Pinellas County is a destination for creativity. It can be seen on our stages, in our museums, in our art-galleries and studios, at our film festivals and arts shows. It can be heard in our conversations, at our poetry readings and literary events. Creative Pinellas supports all of this activity and energy.
Recently, Julie Garisto teamed up with American Stage to come out with a 4 part series on our theatre. She went behind the scenes of TARTUFFE, sat down with Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte, and shared with readers what’s to come at American Stage and throughout the Tampa Bay area theatre scene.
Visit http://creativepinellas.org/our-journal/ to find out what else has been cooking in the Tampa Bay arts scene…
Click on to read all 4 articles now!
The Play’s the Thing
American Stage, a professional theater company with first-rate productions, acclaim and packed houses, didn’t have one thing — a reputation for pushing the envelope or attracting younger audiences.
Thankfully, that’s changing.
Hope for a fresher approach came by way of Stephanie Gularte, appointed Producing Artistic Director on February 24, 2015. The founder of the Capital Stage Company in Sacramento had produced more than 80 plays and had become known for bold, high-quality programming.
After finishing out last year’s season at American Stage, Gularte selected plays for the 2016-17 season that corresponded with the theme “In Search of…America.”
The plays explore our nation’s ideals of freedom and opportunity (or lack thereof), ranging from comedies to gutsy dramas to a new adaptation of a 350-year-old French classic — Tartuffe, a world premiere currently in production.
“Play selection is the most important element of expanding our reach to younger audiences,” Gularte says. “We believe that the plays in our new season will appeal to a wide range of audiences, including those in their 20s to 30s who are hungry for visceral, edgy live theatre.”
Because of the cost of tickets and the lure of electronic media, getting younger people to the theater has become more of a challenge. Finding new marketing approaches and content that appeals to younger theatergoers is crucial.
According to Gularte, American Stage’s marketing department is always looking at attracting a younger audience while building and maintaining our base demographics.
“Marketing is acquiring a younger audience on several key areas,” Gularte says. “First, our branding has a more modern look. Second, we are using social media, such as Instagram and SnapChat to engage with a younger demographic. In addition, we have a Young American night and a new product, the Young American Pass to attract that age group with a subscription fee model. Another ongoing effort is to attend external events that interact with a younger audience to bring awareness to both theatre and American Stage.”
Gularte chose the current season’s content with the younger viewer in mind and shared with Creative Pinellas why she chose each play this season.
“Good People — I find David Lindsay-Abaire’s play to be one of the most exciting plays of the past 10 years. It is such a fulfilling journey for audiences because it is funny and intense and surprising and ultimately lends itself to some great post-show conversation. I wanted to open this season with this play to go ‘In Search of … the American Dream.’
Tartuffe — Written by French playwright Moliere in the 17th century, American Stage is creating a modern adaptation of this brilliant farce that will be set in America. Moliere was a genius at satirizing the vagaries of society and so we’re taking this opportunity to do a little lampooning of American politics as we go ‘In Search of…an American Idol.’
Joe Turner’s Come & Gone — The 10th and final installment of August Wilson’s century cycle will make American Stage the 13th theatre in the world to have completed this entire cycle of plays. Set in the 1910s during the country’s Great Migration when former slaves are moving north in hopes of finding opportunity this play takes an honest and poignant look at our country’s legacy of racism as we go ‘In Search of … a New Beginning.’
Informed Consent — A Tampa Bay area premiere by Deborah Zoe Laufer, the immediacy of this play was so powerful to me that I had to include it in the current season. The story of a woman trying to find genetic clues to the early onset Alzheimer’s that runs in her family raises provocative questions about the ethics behind DNA research as we go ‘In Search of … a cure.’
The Invisible Hand — Another Tampa Bay area premiere, Pulitzer-Winning playwright Ayad Akhtar’s follow up to his sensation play Disgraced takes an even more highly charged style in this political thriller about an American businessman being held hostage by an Islamic splinter terrorist group. While the man attempts to use the stock market to raise his own ransom play, the relationship between the hostage and his captors is alternately darkly funny and intensely frightening, exposing the universality of greed and the lengths that one might go to save themselves as we venture ‘In Search of … a Free Market.’
