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Catalyze 2024: Ward Smith

Bill DeYoung



It’s coming up on three years since Ward Smith opened the Off-Central, the smallest professional theater (meaning he pays the actors) in St. Petersburg. Initially called Studio Grand Central, it’s a 40-seat venue that virtually defines the word “intimate.” The audience and the players are eyeball-to-eyeball.

The Off-Central is in the middle of its 2023 holiday play, a “backstage” comedy called Scrooge MacBeth; it’s the venue’s 20th overall production. Although he does quite a bit of performing there at 2260 1st Avenue S., Smith isn’t in this one. He’s the director.

As he looks back on 2023, and ahead into the new year, Smith declares he’s grateful. “Regardless of our present economic conditions, money’s always been tight,” he says. “And for those who can get out, there’s a lot of competition for those entertainment dollars. It’s great that there’s so many opportunities in St. Petersburg, and they’re growing.”

Theaters like his, along with galleries, museums and other venues, are competing with bars and breweries for the 20-something demographic. So staying open – and staying in the black – is something he doesn’t take for granted.

“St. Petersburg,” Smith explains,  “offers us the opportunity to stay viable, stay competitive. To stay a choice.

“And 40 years from now, somebody’s going to be talking about ‘Remember this renaissance in St. Pete?’ It’s great that everyone is having a seat at this wonderful table. To be a part of it while it’s happening. It feels like we’re doing something.”

As far as Outlook 2024, “I hope we can improve on what we have,” he says.

The Off-Central’s strength is in numbers – the low number of available seats. It’s a unique theater experience.

“This is like the little black box theaters we used to go to in Chicago,” patrons have said, or “It’s just like in Connecticut,” or New York. Or some other place. “Up north, I guess they dig this black box vibe,” Smith chuckles. “And even the artists know that as wonderful and intimate as freeFall is, and as wonderful as the American Stage space is, there’s something about the Off-Central that allows the artist to be a little bit more nuanced. To not have to be as broad. You’re not playing to the back row, which is 40 feet away.

“My back row is American Stage’s first row, when it comes down to it.”

A more reasonable financial intake would be nice – with 40 seats, even sellout shows aren’t financial booms – but the Off-Central, as a 501c3 organization, isn’t all about making money.

“In those 20 shows, we’ve employed how many local artists?” says Smith. “Who got a chance to showcase their work? We still want to do more of that in 2024. And in ’25, and going on.

“And we’d like to be more of a presence with the Grand Central merchant association. And to be more of a good neighbor. I’m not on Central, but I’m in the Grand Central District. Find more ways that we can be visible, and give back to the community.”

Another goal for 2024 is bigger, wider and stronger collaboration; the Off-Central has partnered previously with Theatre eXceptional, which creates theater for young people with disabilities.

“We’re a small group,’ Smith adds, “and with another small group we’re that much more mighty.”




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