That darn pole. • The pole that was located downstage center at American Stage is what everybody remembers from the early years of the theater. Having a pole in the middle of the stage was terribly inconvenient, but it supported the ceiling of the old auction house that the company turned into a theater in 1984. The pole was removed in a renovation about a decade later, but in many ways, it symbolizes the quirky charm of the space where a lot of the Tampa Bay area's best theater has taken place through the years. • Now the legacy of that pole is about to pass into history, as American Stage prepares to move into its new home, a few blocks up the street and across from Williams Park in downtown St. Petersburg. In June, the company will start performing in a 188-seat theater built for it by St. Petersburg College. The new theater will be state of the art technically, and the company is counting on its association with the college for financial and institutional stability. • But before moving on, let's look back and remember the pole — and other things that made American Stage's old theater such a special place.
Let's do a show in the barn
"It was never built to be a theater, but we made it into a theater,'' said John Berglund, the past executive director and co-founder of the theater with his wife, Victoria Holloway. "Downstage center was actually that pole.''
"You'd lean on it. You had to use it. It was there,'' said Holloway, the theater's original artistic director.
Berglund and Holloway ran American Stage from 1980 until 1995, when they moved to the Phoenix area and she joined theater faculty of Arizona State University. They set a high standard for the company, and their tenure has taken on the glow of a golden age. They professionalized the company through one of the country's first small-theater contracts with Actors Equity and started traditions, such as touring shows to schools and the springtime Shakespeare in the Park productions.
There was a family feeling to the theater as it struggled to establish itself. "The place had this sort of Judy Garland-Mickey-Rooney-let's-do-a-show-in-the-barn feel, and that's why I loved it,'' said Lee Ahlin, a composer and sound designer with the theater during the 1990s. "They were undaunted by all the physical limitations that they had and just soldiered on.''
A warm, familiar space
In 18 years as a critic at the St. Petersburg Times, I have reviewed more plays at American Stage than anyplace else, and I always had a delightful sense of anticipation about what I was going to see there. The play is the thing, as somebody once said, and what sticks with me most are memories of specific productions — Mrs. Klein, Lost in Yonkers, The Price, Sylvia, Private Eyes and King Hedley II are a few that come immediately to mind — but no matter what was on the agenda, I loved the feeling of warmth I got from the space.
There used to be a diner next to the theater called the Corner Coffee Shop, and the owner hung head shots of the actors on the walls. It was a popular hangout for everybody connected with the theater. I did many an interview in the booths there with actors and directors over a grilled cheese sandwich and coffee.
"That's where John Berglund asked me to be a board member,'' said Susan Hough, a former president of the board. "I think John and Vic did all their business there.''
Today, Berglund and Holloway live in New York City, where he is an administrator with the Salvation Army and she teaches and does freelance directing.
With just more than 100 seats in the beginning (later expanded to about 140 seats), American Stage was a wonderfully intimate place to watch a play — so intimate, in fact, that audience members walked across the L-shaped stage to reach their seats. Actors could reach out and touch someone in the front row.
Holloway has a vivid, not altogether happy memory of how that closeness affected the first play performed in the space. It was What I Did Last Summer by A.R. Gurney, and on opening night, an actor lost his ear.
"We had a young actor in the cast who was born without one ear, and he wore a prosthetic ear,'' Holloway said. "In the course of the play, there's a scene where his mother slaps him, and sure enough, his ear flew off his head, sailed across the stage and landed between the legs of a woman in the front row.''
The actor quickly retrieved his ear and stuck it in his pocket, but before the show went on, there was a long silence. Finally, Holloway remembers, a woman in the audience said in a loud whisper, "Was that his ear?''
"I was so mortified I went and hid in the women's restroom,'' Holloway said.
American Stage's coziness came with a price, because the theater had no wings or fly space and limited capacity for lighting. The tiny backstage area was so close to the stage that actors and crew couldn't flush the toilet during a show. But those sorts of obstacles could bring out the best in directors and designers.
"So many things were possible because it was so odd,'' said Paul Mullins, an actor and director at the theater in the 1980s and '90s. "You were forced to be more creative than you might have been had it been a straight-ahead theater. I thought the peculiarities made our creative process much more exciting and vital.''
