Q&A with incoming American Stage Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte

The new theater leader says she likes "plays that have some teeth, that will excite current audiences and will potentially bring in some new audiences.”

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When I talked to the new producing artistic director for American Stage, who begins her tenure on Feb. 24, she was in California in the midst of a “marathon” — the marathon of moving, selling and saying goodbye.

“I’ve been living in overalls for the last month,” she reported. “The house will go on the market next week, and I’m getting ready to have a goodbye party on Sunday, say farewell to the many friends and supporters whom I’ve been fortunate enough to be surrounded by over the last two decades here in Sacramento.”

Gularte was the leader of Sacramento’s Capital Stage (and its original incarnation as Delta King Theatre) for more than 15 years. As she was bringing down the curtain on her California story, we talked about her vision for theater in St. Pete.

On programming: ”I like plays that have some teeth, that will excite current audiences and will potentially bring in some new audiences.”

Like, for instance, the following three plays, all of which she has produced and/or directed:

Enron: Lucy Prebble’s take on the collapse of the notorious energy company is “a story that’s got lots of spectacle but underneath it’s really this allegory about greed and about human nature and it takes a both hard-edged and sympathetic view of the people behind the scenes.” She noted that the play was a great success in London, not so in New York.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me: Frank McGuinness’s play is about three men from different countries held hostage in a Middle Eastern country. While it also relates to current events, “it really became a story that elevates beyond the tragic circumstances, and because these three men find these amazing ways to maintain hope and to connect with one another, the spirit of the play is actually so uplifting.”

The Scene: Theresa Rebeck’s “biting” comedy — one of Gularte’s favorite genres — is about a married man who has an affair with a predatory younger woman. Not only does the play have “very funny, sharp, smart dialogue, but it opens up into being something larger about the people who are kind of looking for something, and it kind of asks questions about what is that emptiness we’re feeling, and where is it coming from, and why do we do the things we do to fill it.”
Another play that she recently directed, David Linday-Abaire’s Good People, about class divisions and rivalries in South Boston, is one she might eventually schedule for American Stage.

So does this means she always tends toward more dangerous, edgy plays? “Of course the work we do should be entertaining,” she said. “But theater has the potential to do so much more than that. .. .And then the second part of that ... is the way in which you tell those stories. And my own aesthetic is to tell stories with the highest stakes you can possibly justify under the circumstances. I love actors that really just go for it on the stage, and I’m always looking for opportunities to make moments be life-or-death on the stage.”

Speaking of acting, I asked Gularte if she were committed to working mainly with Tampa Bay area performers. She said, “Local talent is the number one place I’ll be looking to.” But she added, “I have of course some artists I’ve worked with over the years not just in California but all over the country, and when there’s a particular fit where I really believe that this person is the best person, I think that that’s a really healthy thing for any arts organization, to put together the local talent with visiting talent. That kind of fosters greater creativity and keeps the process fresh, keeps the energy and the ideas flowing, rather than having the same population of people over and over.” She said the same fundamental approach —to look mainly at local talent — would apply in her use of set and costume designers.

What about supporting local playwrights and programming new plays? “I’m a big advocate of the development of new work,” Gularte said. She noted that at Capital Stage she started a program called “Playwright’s Revolution” which encouraged local writers as well as scribes nationwide. She said she’d like to take a similar approach in the Bay area. It’s all part, she suggested, of her conception of a vibrant theater: “I believe that interesting, compelling works can also be extremely accessible, and I go into the whole deal here assuming that our audiences are intelligent, and if the story is compelling, if it has a balance of humor and pathos and great acting, that there’s an audience for that.”

“That’s what I look for and that’s what I believe in.”

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