Sex With Strangers — One of the top 10 most produced plays in the country for the past two years, this Tampa Bay area premiere by Laura Eason is a sexy and smart comedy about two writers, a 40-year-old woman and a 28-year-old man who become involved in a passionate love affair. But when technology begins to come between them, the 12-year age difference begins to feel like a profound generation gap where intimacy is not so easy to come by as we go ‘In Search of … a Connection.’”
(Literally) Behind the Scenes of Tartuffe–Part 1
Before a set can be designed and the actors are cast, a play must be chosen.
Typically, the artistic director of a theater chooses plays for the season around a year in advance.
American Stage Producing Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte chose her first season on the job with a theme for 2016-17: In Search of…America.
Often, theaters with a budget that can manage it, will hire a playwright occasionally to create an original script or adaptation. Gularte had worked with Caisley at her previous venue workplace, Capital Stage Company in Sacramento before leaving for St. Petersburg. His play, Winter, premiered at the theater in 2015 for the Playwrights Revolution Festival.
While it may seem odd at first blush, that a French classic by Molière would fit in with this theme, Tartuffe wound up becoming uncannily perfect as a farce during a farcical Presidential election season.
Gularte, who selected the comedic romp in December 2015, says she was intrigued by the prospect of producing this 350-year old play about hypocrisy and demagoguery at the close of America’s 2016 election season.
The fact that the play’s titular buffoon bears some hubris-scented, religious right-pandering resemblance to a certain U.S. Presidential candidate was purely coincidental, a happy accident that’s now providing comic relief to theatergoers.
“Back then, I could not have imagined that real-life events would take on the level of absurdity we’ve witnessed over the past year,”
Gularte explains in a play program insert…. I’ve watched with stupefaction as the candidates, their supporters and their detractors, the pundits and the media have all created a spectacle that has surpassed any fictional farce we sought to depict.
“… Tartuffe is not Trump. He is not Clinton. He does not represent a particular political party or platform. Tartuffe, in all of its absurdity, silliness and, yes, its rhetoric, is not about a single individual or ideal. It’s about all of us: our steadfast and often headstrong attachments to our positions and our candidates, our selective reasoning and our flawed rationalizing as we search in vain, for an American idol to save us from ourselves and lead us toward a brighter future.”
Brendan Ragan, an award-winning local actor and director who helped found Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre, says he was particularly impressed with how well playwright Robert Caisley’s “retained the DNA of Moliere’s 1664 farce.”
Caisley conceived American Stage’s Tartuffe as a contemporary adaptation, and American Stage has introduced a multimedia component — a flat screen TV provides breaking news reports throughout the show — but Caisley says he consciously didn’t change plot points and even retained those famous couplets at the end of scenes.
“The story has stayed very much intact but updated to include circumstances and other details, but its relationship issues are still very relevant today,” Ragan added.
When interviewed by phone, Caisley an accomplished and award-winning writer across genres, shared the differences between creating prose and plays.
“The difference between playwriting and prose fiction is that the latter exists in the imagination of reader,” Caisley said. “Plays unfold in real time.”
For this reason, the playwright said he spends time observing the audience when each of his plays is first staged.
“I try to hear where they are restless,” he says. “I’m entirely sensitive to what the audience is reacting to, when they are rustling in their seats or coughing.”
Caisley also emphasizes the urgency of making a play that works: It’s a time investment from your readers. It takes them out of their routines.
“You can bump into somebody reading a book on the plane or bus,” he explained. “They’re not going out of their way to read. With a play, around 200 people a night are leaving their homes to go to another location to experience your story.”
“You’re asking them to do something and must promise them that it’s more interesting than what they would have done instead of going to your play. It’s a huge responsibility.”
For Caisley, writing plays became a natural progression. The child of professional actors, he grew up in the theater and has been an actor as long as he can remember.
Instead of hiring babysitters, his parents brought him to rehearsals. One of his earliest experiences involved a rundown of Lillian Hellman’s Little Foxes. His father collapsed in a dramatic scene and he was convinced he dad had died.
“From then on I was hooked on the live experience,” he effused. “The theater world is my home; I had found my tribe.”
Fast-forward to Tartuffe — Caisley insists he was not trying to parallel real events but admitted to peppering some references (such as a smashed blackberry and a “nasty woman” dig) for laughs.
(Literally) Behind the Scenes of Tartuffe–Part 2
Moliere’s Tartuffe, in its final weekend at American Stage, features actors who have also appeared on professional stages at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, and in Tampa with Tampa Repertory, Jobsite and Stageworks.
