It’s been just over 10 years since St. Petersburg’s second professional theater made its debut. In that time, freeFall Theatre has substantially raised the bar for the arts in our community, with one well-attended show after another, either thrilling audiences through sheer artistry and entertainment, or challenging them with promising new work that puzzles and piques.
“If anybody had a formula where they knew they could just rely on it over and over again to make money, then most people would do it,” explains founder and artistic director Eric Davis “But one of the most interesting thing about the theater – I mean, you see it on Broadway as well – there’s not a formula for what’s a success. Different things are hits for different reasons at different times.”
At any rate, the notion of a “formula for success” is anathema to Eric Davis, who relishes each blank slate that comes along. And because of that undying fire, he and freeFall have established a creative trust with their audience, “to see things they’re familiar with in a new light when they come here, and also to be introduced to new things that they wouldn’t have experienced elsewhere in the area.”
Approaching its second weekend is Perfect Arrangement, a dark comedy by Topher Payne. Davis directs the story of two seemingly happy 1950s couples, all working for the government, and all four of them closeted gays. In secret, the women are involved with one another, as are the men.
Perfect Arrangement is the sort of play freeFall exists to produce.
It takes place in a post-World War II, post Rosie the Riveter America, where McCarthyism and the persecution of communists – and homosexuals – was the order of the day. “Although the piece itself is historical fiction, it’s set against the backdrop of real events,” Davis explains. “The characters we meet are all fictional characters that are living in that world.
“The premise, of course, is almost like the premise of a sitcom. Topher Payne plays around with this idea of the style of ‘50s sitcoms, and the artifice of that, and how that parallels the sort of artifice that people create when they can’t live an authentic life.”
Davis points out the sad relevance to the America of today. “We had a period of years when there was a lot of progress being made on social issues,” he says. “A lot of groups made a lot of progress. We achieved gay marriage and all of these advances, and now we’re in a period of time where there’s a contraction of that, and an effort by one side to pull some of that back and make a move in the other direction.”
Eric Davis was a trained professional actor and singer when he left California for Tampa Bay in 1998. For three years, he worked at Center Theatre Company, the resident thespian aggregate at the David M. Straz Center’s Jaeb Theatre, and subsequently spent another five years teaching theater at Tampa’s Blake High School, a magnet school with a strong arts program.
He performed with all the theater groups on both sides of the bay, including St. Petersburg’s venerable American Stage.
In 1998, Davis and his then-partner Kevin Lane dreamed up freeFall, with Eric as creator-in-chief; the first show was performed at thestudio@620. For the next one, they moved into the Straz complex. “We looked at lots of different places to have a permanent home for freeFall,” says Davis. “When we found the building on Central Avenue, that’s really what dictated it coming to St. Pete.”
They paid $1.5 million for the sprawling Second Church of Christ-Scientist property at 6099 Central Ave. and converted its multi-use buildings into a theater compound. It took a lot of renovation.
The main auditorium – the former church sanctuary – is rented out for community programs; freeFall’s shows are performed in a cozy, 150-seat black box facility. (During the 2017-2018 season, damage to the black box from Hurricane Irma necessitated a temporary move to the auditorium.)
The theater’s suburban location – far from all the action downtown – has been more of a help than a hindrance, according to Davis. “People, when they first come, may think ‘Oh, that’s a bit of a drive.’ But we’re really seven minutes from the beach, and seven minutes from downtown. So it’s quite central. And once they get here they don’t have to spend half an hour parking.
“We have a lot of space here, and it gives it a different vibe. That we’re a campus, that we have this entire huge space. And also, we’ve helped precipitate a lot of growth in this area. More restaurants have popped up around here since we opened the theater.”
That’s not all, folks. “And there’s much more a sense of having something to do over in this area of town, with us here.”
Although he does bring in guest directors, and collaborators like London writer/director Jethro Compton (who workshopped and world-premiered his White Fang in 2017), Eric Davis lives and breathes freeFall. He has a hand – usually the biggest hand – in everything. “I do delegate a lot,” he says. “It just depends on the show.”
He says he knew he wanted to direct, when he first began in musical theater all those years ago. “When it’s your vision you’re bringing to life, there’s a much broader ability to tell the story,” Davis explains. “As an actor, you mostly get to do what other people want. You get the jobs that you get, and those are the stories that you’re going to be telling. But I choose the stories that I tell.”
And storytelling, ultimately, is what theater is all about.
“Theater lets us share a communal moment that we don’t really get to experience a lot,” Davis observes. “We get most of our entertainment, if you will, from solitary pursuits – watching movies or TV shows at home, with our small immediate families, or sometimes completely alone. Those mediums don’t really ask for our response. They are recorded and do the same thing no matter what we do while we’re watching them.
“But theater only happens when we gather a large group of people together, to tell a story. And it connects us to the very beginnings of storytelling. And I think the exercise in empathy that creates is really valuable.”