Directors have come up with many ingenious solutions to the unorthodox space. Anna in the Tropics, the Nilo Cruz play directed by producing artistic director Todd Olson, was a highlight of recent years, with Jeff Dean's set design utilizing the mezzanine and other nooks and crannies to depict an Ybor City cigar factory. A production that has become legendary was Holloway's rendition of Romeo and Juliet, which set the sword fight between the Montagues and Capulets in the cobblestone alley outside the theater.
"We brought the audience out into the alley by torchlight, and they stood in the alley as the actors fought and Mercutio was killed,'' Holloway said.
Persistence of a simple memory
Company manager Tom Block, who has been with American Stage longer than anyone, starting as box office manager 28 years ago when the theater was on Central Avenue near Jannus Landing, has a special fondness for a production of The Normal Heart in 1986. It was one of the first performances of Larry Kramer's groundbreaking AIDS play outside New York.
"The thing I remember was the simplicity of it,'' Block said. "Just a bare stage, some high-end office furniture and the actors. Simplicity worked well in the space.''
Block thinks some of the best designs were by St. Petersburg visual artists who hadn't done a lot of theater before, such as David Bewley (The Hot L Baltimore) and the husband-wife team of Paul and Sandy Eppling (Agnes of God, On the Verge).
Scott Cooper, who designed the last mainstage subscription show in the space, Lysistrata, the Aristophanes antiwar and sex comedy that closed two weeks ago, has his own pole stories to tell. Even after the 1990s renovation, an I-beam remained at the rear of stage left.
"I don't know what I'll do when I don't have the pole to deal with,'' said Cooper, who is designing the set of the first show in the new theater, Tuesdays With Morrie. "I liked the challenge of incorporating the architecture of the theater into a play.''
Actors enjoyed performing in the theater, once they got used to having the audience almost in their laps. "As an actor it has been my favorite experience,'' said Lisa Powers, who was in many plays at American Stage and became artistic director after Holloway and Berglund left. "I like to feel the audience. It's a little scary and a little fun because you're so close. It's like you're in somebody's living room.''
A smart, nice, ascending crowd
It could be a deceptively tricky place in which to act. While some audience members were just a few feet away, others were in rows of seats that rise at a steep angle to the back of the house. "To reach the back row you had to aim your focus upward,'' said Jeff Norton, who appeared in A Perfect Ganesh, Reckless and other plays. "You could be acting with all the energy in the world, but if your spine was straight, you'd just be hitting the third row. You had to remember to play up.''
The intimacy of the space promoted a close relationship between actors and audience.
"I always thought the audiences were smarter there. They were so well read and accepting,'' said Mark Chambers, who starred in a pair of one-man shows, I Am My Own Wife and A Tale of Two Cities.
"Because there wasn't a distance between actors and audience in the theater, they felt like they knew you well,'' said Colleen McDonnell, whose first role at the theater was in the Victorian thriller Angel Street. "They'd come up to me in the gym or the grocery store and talk. They'd make cookies and drop them by the theater.''
Sometimes, the intimacy of American Stage backfired, as with The Swan, Elizabeth Egloff's fantasy play that included a couple of minutes of male nudity, which made a dramatic impact in such close quarters. Before the play opened in 1996, the board felt compelled to alert ticket buyers to the nudity. The controversy contributed to Powers' being fired as artistic director, which tarnished the theater's reputation for a few rocky years.
Brian Reale, a designer and board member who had a big role in the renovation of the old theater, laments the loss of the brick courtyard with a fountain and garden off the lobby. "American Stage is one of the reasons I moved here from New York,'' Reale said. "It was warm, cozy, intimate, and the garden was a lovely place to mingle during intermission.'' He's happy that artist Lance Rodgers' ceiling panel of cherubs, a white horse, lightning bolts and the moon will have a place in the new theater.
"I'm sure their new space is going to be wonderful,'' said McDonnell, whose last show at American Stage was Dinner With Friends before she moved to Los Angeles three years ago. "But I'll really miss the old space. I would go off and do shows at other theaters, and then when I got cast in a show at American Stage, I felt like I was coming home.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.