American Stage’s current farce with a political and contemporary twist stars an impressive ensemble, starting with Ned Averill-Snell as Orgon. The charismatic, ubiquitous character actor is a local favorite on both sides of the bay.
Ricky Wayne, the titular buffoon, pioneered improv with classes, shows — like his monthly act with Gavin Hawk the first Sunday of the month — and has had some interesting turns on TV in The Walking Dead,Bloodline and Halt and Catch Fire — the latter of which also features a recurring role by fellow cast member J. Elijah Cho.
Georgia Mallory Guy, who’s consistently funny in her comedic roles and great at portraying sassy and sharp-witted women, deftly portrays Dorine, the play’s maid and voice of reason. The equally spirited Kelly Pekar, who plays Mira, will be appearing in freeFall’s highly anticipated Peter and the Starcatcher, which will be presented in repertory with a new adaptation of Peter Pan by freeFall Artistic Director Eric Davis. (Also noteworthy: freeFall adapts at least one show per season.)
In light of such high-profile talent, one might wonder how political the process gets and if the actors are cherry-picked for the roles because they’re known and loved commodities.
“Everyone auditioned forTartuffe,” says the play’s director Brendan Ragan, who’s also an actor and artistic director/founder of Urbanite Theater in Sarasota. “They all read at different times, but they all auditioned and did call-backs.”
Call-backs, if you’re not in the know, is a second read to narrow down picks — similar to what employees do during the job interview process.
freeFall Theatre, 5 miles west of American Stage, also strives to maintain a standard of fairness when casting for shows.
“For us, the process of casting is always about finding the best professional actors that we can, with the specific skills needed to play any given role,” says Davis. “We are always looking for diversity in our casts, and often cast against presumptions of race, gender and type.’”
Also, there isn’t just one type of audition.
Ragan says he, American Stage Artistic Director Stephanie Gularte and the theater’s operations manager Jim Sorensen saw several actors try out and selected performers from general auditions — standard practice by local professional theaters.
General auditions aren’t held for one specific production. They’re held to help theaters cast roles for their entire season and are presented both by theater companies and networking organizations. Not only does American Stage and the above-referenced houses host their own general auditions before seasons begin to field talent in advance, there’s also the Unified Auditions presented by Theatre Tampa Bay and the FPTA (Florida Professional Theatres Association) in South Florida.
“The process itself can take several weeks,” Ragan said.
Selecting a director for the play doesn’t take on the same institutional approach. It’s usually an undertaking of the theater’s artistic director and is a subjective choice based on a set of criteria that can be attributed to a play’s special set of demands.
Ragan says that American Stage’s Gularte noticed his physicality as an actor and his directing style. Because Tartuffe has so many moments involving physical comedy, she thought Ragan, acclaimed for his visceral predilections and knack for visuals, stood out to Gularte. Ragan won local awards and earned critical praise for his one-man show performance of another contemporary retelling of a classic — An Iliad — which required agility from the actor.
Adds Gularte: “I saw Brendon’s directing work in Urbanite’s production of Drowning Girls and was very impressed with his precision in staging and timing. Then I met with him and found that we were really able to speak the same language with one another not only as directors but as fellow artistic directors. I felt he would be a great collaborator and I was right.”
As the taskmaster of Tartuffe, Ragan says he was neither hands off nor a micro-manager.
“It was 50 percent me and 50 percent them,” Ragan says of his directorial style.
Once the play got up and running, Ragan had to use various forms of technology to keep the actors with jobs in other states/projects involved. It took some wrangling, he says. Wayne, for instance, did his call-back readings by Skype.
Speaking of technology, Ragan and his colleagues at American Stage along with playwright Robert Caisley and set designer Jerid Fox had to be on the same page with how to introduce the Information Age into a play written during the French Renaissance.
“The current political climate is driven by what’s going on online and in social media,” Ragan says. “We put in the video elements [flat screen display] so the audience could see the world looking through their eyes.”
Fox’s “McMansion” setup in Tartuffe is remarkable — and even includes an LED-lighted pool. The set designer and propmaster shared his inspiration on American Stage’s website:
“I was inspired on two fronts: the first were famous TV homes like the Kardashians’ mansion, ‘The Bachelor mansion’ and the Property Brothers’ house in Las Vegas – I knew I wanted it to look expensive, but also have a little cookie cutter McMansion feel to it. The second was a desire to evoke the architecture of the White House so when the play takes a big turn towards politics, there it would be looming in the background.”
