Stage three: A trio of new theater companies take root in St. Pete

A trio of new theater companies takes root in St. Pete.

click to enlarge ALTAR-NATIVE SPACE: freeFall's Eric Davis in his company's new home, a former Christian Science Church. - Chip Weiner Photographic Arts
Chip Weiner Photographic Arts
ALTAR-NATIVE SPACE: freeFall's Eric Davis in his company's new home, a former Christian Science Church.

It happened in the summer, of all times, and in St. Petersburg: Three new theater companies took root in a town whose theater life has been dominated for years by one, American Stage (with occasional competition from The Studio@620).

freeFall Theatre Company. Two years ago, freeFall exploded onto the scene with its splendidly visceral staging of The Wild Party at Studio@620. Now the company is moving into its own home: a three-acre former church property in west St. Pete.

"It's an entire city block," says artistic director Eric Davis. "There are three buildings on the property and a large green space, and there will be eventually two performance spaces."

The smaller theater, to be opened in early 2011, will accommodate an audience of about 150 in movable seats that can be reconfigured for each show. The larger house, to be opened "in hopefully two or three years," will have a thrust stage and about 200 fixed seats.

The first show in late January, 2011 will be the Stephen Sondheim/Burt Shevelove version of Aristophanes' The Frogs, first produced in 1974 in the swimming pool of the Yale gymnasium, and later expanded for a 2004 Broadway version.

"It's a love letter to the art of the theater," says Davis, "with its whole premise being that art, and theater specifically, is what could save the world."

The second play — a small-cast drama — will be announced in the near future. But the third will be Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream, which will be staged in the round, and presented with a striking concept that will "really get audiences excited about Shakespeare and classical theater in general."

That will be followed by "an immersive production" of the musical The Man of La Mancha: "We'll create an environment in our studio that will be a sort of prism of Cervantes' mind, and the audience and the actors will share that space for the evening." Like The Frogs and Midsummer, it will have a cast of at least ten.

Employing so many actors will be a "challenge," Davis says, but "I think we have a realistic view of how many tickets we can sell. And I think it'll all be very successful."

Coming up: Two more shows at Studio@620: Rooms: a rock romance opening Sept. 8 (see "What to Watch For: Theater," p. 27) and Jeffrey Hatcher's six-actor adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in late October,

New American Theater. Revving up for his company's inaugural season, New American Theater Artistic Director Brian Becker is only a few weeks from opening his first show, Pump Boys and Dinettes, at the Palladium. Becker says he named the theater after one in Rockford, Illinois, where he took classes as a child and was later employed as a stage manager and lighting designer.

"And last summer I decided that I wanted to get back into doing shows, and when I started looking around I found that there were no professional theaters here that really were like a musical theater company, a regional kind of theater. So I decided we should have one."

Becker's vision for NAT includes a fifth show next year, an education department, and "hopefully, down the road, we can eventually find a space of our own."

Becker, who acts and sings, doesn't expect to perform in his company's musicals for the first couple of years — "there's just too much else going on" — but he'll be directing everything in the first season, hoping to add guest directors in season two. And like freeFall, NAT will employ Equity union actors — which means paying higher wages.

With the company not even halfway toward raising the $55,000 budget for Pump Boys and Dinettes, finance is much on Becker's mind this hot summer.

Coming up: At Baywalk: Broadway Cabaret, Aug. 28, 7 & 9 p.m.; At The Palladium: Pump Boys and Dinettes, opening Oct. 1 (see "What to Watch For: Theater"), followed by A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline (Feb. 4-13); Songs for a New World (April 13-17); and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (June 24-July 3),

St. Petersburg Shakespeare Company. Start-up anxieties are less urgent now for St. Petersburg Shakespeare, which kicked off with an ambitious first production — Hamlet — earlier this summer. The company doesn't intend another show until summer or early fall, 2011.

"Obviously, it was a learning experience for us," says artistic director Richard Miller. "We learned a lot about the space we were using [Eckerd College's Bininger Theater] and some of the limitations of doing a production of that magnitude with an all-volunteer cast and crew. And these are lessons that we're eager to apply in our next show."

Despite unenthusiastic reviews for Hamlet, Miller says he was "very pleased" with the result, and notes that "two of our best houses were the final Saturday and Sunday of the run." The word of mouth, he says, both on Facebook and out in the real world, was cheering.

So what about the future? Becker says he's planning a comedy for 2011, and it's definitely not A Midsummer Night's Dream. "Long-range — and by long-range I mean in the next couple of years — we'd like to do something resembling a season." He wants to "raise the bar" on fundraising such that Equity actors can be hired, and he notes that the profit from Hamlet is already a start.

Three new companies with their eyes on the prize. Let's hope they all thrive.

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