Natalie Symons’ play The People Downstairs was seeded, germinated and nurtured at American Stage, where it comes to full bloom – a world premiere – this weekend. Chris Crawford directs.
The People Downstairs is a comedy, albeit one with a conscience and a beating heart, about lonely people, strange circumstances and the nature of compassion. For the St. Petersburg playwright, it all began with a single idea.
“I had an image of an aging man mopping the floor in a funeral home,” Symons explains, “and watching the embalming process.
“And I thought ‘What happens to that man when he goes home?’ I started there, and it evolved. I knew pretty soon in where I wanted it to land.”
The man in Symons’ vision is Miles Lisowski, who lives with his agoraphobic, nearly blind daughter Mabel. He’s recently widowed, eccentric, difficult and an alcoholic.
Miles’ sense of humor, however, has not dimmed, and his relationship with sharp-as-a-tack Mabel is full of laughter and hopefulness.
“I know it sounds sort of nutty, but the characters told me what they wanted to happen,” Symons says. “They took over, and it became something different than what I thought it was going to be. I thought it was going to be more about Miles’ journey, and it became Mabel’s story.”
The story is set in Buffalo, New York, Symons’ own hometown. And although she swears it’s not autobiographical, “there’s so much of me in it, and my family, and the people that I care about. With this play, what I’m happy about is that it’s the quieter voices that we don’t often hear in the theater that I think we’re seeing on that stage.
“I wanted to share that because there’s people in my life that I want their story told, and they’re the quieter voices than the people we sometimes pass in the street and don’t think twice about.”
Into the Lisowskis’ lives comes Todd Schneider, a milquetoast mortician’s assistant. Miles brings Todd home in hopes he’ll take a shine to his shut-in daughter.
Symons wrote Todd with just one actor in mind – Mathew McGee. “I thought, “I’d love to see more of the softer, more tender side of what he does as a comedic actor. And he was there from the very first reading – he’s been developing Todd with me.”
Symons’ relationship with St. Petersburg theater goes back more than a decade. As an actor, she was a familiar face (that’s how she knew Matthew McGee). At a Dramatist Guild reading at American Stage, she met freeFall Theater Managing Director Jim Sorenson. They’ve been married for eight years now (he was named Managing Director at American Stage in 2016).
Symons’ first play, Lark Eden, had just been published. The Buffalo Kings and Naming True followed.
American Stage producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte was “knocked out” by a production of Naming True at Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre. And when an early draft of The People Downstairs made the final cut for American Stage’s New Play Festival in 2018, Gularte suggested that Symons become the theater’s playwright-in-residence.
“I told her that the thing I needed the most was an artistic home,” Symons recalls. “A place that was nurturing my art, and believing in what I was doing, and a safe place where I felt like I could explore a play from the beginning through the development of it.
“Because you have different drafts, and lots of readings, and I needed to know that I could put it out there and not have it be a finished product. With smaller audiences. So I could see what was landing and where the story needed more development. Where I needed to tighten it up. How I needed to develop each character.”
A place in the American Stage season, she insists, was never a guarantee.
As The People Downstairs took shape, all roads led to this weekend’s premiere. The first preview audience, Wednesday night, gave the show a standing ovation.
“It’s a magical feeling to see it evolve, and to come to life in this way,” Symons explains. “And to see how people react to the comedy and the pathos of it, and how involved they are.”
Tickets and info here.