While area theater stages are dark right now due to COVID-19 restrictions, there’s plenty of work going on behind the scenes. Case in point: Florida Studio Theatre, where the company is using the down time to do everything from deep cleaning of theaters and artist housing to hiring playwrights to create new works.
FST reluctantly announced recently the cancellation of its anticipated summer season and its popular annual Improv Festival, while holding out hope for some special summer programming in its small Court and Bowne theaters. But through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), FST was able to bring back 30 full-time employees, who had been furloughed, for the next several weeks. Some of those employees have been busy repainting dressing rooms, refurbishing rehearsal halls, updating lighting, sound, projection and scene shop equipment, and making sure that artist housing will be ready for FST visiting artists when stages reopen. “When we come back, the theaters will be sparkling clean,” says producing artistic director Richard Hopkins.
The Green Room dining service has already reopened for curbside and delivery, and online classes in performance, writing, improvisation and more have begun this week.
Beyond all that, FST is also making moves to bolster its creative life for the future. Set and costume designers are back at work preparing for later productions. The theater hopes to have approval soon to put on an outdoor, family-friendly play in area parks. And it’s working out the kinks to have some of its work livestreamed—something Hopkins says his audiences (many of them senior citizens especially concerned about coronavirus infection) have been asking about. There’s also a good chance of presenting some two-person improv shows on weekends in FST’s cabaret spaces, with reduced audience capacity.
But perhaps most encouraging in this time of pandemic is a new Playwrights Project, just launching but already with approximately 30 writers and performers putting together new shows for FST’s various branches of theater. That ranges from cabaret shows involving The Swingaroos, Carole Bufford and Brandon Wardell to Theatre for Young Audiences (writers include Sam Mossler, Sarah Bierstock, Larry Parr, Ben Mackel, Julia Morales and Jose Casas) to sketch comedy (Mark Kendall, Stephan deGhelder, Julia Morales, Kyle Shoemaker, Matt Walker, Nick Santamaria and Robert Woo) and even mainstage plays. Among the writers working on those plays are a mix of new and familiar names (Rachel Lynett, Deborah Brevoort, Thomas Gibbons, Kenneth Jones, Jason Odell Williams, Sandy Rustin, Gabriel Barre, Bruce Vilanch, Tricia Paoluccio, Bruce Graham, Jeffrey Couchman, Michael McKeever, Sean Daniels, Scott Michaelsen and Mark St. Germain, whose past works have been frequently staged here).
“I doubt we’ll get a lot of thoroughly finished plays” in the next few weeks, says Hopkins. “But children’s plays and sketches will get done.” He adds that the Playwrights Project can be viewed like a Kickstarter campaign; and after this initial period of work is past, the artists can recommence their projects at a later period as funds become available.
Naturally, Hopkins says, the artists are “absolutely thrilled to be working,” at a time when, with productions of their plays all around the country canceled, they have no royalties coming in. “And I think they’re thrilled to be working on the equivalent of a WPA project,” as many artists did during the Depression era.
Just a few of the ideas being developed: Arizona Theater Company's artistic director, Sean Daniels, is working with FST on Tampa, following two brothers taking different paths through life. Thomas Gibbons (Permanent Collection, Bee-luther-hatcheee) will work with FST's associate director-at-large Kate Alexander on a play exploring the dilemmas that arise with the prevalence of digital manipulation. Mark St. German will works with FST associate artist Jason Cannon on a historical drama about the real-life meeting of Frederick Douglass and John Brown during the Civil War. And Kenneth Jones will team with Alexander to create an original play about a family business in Southern America that is at a crossroads.
To keep up to date with what’s happening at FST over the next few weeks, visit floridastudiotheatre.org.