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    Posted November 17, 2014

#EquityWorks: 5 Questions with American Stage Theatre

Starting in January, American Stage Theatre, located in St. Petersburg, Florida, will present August Wilson’s Radio Golf. This being their eighth year presenting the playwrights infamous “Century Cycle,” the company looks forward to two more years of Wilson’s work. Meg Heimstead, the interim artistic director, answers our questions about producing the cycle, working with Equity and the company’s Emerging Playwrights Festival.

Photo: American Stage Theatre’s production of The Piano Lesson, staring (L-R) Sati Word, Kim Sullivan, Bryant Bentley and Alan Bomar Jones.

Photo Credit: Roman Black

Q: Now on year eight, what was the idea behind staging August Wilson’s well-known “Century Cycle” in a 10-year span? Why has it been important to American Stage?
A: American Stage Theatre’s vision is to preserve the greatest human stories from our past, while creating the most defining stories and storytelling of our time. This vision was realized with our 2007-2008 season programming by former Producing Artistic Director Todd Olson with the American Stage production of Gem of the Ocean.  The production resonated with our local African-American community and was well received by a diverse group of theatregoers. Olson has a high regard for the great American playwright August Wilson, whose work confronted issues facing African-Americans and chronicled the Black experience throughout the 20th century. The public response was inspiring for our theatre and community and resulted in Olson deciding to program all nine remaining plays in the Century Cycle, one per season. 

With each production the momentum continued to build. This platform created employment opportunities for incredibly talented African-American actors who have returned for multiple productions and have created a strong following within the Tampa Bay community. The resulting impact for the theatre has been a substantive growth in our audience base and the creation of a celebrated local tradition with each successive production.  The August Wilson Century Cycle plays have become the most highly attended Mainstage productions in American Stage history.

Q: What has American Stage Theatre done to remain active, and valuable, to the community?
A: American Stage strengthens the local economy through year-round employment, direct budgetary expenditures and patron expenditures both in and outside of the theatre.  Specifically, AST employs, on average, 100 individuals annually, including actors, designers, theatre technicians, teaching artists and an administrative team.
Accessibility at AST means removing barriers and being inclusive for all members of our society.  Second, accessibility at AST means diversity in programming. Our season selection of plays builds social and cultural bridges so our audience may experience new ideas or familiar ones with a fresh perspective. Recently, we produced Steel Magnolias with an all African-American cast and our Park production was celebrated with a multi-cultural cast for The Wiz.

For nearly 30 years, our education programming has enhanced many lives by expanding cultural literacy and positively impacting community vitality.  We are able to provide drama clubs and playwriting outreach programs at no charge for area schools and partner organizations.
The importance of reaching our diverse audience with engaging productions and shared events drives programming and arts education. We continually seek opportunities to collaborate with other arts organizations to build capacity and strengthen leadership. Most recently, AST partnered with the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), and will bring theatre, dance and visual art together by presenting the Florida premiere of the two-person play, Nureyev’s Eyes by David Rush. Produced in conjunction with MFA’s exhibition Rudolf Nureyev by James Wyeth, this partnership tells the inside story of two masters and how they created this now famous set of paintings.

Q: What can Equity members and audiences look forward to this season?
A: Our 2014-2015 season has something for everyone.  Neil Simon’s hilarious Laughter On the 23rd Floor will take the stage in November and run through December 14th.  The play, based on Simon’s early career experience as a writer for “Your Show Of Shows,” takes audiences inside the writer’s room and gives them a glimpse into the creative process as the writers scramble to top each other with gags and work keep the show alive. In January and February, we will present the last play in the August Wilson Century Cycle, Radio Golf.  Set in Pittsburgh in the late 1990's, it's the story of a successful entrepreneur who aspires to become the city's first black mayor. But when the past begins to catch up with him, secrets get revealed that could be his undoing. Following will be Gutenberg:  The Musical!  In this two-man musical spoof, a pair of aspiring playwrights perform a backers’ audition for their new project: a big, splashy musical about printing press inventor Johann Gutenberg. In April we will produce In the Heights. This show, our biggest production of the season, will be performed outdoors at Demens Landing Park on the waterfront in St. Petersburg, Florida. This Tony Award-winning musical is all about chasing your dreams and finding your true home.  In May and June we will present another Tony winning-show, Red. Raw and provocative, this play is the inside story of an artist's ambition and vulnerability as he tries to create a definitive work for an extraordinary setting.  Our final show of the season is the regional premiere of Lewis Black’s farce, One Slight Hitch. It's Courtney's wedding day, and her mom, Delia, is making sure that everything is perfect. The groom is perfect, the dress is perfect, and the decorations (assuming they arrive) will be perfect. Then, like in any good farce, the doorbell rings. And all hell breaks loose. Our former Artistic Director, Todd Olson, said this about our season and how we arrived to our selection of such a rich and diverse season: “This year I was interested in stories that provided social bridges to experiences and inside stories far from our own.”

Q: Can you explain the goals of the Emerging Playwrights Festival?
A: We want to make sure that we are contributing the development of new works as well as developing new voices in the American theatre. The festival will feature two emerging playwrights: Bob Clyman and Gabe Neustadt. The festival also aims to help area audiences embrace the process of play development by allowing them to play an active role through talkbacks.  We want to not only cultivate new playwrights; we want to cultivate our audience so that they embrace new works and have a better understanding of what it takes to get a play from concept to production. 

Q: Why has it been important to be an Equity theatre?
A: Being an Equity theatre company shows our commitment to professional quality productions. It shows that we respect our artists and are committed to treating them fairly.  We also want to give emerging artists the opportunity to join Equity so that they can take their careers to the next level. Being an Equity theatre is a commitment to the community and let’s our patrons know that we are here to provide the highest quality experience with the best actors that we are able to find. 

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