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American Stage’s Stephanie Gularte: Trying to plan for the unknown

Bill DeYoung



"Mamma Mia!" played to sold-out audiences at Demens Landing Park last spring. This year's scheduled park show, "Footloose," has been postponed. Photo by Beth Reynolds.

Rehearsals were to begin next week for American Stage’s 2020 outdoor musical, Footloose, on the books for an April 15-May 17 run in Demens Landing Park. The annual park shows are the company’s cash cows, wrangling bigger audiences – and more money – than any of the other plays in the American Stage season.

According to producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte, many of the set pieces for the large-scale production had already been built when the coronavirus pandemic hit last week. Public gatherings were banned, the City of St. Petersburg pulled the permits for Demens Landing, and Footloose, along with its fully-invested cast, crew and technical staff, went on the back burner.

American Stage had already invested $100,000 in the show. Gularte hopes Footloose will dance its way into the park this fall, after the coronavirus, and the summer heat, bugs and rainy season are history.

That’s the plan for now, as much as there can be a plan.

“That’s the thing that’s the most ominous, the unknown,” Gularte said. “Planning in an emergency situation is one thing, but planning in an emergency situation when the rules of that situation are constantly shifting is another. Not just those of us in the arts, globally we’re all in that.

“That’s the perspective that I’m trying to hold on to. That this is about more than American Stage, and more than our arts community. It’s much bigger than that. And it’s actually much simpler than that.”

Stephanie Gularte. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Wednesday morning, Gularte presented a four-phase contingency plan to American Stage’s board of directors.

“We are committed to, at certain trigger points based on the events around us, making tough decisions to ensure the long-term survival of the organization,” she said.

Approximately 60 percent of the nonprofit’s $3.1 million operating budget comes from ticket sales, classes and concessions.

“Ultimately we have to stay dynamic – but also at certain points we have to make commitments to things one way or the other. Because you can’t just stay in limbo, operationally, as a business. You have to have some certitudes, even inside of a situation where you can’t have certitudes.”

The current “perfect world scenario” includes resuming the scheduled season with the drama Admissions at the end of May.

St. Petersburg playwright Natalie Symons’ The People Downstairs was seen by two preview audiences, on March 11 and 12. Opening night, the 13th – and, of course, the entire scheduled run – were subsequently canceled.

“I am committed to doing everything I can to find a new date on the calendar to bring The People Downstairs back,” Gularte explains. “It hasn’t had an official opening yet, and I want it to have its opening at American Stage.”

The comedy about misfits who come together, despite the obstacles thrown at them, was workshopped over many months at American Stage. “It evolved over the two previews,” Gularte said. “And we were feeling really good about going into opening.”

The looming coronavirus threat, she adds, seemed to be on everyone’s mind at the previews. “Because the play has so much laughter, joy and poignancy to it, you could just feel that catharsis in the room that people really, really need right now.”

Gularte said she has also formed a Digital Programming Task Force, to come up with ways to keep American Stage “top of mind” while its actual stages are dark.

“We’re pursuing different avenues, and will be putting some kind of content out there in early April, if not sooner,” she explained. “How robust that gets will depend upon how long we’re in this … place.”













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