Let there be light.
That could be the theme of the new space of American Stage, Raymond James Theatre, because its lighting promises to be a huge improvement over the old space.
"The capability of this theater is going to be awesome,'' said architect Leo Arroyo, giving a tour last week of the building that he designed. Twenty-four feet above the stage, the ceiling is covered with a forest of lighting fixtures, about 300 of them, more than twice as many as had been gerrymandered into the old theater a few blocks south.
An innovative feature is the tension grid, an advance on the old catwalk. It's a web of steel cables that allows technicians to walk around and make adjustments but lets light pass through to the stage without obstruction. Being on the grid feels sort of like bouncing on an industrial-strength trampoline.
Of all the forms of stagecraft, lighting has seen some of the most exciting developments in the past few years, and now American Stage will be able to bring them to its productions.
The light theme isn't limited to the performance area. The entrance area and second-floor lobby have massive glass walls that face Williams Park and seek to create the sense of being both inside and outside.
"The idea is that you are in the park and in the theater at the same time,'' Arroyo said, adding that the glass is supposed to withstand 120 mph winds.
There's also a see-and-be-seen element to the use of glass in the design. The staircase includes glass railings and panels.
"What we're trying to do is set up the theatrical part of it,'' said Arroyo, a principal with the St. Petersburg firm Canerday, Belfsky and Arroyo. "You see people; people see you as you arrive for a show.''
Tuesdays With Morrie, the stage adaptation of sportswriter Mitch Albom's sentimental account of his relationship with an old college professor, will be the first play in the theater. It opens Friday with Chaz Mena (who was in By the Waters of Babylon last fall) and Michael Edwards, directed by T. Scott Wooten.
There is no particular reason for the Albom play to inaugurate the space, though it's likely to be popular, having come from a bestselling book that spawned a made-for-TV movie. It's what happened to be on the schedule when the company was able to move into its new home.
At home on campus
American Stage is now part of the downtown center of St. Petersburg College, which is the company's landlord. Construction of the five-story addition that includes the theater's three stories cost $17.8 million, according to Vito DiRuggiero, vice president of Biltmore Construction, the Belleair firm that did the job.
Along with the theater itself, there are well-equipped dressing rooms and a rehearsal space with the same dimensions as the main stage. The airy third-floor costume shop has a great view of the park. In the administrative offices, a portrait of Tennessee Williams hangs on the wall by the front desk.
In the entrance off Third Street, the box office will sell tickets not only to American Stage shows but also to performances by the Florida Orchestra and at the Palladium Theater and exhibits at the adjacent Florida International Museum.
"It's an economical, efficient, building,'' said Arroyo. "This is a school building, after all, and you can't justify luxury in a school.''
While there is an institutional quality to some of the new space, Arroyo's design has touches of personality that keep if from feeling bland, such as the green plastic panels through which lighting in the lobby shines.
As an example of getting the best of a limited budget, Arroyo pointed out the graceful mobile suspended just inside the entrance. It was made from leftover pieces of a countertop. Other stylish motifs include decorative wall tiles of green, bronze, burgundy and black in the bathrooms. The porcelain floor tile is a greenish brown-gray. The color scheme in the carpeting, seat-covering fabric and elsewhere reflects the American Stage colors of blue, green and burgundy.
History not left behind
American Stage has a 30-year history, and the design of the new theater goes to some lengths to establish continuity between it and the old one. With 182 seats, it is only about 40 seats larger than the old space. The configuration of seating to stage seems much the same. Acoustic panels on the back wall have pictures from past productions such as Billy Bishop Goes to War, How I Learned to Drive, Nine Parts of Desire and Sleuth.
The door handles on the door to the main stage copy those on the entrance to the old theater. Artist Lance Rodgers' ceiling panel of cherubs, formerly in the lobby of the old theater, now hangs in the foyer.
One element of the old theater that couldn't be replicated was the courtyard with a fountain and garden where people mingled at intermission. But Arroyo thinks the spacious lobby — named for Susan Hough, a former president of the theater board — will become a favorite spot. It overlooks the park through a glass wall.
"We are going to miss the outdoor area,'' he said, "but people are going to love this gorgeous view.''
Arroyo thinks the design captures the warmth of American Stage's old theater that became a part of the company's identity for its patrons. "If you create a building that doesn't have a soul, it's just another building,'' the architect said. "I think this has soul.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He writes for Critics Circle at blogs. tampabay.com/arts.