Hillsborough County’s LAB Theater Project is always cooking up something new – the company specializes in putting untried, not-yet-performed works on their feet.
For St. Petersburg actress Katie Calahan, who’s appearing in the current LAB show An Evening With Eberlein, that’s a recipe/risk for artistic bliss.
“It’s very exciting, as an actor, to be the first person to get your hands on material,” says Calahan, who appears in I’ll String Along With You, one of three short plays by Jared Eberlein. “Because you don’t live in the shadow of 100 other actors who have come before you. Every time you play Hamlet you’re in the shadow of some of the greatest actors in the world, right? Everybody’s got a preconceived notion of who Jo in Little Women is. And everybody sees her in a very specific way.
“When you’re coming to new work, these characters have never stood onstage before.”
In the moving drama I’ll String Along With You, Calahan plays a woman whose wife (Leah LoSchiavo) has a grown son who she tries – unsuccessfully – to appease, over and over again.
She got involved with LAB last summer, as a volunteer reader of plays (via Zoom) for its Project Greenlight scriptwriting contest. When the company’s founders decided to stage one of them, The Wendy House (it’s next on the schedule), Calahan drove to Ybor City, auditioned and got the part.
While she was there, she auditioned for the Eberlein showcase, too.
“LAB is a very unique theatrical environment,” Calahan gushes. “It makes me feel like I’m in college again, because they work closely with the playwrights. We’re allowed to ask them questions. They’re allowed to edit their work.
“It’s a living, breathing, growing organism – and it’s super-exciting to be able to say ‘Hey – am I interpreting you correctly? Does this line mean what I think it means?’ and get an answer from the playwright. Because obviously we don’t have the ability to do that with a lot of published work.”
Calahan, who homeschools her two children and is Education Director for the Gulfport Community Players, received a BFA in Theater Studies from Boston University. After graduation, she worked as an actress and voiceover artist in New York and Los Angeles, before coming home to Florida.
Because she was born with the neuromuscular disorder cerebral palsy, Calahan has difficulty walking, and uses a cane.
She has not let it stop her. Or slow her down, for that matter.
Just a few days ago, she participated in an Arts4All Florida virtual panel discussion called Inclusion and Accessibility in the Arts For Disabled Performers.
“We were talking about what it’s like to be a disabled performer,” she explains, “and what it’s like to have doors shut in your face because you look different. You move different.
“I think having a lifetime of having to do it a different way than everybody else means that I don’t think twice when I have to carve my own path. It’s not as defeating as it is for somebody who’s used to everything being easier.
“And to pick a career where nothing is easy seems like it would be too hard, and I would just lay down and die. I think this career is difficult, but my life has been difficult and it doesn’t bother me to find solutions.”
It takes a certain confidence, with maybe a dash of fearlessness, to work as a stage performer – in the best of circumstances. Katie Calahan uses everything inside her to teach her Gulfport students that it’s OK to be unsure … and it’s OK to forge ahead.
“I like to introduce them to what I love and I like them to have a safe space to create. And to show them that I take them seriously, and that I’m in their corner.
“I just think an arts foundation lends itself to any career you could possibly go into. Because you’ve learned all these things about working as a team, and overcoming problems on the fly, and creating something where there wasn’t something before. You figure out where all your talents are when you’re faced with a live performance situation.”