Ragan and Fox, along with costume designer Frank Chavez and lighting designer Chris Baldwin, worked together to impart an upscale look on the set in keeping with Moliere’s satirical skewering of the upper class.
“Right from the beginning of developing themes and ideas, it became clear we needed to hold onto Moliere’s device of placing Orgon’s family in the upper class of society,” Ragan says. “It was important to us to show them as the type of family that not only had money, but perhaps their taste for showing that money was greater than their taste for design and class.”
In researching certain mansions in Vegas and Miami, for example, Ragan and his American Stage cohorts found several houses that clearly were expensive and gaudy, but also tacky.
“From a practical Farce standpoint, I needed a lot of doors and levels, and modern American McMansions can provide those in droves, so it was a natural fit,” Ragan said. “The exact style and achievement, however, should fall directly onto Jerid Fox, who did an extraordinary job marrying our visions with practicality and tacky elegance.”
From the Guest Editor, Stephanie Gularte: A Conversation
Creative Pinellas is proud to present the November 2016 edition of Our Journal and with it a new Guest Editor: Stephanie Gularte. Gularte joined St. Petersburg’s American Stage Theatre Company in January of 2015 as its Producing Artistic Director. She took time in the middle of a busy season to speak with us about her path into the performing arts, the challenges facing theatre today, the role of performing arts in a community and more.
Do you remember when you were first attracted to the theater? What attracted you to it?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by people and stories. From a very young age I had a very active imagination, trying to understand why people do the things that they do. As a young child one of my favorite things was to enact stories about people. I remember at the age of about 10, gathering the neighborhood kids and devising an original musical, performing it in my garage and going around the neighborhood and selling tickets, using my allowance money to stock concessions. Looking back, that’s when I recognize I also had a real interest in the leadership and producing side as well as the actual craft itself.
That’s funny, you don’t often see the production side being of interest to a kid. That must’ve made an impression on your parents.
I think it came back around for me later because my parents were small-business owners and I think that that influence was just there without us consciously discussing it. Kind of through osmosis, I inherited a small-business entrepreneurial spirit. But I pursued acting and that was my passion and what I did full-time for a few years before I started producing. Once I started producing I remembered and started connecting the dots of how I arrived at that place because it wasn’t something I originally set out to do.
Did you get to experience much theatre or culture in general when you were young?
Yes, mostly through school and somewhat through church. I grew up in elementary school in the ‘70s and high school in the late ‘80s and during those two decades the arts were still offered throughout your education in public schools. So, I was fortunate to have gone to schools where I had access to the arts. I’m not sure where I might have ended up if I hadn’t had that exposure. But I graduated high school knowing that I wanted to pursue the arts even though I tried to resist it for a while. In college, I tried to change majors a couple times trying to find myself in a field that was a little more pragmatic. Nonetheless, I still landed back where I started: in the arts.
That reminds me of our recent Conversation With the Fellows event. A lot of the artists related that they were encouraged by mentors that, if they could do anything that was not art, they should pursue that for pragmatic reasons. Did you ever feel pressured in that way?
I did but mostly self-imposed pressure, and maybe somewhat societal pressure. Once you start truly pursuing the arts you can’t help but come up against the reality, even before you start your career, even when you’re just in the education process, that it is not a career that offers a great deal of stability or even a great deal of respect, frankly [chuckles]. America is not particularly a culture that values the arts or artists in ways that some other cultures do. So, I certainly had that self-imposed sense that I needed to find something more dignified and more stable and I ended up with a bachelor’s degree in political science with the intention to go to law school but that was not to be.
Now you’re here and with American Stage, one of the most important theaters in the Tampa Bay area. From a big picture perspective, what is, in your view, the ideal role of a theater in a community?
A gathering place for community, where it offers an opportunity for people to connect with the human experience in a way that is more powerful and more visceral than any other form of entertainment and storytelling. Because of the live nature of the artist and audience relationship, it gives us the opportunities for stories to take on greater potency. It gets us engaged and thinking about ourselves and one another, I think, in a more profound way then, for instance, movies.
