The Changing of the Guard

American Stage's new artistic director shares his plans

click to enlarge NEW MAN ON TOP: The new artistic director of - American Stage, Todd Olson. - AMERICAN STAGE
NEW MAN ON TOP: The new artistic director of American Stage, Todd Olson.

I talked recently with Todd Olson, the new artistic director of American Stage in St. Petersburg, about his vision for the theater, the thoughts behind his programming and his feelings about the Tampa Bay area. Here are some highlights:

The Revolving Door: Olson is aware that American Stage has fired several of its artistic directors over the last few years, but says that his research taught him that the problem was not systemic to the theater. He thinks the problems were the artistic directors themselves, their personalities or styles of operation. Without naming names, he suggests that one past artistic director was more interested in acting than directing — a stance he calls taboo for a regional theater. Another "did not sufficiently understand the relationship between artistic decisions and financial decisions" so that "the theater accrued a terrible debt in a real short period of time." His own contract with the American Stage board is for one year, he says, with the option for an open-ended renewal if his work is appreciated.

Plans for a Second Stage: Olson says he wouldn't be surprised if in the next two or three years American Stage expands to a second stage on a regular basis. He says he's presently talking with the Palladium and Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, with Ruth Eckerd Hall and a smaller theater in Clearwater, and with a few small theaters in Tampa. The idea would be that after appearing in the 140-seat American Stage home theater, a production would then move to this second house, thus giving American Stage "a larger reach just in this region."

Building a Subscription Audience: There are 1,765 subscribers to American Stage at the moment, says Olson. He wants to expand this audience by offering all subscribers their money back if they're not satisfied with American Stage at the end of the season. "We kind of want to put our money where our mouth is that way. And if people have ever been hesitant about subscribing for a whole season, I think this is the season to give it a try."

Multiculturalism and Play Programming: "For me," says Olson, "the bottom line is not: is it a black experience, is it an Irish experience, is it a women's experience, is it a gay experience. To me, it's is it a great story or is it not a great story. And usually, when I sort of put a laundry list together, a dream list for the following year — all of those things happen to be on it anyway. But I wouldn't say that I go consciously and I'm looking for the great black play."

Shakespeare in the Park: Olson says he's talked to people who enjoy the tradition of musicalized, adapted Shakespeare, but that he talked to just as many who feel that the musical approach dumbs down Shakespeare. His own sympathies, finally, are with doing Shakespeare straight: "I think if it's good Shakespeare, ... people don't miss the music. And I think there's plenty of music in it anyway." He adds that the great success of this year's unmusicalized Romeo and Juliet is proof than unadapted Shakespeare is satisfying to the local audience. As for future plays, Olson says "We're seriously entertaining getting into the histories, getting into that second third of plays that we've never touched before," like Richard III, Henry V, Hamlet, and King Lear. He's also interested in some comedies that haven't been done in a while — Much Ado About Nothing and Merry Wives of Windsor among them.

Crossing the Bay with Shakespeare: At present, Olson prefers the idea of expanding to Tampa not with the Shakespeare production but with one of the theater's contemporary plays. "What we did before was we took the largest, most expensive, most difficult thing we did and we tried to put it in a truck and bring it across the Bay and do it in Tampa. And it was just impossible. I think in some ways we were doomed to fail even before we loaded the truck up." As for the demand in Tampa for a modern play from the American Stage season: "There's not a theater over there that can really offer what we're offering, which is still mind-boggling to me why Tampa doesn't have a larger cultural offering than St. Petersburg, but it doesn't. I think we'd like to find partners over there."

Casting Local Actors: "A true regional theater needs to reflect work of people from that region," says Olson. He says there's a "philosophical and ethical mandate" to use performers from the Bay area, but he adds that cross-pollination with actors from beyond the Bay can improve everyone's quality. He says he auditioned 75 local actors in early March and in late May will call back 18 to 20 for possible involvement in next season's shows. He'll then go to New York to audition actors for roles that he can't fill with local talent.

Producing New Writers: Olson says he's wrestled with the question a lot — that he's studied American Stage's longstanding New Visions series and "I don't know how new or visionary it's been." He says that he and Managing Director Lee Manwaring Lowry are considering a festival of new four-actor plays, and he suggests that such a festival might first take place in April or May 2005. "And so right now I dissuade writers from sending their material because right now we can't do anything with it. But I want to change that."

Extending the Run of Shows: Whereas in the past American Stage shows have tended to run for three weeks, Olson is planning four-week runs for shows in the 2003-04 season — and he's contemplating the possibility of extending even beyond that. "I'd like us to be more prepared in the event that we could hold things over. ... I just think it makes better business sense."

Theater in a Sports-Loving Area: Olson is positive that a sports-loving community like Tampa can also foster a healthy habitat for the theater. "I think sports and the arts can co-exist in the same community." Hopefully more than just co-exist — hopefully the arts in the Tampa Bay area will begin to feel the same kind of love that our professional sports teams receive.

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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