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At St. Petersburg City Theatre, the show WILL go on

Bill DeYoung

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David Middleton (right) directs a rehearsal for "A Christmas Carol" at St. Petersburg City Theatre. Photo by Bill DeYoung

For the third consecutive year, director David Middleton is inside St. Petersburg City Theatre most weeknights, running the 40-member cast of A Christmas Carol through rigorous rehearsals. Although the actors change every season, and the script is tweaked this way and that, old Ebenezer Scrooge, Bob Crachit, Tiny Tim and the Ghost of Marley are present and accounted for, bringing the classic Dickens story to life on the stage of Florida’s longest continually-operating community theater.

A Christmas Carol came close to extinction in 2017, when the nonprofit theater’s board of directors disbanded, citing a low-to-nothing bank balance and executive-level ennui. With local, state and federal funds all but non-existent in the post-recession economy, ticket sales weren’t paying the bills. They were tired.

The four paid employees got pink slips, and there was serious talk about selling the building itself – even though the mortgage had long been paid off – because there wasn’t any money for necessary repairs.

A group of citizens – some with theater experience, many without – came together with a plan to get SPCT back on its feet through extensive fundraising, profile-heightening and demonstrative demonstrations that St. Petersburg’s longest-lived cultural institution was worth saving.

Susan Demers, who’s Dean of St. Pete College’s School of Public Policy, Ethics and Legal Studies, is also an actor and director whose history with SPCT goes back many years. As a member of the new board, she’s one of the theater’s most public, and most vocal, champions.

“My career is in education,” Demers says, “but I have a longtime role in the state as an arts advocate.”

Demers points out that “project manager,” a decidedly vague description, is currently an in-demand workplace profession. “Trust me,” she smiles, “no one can manage a project like a stage manager. A Fine Arts graduate knows how to put something together from scratch and make it roll, on a very short timeline.”

The future of Florida’s Fine Arts graduates – particularly those whose passion is in the performing arts – concerns her. “Here in Pinellas County, our high school drama programs are some of the richest in the state of Florida – the District IV thespian competitions yield fabulous performers every year,” Demers says. “Really top-notch training and talent. But those people don’t continue to perform.”

She echoes the concern of every theater board – amateur, professional or in-between – across the country: Theater desperately needs a new generation of young blood.

“We need to reach out to all those former thespians to let them know they can be the audience, or come back to the stage if they want to. It isn’t just for that generation that was raised on live entertainment. What happens in a theater, between the audience and the actors onstage, is completely different from what happens when you watch a movie or a TV show.”

Launched in 1925 as the Sunshine Players, the theater’s first production was The Poor Nut, a comedy in three acts by JC and Elliott Nugent. The group became the St. Petersburg Little Theatre in the ‘30s, and retained that moniker through several locations and thousands upon thousands of local residents drawn to the artistry, the camaraderie and the fun of community theater.

The present building, at 4025 31st St. South, was purchased in 1958 (the first show was Teahouse of the August Moon). For decades, the St. Petersburg Times covered every show religiously.

A half-dozen expansions later, the board and membership paid off the mortgage in 1983 and ceremoniously burned it. The name change, from St. Petersburg Little Theatre to St. Petersburg City Theatre, came in 2011.

With its massive proscenium arch, the stage is one of the biggest in the city; the auditorium seats 250.

When the black clouds rolled in, the children’s classes, summer camps and all-youth productions were the only things turning a (small) profit.

Happily, many of the participating kids had parents, or grandparents, who felt strongly about saving the theater. Among these was Susan Demers, whose daughter had trod the boards. Today, Demers’ grandchildren are involved in the youth theater programs.

“We love the children’s programming,” Demers explains, “but we also love the idea of some adult stuff going on. One of the things we have to spend time figuring out is: Who’s the audience that’s unserved?”

That’s where the young adults, and the high school thespians, come in. The new board is looking at different kinds of programming, to entice different kinds of audiences. The theater has an enormous lobby (in the old days, it was a screen porch) where talks and lectures are held – Demers believes they could present one-act plays in there, too. Or construct a black box theater on the stage itself.

“Any place can be a theater, as long as you can gather some audience,” she says. “So our big project is gathering audience.”

The most pressing issues are the roof and the air conditioning system, which are in need of something like $400,000 in repairs.

According to Demers, help is on the way. “Despite the stress on construction companies post-hurricane, we’re hoping to make it happen right after the beginning of the year, after A Christmas Carol closes and before Pirates of Penzance goes up. We have the financing procured for all of this.”

The roofing and AC people, she says, are working at a substantial discount; “They felt like it would be a good investment of their community dollars.” Fundraising efforts have provided a substantial boost.

For the cherry on top, an SPCT board member offered a private loan to make it all happen.

Still on the wish list: A designated educational space (a new wing on the building), and resurfacing the parking lot.

There are good, important reasons to make these “transitions,” Demers says. “I would argue, first of all, that longstanding community institutions give people anchors that the rest of the world does not supply for them. That thread of connected-ness to people who have been there before is really important.

“And I think it becomes more and more important as more of those institutions in our impermeable world just pass out of existence. So there’s that.”

 

 

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