After the guarantee of a steady paycheck, an actor’s biggest thrill comes from working on something new, developing a show from the ground up. There’s no adrenaline rush quite like a world premiere.
This wellspring of creativity is bubbling right now in St. Petersburg, as William Leavengood’s play The Sister-Mothers of Gulfport is getting ready to open at Studio Grand Central, home base of the Off-Central Players.
Leavengood, a St. Pete native, has authored 19 full-length plays, many of which have been produced by New York’s Circle East Theatre Company. Locally, he taught Theatre, Playwriting and Film at Shorecrest Preparatory School and was an Adjunct Professor of Playwriting at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
He’s best-known, however, for the two shows he wrote about bay area history: Crossing the Bay and Webb’s City The Musical. His resume also includes 20 one-acts, five books for musicals and four young adult novels.
“Although I write comedies,” Leavengood says, “in New York I’m known, even within my theater company, as a dangerous playwright. That I write exciting, dangerous, edgy stuff that challenges the audience. It’s always really about peeling back the layers until we come to the truth of human motivation and the human experience.”
His work has been called “thought-provoking,” and Leavengood likes that. “It’s meant to make us consider ourselves, our motivations, how we’re conducting our lives.”
The Sister-Mothers of Gulfport is a fast-moving drama with occasional moments of levity. Dixie is nearing 40 and raising a 15-year-old daughter, Madison, alone. She also happens to be a semi-retired prostitute.
Into their already complicated lives comes Dixie’s long-lost globetrotting sister Renelle, who’s been married four times and is about to take a fifth walk down the aisle. “She turns up at their door with her new fiancé, an evangelical preacher who’d been doing missionary work in Saudi Arabia,” explains the playwright.
Like her sister, Renelle has her reasons for doing the things she does.
“This show is about these women who are doing their best under incredibly difficult circumstances. Who find some successful path through life – and trying to make sure that the teenage daughter does not have to go through the same kind of life that they’ve endured.”
All of the women have dark secrets, and as they’re revealed, passed around and dissected, relationships fall apart and re-assemble in different ways.
“It’s about trying to break a cycle of generational abuse, and the profound consequences on these women’s lives,” Leavengood explains. “Trying to see if they can break that cycle for the teenage girl.”
Words like “prostitution” and “abuse,” Leavengood knows very well, might make his play sound dark and depressing. “And it’s not that at all. It’s about women who persevere through these things.”
Indeed, the three women are as tough as they are smart. The Sister-Mothers of Gulfport is about choices – the little ones, and the big ones.
Studio Grand Central artistic director Ward Smith plays Gene, Renelle’s evangelical beau, who may or may not have made a couple of questionable choices himself.
Smith was in a 2015 production of Leavengood’s Money Maker at the independent Tampa theater The Heather.
When Smith moved into the old Andi Matheny Acting Studio earlier this year, Leavengood reached out. “I’ve had to hustle my whole life to make my career happen,” he explains. “Webb’s City came about because I pressed the county to commission us. Nobody came calling saying ‘Hey Bill, why don’t you write a show?’
“I saw that Ward had bought the theater – and when I called to congratulate him, I asked if he would consider doing some of my smaller-cast plays. And I sent him this one.”
Although Smith and Sydney Reddish (who plays Madison) are local, actresses Amanda Ladd (Renelle) and Amber Paul (Dixie) are New Yorkers who’ve worked with Leavengood before, as had Big Apple director Tina J. Ball.
Studio Grand Central has just 50 seats. “This is not going to be a financial bonanza for any of us,” Leavengood says. “This is literally done for love.”
Smith is also producing Leavengood’s The Azure Sky in Oz Dec. 16-19. Ladd stars in this one-woman show, as two different characters (one in each act), each with an artistic temperament, who find fulfillment in working with the physically and mentally challenged.
From the guy who wrote a freewheeling, fun-loving musical about a famous department store, the dramatics of Sister-Mothers and Azure Sky may come as a surprise.
Bill Leavengood’s got a secret of his own to share. “These are the plays that mean the most to me. Absolutely.”
The Sister-Mothers of Gulfport opens Thursday and runs through Dec. 12. Tickets and more details here.