While downtown’s Urbanite Theatre is happy to be planning a return to live performance starting in October, following the dark days of the pandemic, it won’t quite be business as usual for 2021-22.
For one thing, the four-show season, titled “Radiance,” will have a slightly different tone from the seven seasons past. Co-artistic director Brendan Ragan says that while the plays will still have substance and meaning, and will tackle important social issues, “We also wanted each to have a feeling of joy, even as they explore some dark topics. There is humor in each of the shows. While they’re still thought provoking and relevant [and all are at least regional premieres], we want to share a collective joy, because right now, our audience and the world need something to celebrate.”
To that end, the season begins with Chicago-based playwright Terry Guest’s At The Wake of a Dead Drag Queen, Oct. 29 through Dec. 5. It may be set at a wake, but the show’s description promises “no black frocks, no perfumed flowers and definitely no crying.” Atlanta director Damian Lockhart will direct actors Donovan Session (as drag star Courtney Berringers, aka Anthony Knighton) and Shea Peterson (as Hunter Grimes, aka Vickie Versailles) in this opener.
An intriguing new comedy by Ronan Noone is up next, Jan. 14 through Feb. 20. The Smuggler centers on Irish immigrant Tim Finnegan, who’s struggling to become a writer in America. Things get interesting with the arrival of a stranger who has a plan to make people “disappear and reappear.” Ultimately, The Smuggler turns into 9,000 words in rhyming verse, performed by one actor. The Smuggler will also receive productions in Oregon, Washington, D.C., and New York this season.
Third play in the lineup, and a world premiere, is Rosa Fernandez’s A Skeptic and a Bruja. Priscilla buys a home in the middle of nowhere, hoping to turn it into a B&B. When paranormal experiences arise, she calls Sam and Jess from a popular ghost-hunting show to help her. This is the first play from Urbanite’s Modern Works Festival (which strives to present the voices of female playwrights) to receive a full production at Urbanite. It’s also a collaboration with St. Petersburg’s freeFall Theatre, where the cast and crew will transfer after Urbanite’s April 1-May 1 run. “This was sort of like two Christmas presents at once for Rosa,” says Ragan.
Gracie Gardner’s Athena, about two young fencers training for the Junior Olympics, has been called “a fierce and lovely comedy about ambition, success, and owning your superiority” by The New York Times. It was first presented in NYC at The Hearth, where it was commissioned, and will receive a production in 2022 at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Urbanite's production runs June 10 through July 10.
Behind the scenes, Urbanite is hard at work on several changes. Through its “Staging a Comeback” campaign, which has a goal of raising $300,000 by the end of June 2022, the company plans to transition from its current donated rent situation (thanks to co-founder and philanthropist Harry Lipstein) to paying its own way on its Second Street property.
First, though, it needs to replace an administrative team that was reluctantly let go as the pandemic wore on. The theater also is striving to adopt more humane theater practices, including a five-day work week (rather than the traditional six-day one), a more extended technical and rehearsal process, better pay for its interns (also helping to ensure more diversity there) and upgrading its HVAC system to be better prepared for Covid and post-Covid audiences.
That campaign is almost halfway to its goal, thanks in large part to a $50,000 starting gift from the Charles and Margery Barancik Foundation and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, part of a Covid response initiative. That gift, Ragan says, has really helped to get momentum going to reach the ultimate goal.
For more details about Urbanite’s coming season, and its campaign, go to urbanitetheatre.com. Or you can call the box office at (941) 321-1397.