Last month, Ward Smith was driving east on 1st Avenue South. He glanced over at 2260, the longtime home of the Andi Matheny Acting Studios. An actor himself, Smith knew Matheny, and instructor Eugenie Bondurant, and other members of the staff. Some of the students, too.
He was surprised – “dumbfounded” is more like it – to see a FOR SALE sign planted in the grass out front.
A few business moves, a couple of handshakes and one signed check later, Smith was the proud new owner of the 3,000-square-foot building. In a matter of months, maybe less, it’ll be reborn as Studio Grand Central, a rehearsal and performance space for local artists.
The acting school aspect, Smith said, will remain. “I bought a widget factory and I’d like to keep it a widget factory, so to speak.”
Studio Grand Central is a joint project between Smith and his sister. “My sister and I had always been looking for something to become available,” he said. “A little sandbox for us to do things in. She’s a visual artist and she sits on the board of the Morean Arts Center. There were two places in my mind that were ideal, if they ever became available.”
One of those happened to be the Matheny Studio facility.
Actress/teacher Matheny and her husband, screenwriter Tom Flynn, are moving to New York City after more than 10 years in the bay area. The school’s specialty was preparation for TV and film production, including the proper way to make a video audition. “Ten years in any business in this town is a milestone – let alone in this business, which is small and more selective,” Smith said. “And Andi was fantastic.”
Central to the building is a professionally lit performance space, a black box with 43 seats in a graded, stadium-seating format.
This will be the home of the Off Central Players, Smith’s resident troupe, and for rentals. “We were looking for a neat little black box,” he said. “Not necessarily to compete with American Stage or freeFall, but just another offering.”
It’ll be a multi-purpose room. “We can do cabaret, and spoken word, author nights, book-reading nights, all kinds of events. I want to make it a stage for local artists, and diverse artists from different backgrounds. Whatever the work might be, just to give it an outlet.”
Smith is in the cast of the drama American Son, which will open March 12 at Stageworks Theatre in Tampa. The company’s artistic director, Karla Hartley, has re-configured and expanded the seating area to allow more people to be spaced farther apart.
“I’m taking mental notes about how they’re going about mitigating and opening up,” Smith explained. “They just finished one play (The Lifespan of a Fact) that was a success, and we’re right behind it in terms of people feeling safe to come to the theater. And to work in the theater.”
Once the pandemic is past, he said, he’ll adjust. But Studio Grand Central will likely open, safely, before that time. “People are just itching. They’re wanting to get back out to something that seems like normal.”
Smith, a longtime student of Bondurant’s, acknowledges that creating a note-perfect video audition, for potential TV or film work, is “pretty much the wave of the future. You’ve got to be good, and you’ve got to be better than the next person.
“Because competition is everything – and now, with production shut down, everyone’s out of work … and everyone’s looking for work.”