That’s something I had wondered about. I’m personally based in visual art, and visual art isn’t really ever expected to entertain, not often at least. But theatre is expected to entertain while also culturally enriching its audience. With that in mind, what sort of value does a theater bring to a community beyond an evening of entertainment?
I think entertaining audiences is the minimum standard that a theatre company should be holding themselves to. Entertainment, in the sense of holding one’s attention, the theater when done well certainly does that in a meaningful way. Beyond that I’m always looking at, “What is the point of telling this particular story?” and “What is the point of telling this particular story at this moment in time?” I think that offering contemplation and reflection and connectedness – the potential for that in the theatre is unlike any other milieu.
Does it, at times, feel like a challenge to balance entertaining an audience while also going beyond that? I was having a challenge figuring out what phrase to use besides “culturally enrich.”
Yeah, I think when people in general hear that kind of language, “cultural enrichment,” they run in the other direction when it comes to what to do on a Friday night [laughs]. So, it’s certainly top of mind that what we’re looking for comes through in a way that engages people, that really leaves audiences feeling stimulated and excited. I happen to be a firm believer that you can achieve that most successfully with stories that are impactful and told at a high level of professionalism. It is a challenge, and some people think of entertaining as always having to be humorous and never being thought provoking. I just don’t think that’s the case. The current production we have running at American Stage is a great example of a play that is very entertaining, people are very engaged and enjoying it and leaving talking and buzzing. But it has so much going on for people to chew on, it’s very substantive. Ultimately, that’s what I think fulfills people. There’s so much meaningless entertainment on offer out there that when people get offered something that is actually nutrient-rich and tastes good, then you’ve got a winner.
That’s something that is perhaps often missing in contemporary art – it’s frequently not concerned with entertaining people and leaves it feeling pretentious to many because of that.
Accessibility is so important. In theater, it’s just a rehearsal until there’s an audience. So, I’m ever-mindful to what our audiences are going to experience and in what ways they’re going to find our work compelling. We always come back to that. It’s not about trying to please everyone. Because once you’re trying to please the widest possible audience, the work does become meaningless and you’re essentially not pleasing anyone. But I think accessibility is important for artists to keep in mind.
In line with that, are there any challenges that you’d say theatre in general is facing now that it hasn’t faced as much in the past?
Two specific things come to mind. One is technology and the ways that we receive information and entertainment have changed so dramatically. That has impacted not only theater but other forms of entertainment that require people to leave their homes and put their gadgets down. It’s just so convenient to find entertainment without leaving the comfort of your home. The second thing I alluded to earlier when I was speaking about my own background is the fact that arts education in many States across the county has virtually disappeared from public education. It means that we’re not planting the seed of arts appreciation in young people. What the theatre typically enjoyed was an audience that had arts exposure at a younger age, perhaps they moved on to building their careers and raising a family, but they came back to it in a very committed way because they had that impression made on them at an age that really made a difference in their lives. Without that experience for young people, the arts are challenged to try and get people who are adults to establish a new appreciation for the arts. It’s harder to get adults to try something new in that way. It’s a concern for our industry.
There are a couple of things we’re doing to counter both of those challenges. One: remind people how powerful live performance is and the difference between that and a more removed, passive experience of watching things on your computer, your television or iPhone. I find that a lot of people, when they’re reminded of that or experience it for the first time are very excited by it. The other is: American Stage offers a very robust education program. We try to make arts education accessible to many people in our community, from little ones five years of age and up. We try to do our part and fill that gap that kids aren’t necessarily getting from their schools anymore.
Well what about that community that surrounds a theatre? What are some of the most important things that a community can do to support their local theatre company?
I think that the number one thing is to attend. Buy a ticket and attend a performance and do that as regularly as you can. At American Stage we have all sorts of different opportunities for people of different financial means to see our work. That’s the reason we exist: for an audience. That’s is above all what a community can do, participate in the art by being there, purchasing that ticket. And for those who have the means—contributions. American Stage is a not-for-profit. We qualify as a nonprofit because we’re deemed to be offering something that is of greater value than the market will allow from a price point standpoint. Almost half of our budget relies on individual donations and grants, foundational giving and corporate giving. That kind of generosity is truly essential. For those who don’t have the financial means to do either of those things, there are always volunteer opportunities at American Stage and I’m sure other arts organizations as well. It’s a terrific way to get involved and support your local favorite arts organization.