some actors are so sure they won't be cast in American Stage shows, they're actually boycotting auditions.

So what's the truth? Well, it depends on what you count as evidence. If you're just looking at the four shows that have opened at American Stage since the new season began — Stones in His Pockets, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Santaland Diaries and Spinning into Butter — it does look like Olson has been slightly favoring out-of-state actors. Out of 13 actors cast in those four productions, six are from elsewhere, five are local, and two are recent "transplants" from out-of-state who now live in this area. But if you look at upcoming shows like Much Ado About Nothing and Chesapeake, the preponderance of roles is going to local thespians (a whopping 14 out of 19 in the Shakespeare, for example, and local favorite Paul J. Potenza starring in the one-man Chesapeake).

Even so, there are a few irksome details: the two most important parts in the Shakespeare, those of Benedick and Beatrice, are going to Nashville actors, and God's Man in Texas, which opens in June, is already set with three performers from Tennessee and Kentucky.

To be fair to Olson, there's another way to look at the question. As he's only been working in this area a few months, he brings with him from his previous job at Tennessee Repertory Theatre a wealth of information about top Tennessee actors — and still has much to learn about the talent in Tampa and St. Petersburg. So it might be expected that, for a while anyway, he'll depend on those out-of-staters whom he knows well. In other words, it might be too early to look for a pattern in his hiring. In which case, the news about the largely local Shakespeare cast may be a harbinger of better things to come.

Recently, I put the question directly to Olson: what are your feelings about casting locally? His answer: "The truth is, to be a regional theater like we are, you know, part of our mandate is to cast locally. I want to, I think we need to, I think our audiences want to see local people, and I'm committed to that." When his casting of the Shakespeare play is added to the computation, he argues, it turns out that over 70 percent of the actors he's hired have been local. And he says that he's gone out-of-state for actors when he simply couldn't find a local talent who could handle a specific part. For example, in Much Ado, "I couldn't find a Don Pedro and Claudio here. Could not find them. I mean, I suppose a case could be made now that there are Beatrice and Benedicks here. I think that's a real tricky proposition. And you know, artistic directors bring some people in from the outside because they're really good actors." He admits that he's still learning about local talent, says that he'll give an audition to any local actor who wants one, and insists that he fully expects to expand his local casting in the future. But paramount is finding the right actor for the part: "If I don't find it here, I still have to fill the role. I still have to serve our audience that way."

And now that other rumor, that some actors are "boycotting" American Stage auditions: My informal investigation found no organized boycott. But one Tampa theater professional did tell me that he'd heard actors remark that they didn't think there was any point in auditioning for Olson. They thought he just wasn't interested.

My conclusion? Well, several years in Nashville led Olson to become loyal to the best actors in that area, and exposure to Tampa/St. Petersburg's thespians should eventually have a parallel result. So I'm predicting more and more local casting as Olson becomes familiar with our top performers. But watch out for a built-in limitation: There are only a handful of really extraordinary actors who choose to live on the Florida west coast, far from the cultural centers of New York and L.A. So even with the best of intentions, Olson will, it's logical to assume, have to look outside for some parts.

Anyway, I'll keep an eye on the percentages as Olson casts the 2004-05 season.

And I'll report again, some months from now, on area actors' prospects at American Stage.

Pleasin' Season. Speaking of American Stage, that theater has announced its 2004-05 season, and it looks like an excellent one. The mainstage year begins Sept. 10, when Nilo Cruz's Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics comes to St. Petersburg. The play is about cigar workers in Tampa's Ybor City, and the "lector" who reads to them on the job.

Next (Nov. 12) is Metamorphoses, a Tony Award-winning adaptation of Ovid's myths by Mary Zimmerman. Expect a swimming pool on stage and stories of King Midas, Eros and Psyche, Narcissus and others. After that comes Carter W. Lewis' comedy Golf with Alan Shepard (Feb. 25), about four elderly best friends pondering the mysteries of life as they make their way around a golf course.

Shakespeare in the Park — title as yet unannounced — opens April 8, and then on May 27, the theater welcomes David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof, about the troubled daughter of a famous mathematician. Finally, on July 22, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen's The Exonerated opens; it's the true story of six individuals who were wrongly convicted of capital crimes and lived to survive their time on death row.

American Stage will also be offering a lighter, more commercially oriented series at St. Petersburg's Palladium next season. The first show (Sept. 20) is probably going to be The Fat Lady Sings, featuring the songs of various female crooners from Sophie Tucker to Bette Midler. Then, on Jan. 21, it's 8-Track: the Sounds of the '70s, a musical revue of songs from the Me Decade. Finally, on Feb. 3, the team of Olson, David Grapes and Vince di Mura presents a Tony Bennett songfest called I Left My Heart. Expect everything from "Stranger in Paradise" to "Boulevard of Broken Dreams."

And don't be surprised if American Stage finds yet another, third venue for its productions next year. I can say no more ... at this time.

For info or tickets, call the American Stage box office at 727-823-PLAY.

Cruz in Tampa. 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz will be in Tampa on Thursday, March 4, at 7 p.m. to talk about his play Anna in the Tropics, set in Ybor City. The talk will take place at Ybor's Centro Asturiano, at the corner of Nebraska and Palm avenues. Cruz was born in Cuba, moved in his youth to Miami, and spent time with his family in Tampa when he was in his 20s. That sojourn inspired Anna.

The talk is sponsored by the Tampa/Hillsborough County library system. Admission is free.

Contact Performance Critic Mark E. Leib at 813-248-8888, ext. 305, or [email protected].

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