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Catching up with Paul Wilborn: What makes an arts town?

Bill DeYoung



The wait-and-see that has permeated the performing arts industry for nearly a year, as Covid numbers rise, fall and rise, has driven frustration levels to the boiling point.

No one knows this better than Paul Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium Theater, St. Petersburg College’s 830-seat public venue on 5th Avenue N.

He tried, in October, to re-open for live shows for small, spaced audiences. “What we discovered was that when the St. Pete/Pinellas positivity rate is below five percent, where the CDC recommends that it be to do these kind of things, people will show up,” Wilborn said. “And they’ll buy tickets.”

The Palladium’s big return lasted all of six weeks. “When the numbers spike, like they have been since November, we found that our audience doesn’t really want to come out.

“And it’s crazy for me to try to force them to, or put my staff at risk, and all those things when the numbers have been at 11, 12 percent in Pinellas County. So we’re just keeping an eye on that positivity rate.”

Wilborn was encouraged by a recent New York Times story in which Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told a group of performing arts professionals at a virtual conference that re-opening at full strength is possibly on the horizon.

“If everything goes right, this is will occur some time in the fall of 2021,” Fauci said, “so that by the time we get to the early to mid-fall, you can have people feeling safe performing onstage as well as people in the audience.”

Before re-opening the Palladium, even on a limited basis, Wilborn hopes the theater staff will have the opportunity to get vaccinated. “That would feel so great,” he explained, “because one of my big fears in being open was that an audience member can decide ‘Well, I’m going to take this risk. I’m going to go to Publix. I’m going to go to the Palladium.’ But my staff just had to show up. So I think I would feel so much better opening on a limited basis once my staff was vaccinated.”

Coming soon is an announcement of the Palladium Creative Class of 2021, a series of paid commissions going out to local artists. “A donor has stepped up pay a select group of our best performers to create new shows for us,” Wilborn explained. “They’ll also get paid when they perform the show.”

Wilborn is a longtime proponent of sufficiently rewarding artists for their work. “The biggest thing, for me, when we talk about being an arts community, or a community that supports its artists – if the performers and artists can’t afford to live in your community, if they’re not making their money out of your community, then you’re not really an arts town,” he said. “You’re just lying to yourself.

“We’re really trying to reinforce that idea that these artists are valuable. Putting some money where our mouth is, essentially.”

For the time being, the Palladium Live series launched in the fall is getting a reboot. Consisting of concerts video-recorded via multiple cameras on the Hough Hall mainstage, without an audience, the series features Palladium perennials including La Lucha, James Suggs, Jeremy Carter, Damon Fowler, Nate Najar and Daniela Soledade.

It’s been postponed again, but for once, Covid was not the culprit.

The introduction of a new online box office system early in January got complicated, and because the college (and its attendant paperwork) was involved, things had to get pushed back.

The first Palladium Live for 2021, featuring chamber music from the Mile-End Trio, has been moved from this Friday, Jan. 22, to early February. Tickets for this and all the other re-scheduled video shows should be available next week.

More performances are being recorded. Each in its turn will be available for a 48-hour purchase, to stream at will during that window.

“We’re wrapping up a full-on dance concert that Helen Hansen French has helped organize for us,” Wilborn said. “It’s a video version of Beacon, the show they do for us every year at the Palladium.”

Canceling all live shows was “the right decision for us,” Wilborn said. “I just can’t predict – and if anybody thinks they can predict, I say they’re foolish. I’m not booking live shows, I’m not talking to people about live shows, until I get a better picture.”

Palladium Theater website























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