ST. PETERSBURG — "Oh, good, the T-shirts are here,'' said Kevin Lane, as the UPS truck pulled up at the curb to deliver some boxes. Up on the roof, a workman did something to the new heating and air-conditioning unit. A painter put finishing touches on trim around the box office and concession stand. Inside the theater, the new — and plenty loud — fire alarm system was being tested.
And so it went one afternoon last week as freeFall Theatre prepared to open its ambitious new home, a 3-acre complex that used to be a Christian Science church on St. Petersburg's west side.
"This is where we'll be doing all our shows this season,'' said Lane, the producing director, ushering a visitor into the black box theater in what used to a Sunday school. It is a 48- by 48-foot space in which the 150 or so seats and stage can be configured in various ways, depending on the production. It has a sprung dance floor and a ceiling that has been raised to accommodate lighting positions and other theatrical hardware.
The first show in the space will be The Frogs, a rarely performed Stephen Sondheim musical that opens this weekend.
"In many ways, The Frogs embodies everything freeFall wants to be,'' said Eric Davis, the artistic director. "It's this quirky little musical comedy making jokes about Shaw and Shakespeare, Ibsen and O'Neill. What better piece to open a theater with than one that begins, 'Gods of the theater, smile on us.' ''
Lane, 33, and Davis, 36, are co-founders of freeFall. Partners in life as well as theater, they scouted around the bay area for a location since April 2009, not long after the company's first production, the musical The Wild Party, was staged to much acclaim at the Studio@620 in downtown St. Petersburg. Their first two shows this season — Rooms: A Rock Romance and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde — were also at Studio@620.
After The Frogs, freeFall will stage August Strindberg's Miss Julie, Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and the musical Man of La Mancha, all to be directed by Davis.
"I think a thread that runs through all of them is that there is at least one character in each that dreams of a world that is different from the one in which he or she lives, and is trying to make the world they dream of come true,'' he said.
Davis is the director of the moment in Tampa Bay. He staged a rollicking Hair for American Stage in the Park to big crowds last spring, and he's returning to direct Rent this spring. "It's all scheduled very tightly,'' he said. "I'll be in rehearsals for seven or eight weeks straight, from Miss Julie into Rent into Midsummer Night's Dream.''
Lane, whose family owns Kane's Furniture, doesn't disclose the finances of the nonprofit organization, but freeFall is clearly a well-funded operation. The church property cost $1.5 million.
St. Petersburg architect Tim Clemmons designed the conversion of church to theater. Ultimately, the former sanctuary — where a sign reading "God Is Love'' remains on the wall — is intended to become a 200-seat theater. The building that used to be the Christian Science Reading Room will be an education center.
At 10 a.m. Feb. 15, a ribbon-cutting will mark the opening of the theater, with Mayor Bill Foster doing the honors, followed by entertainment and a reception, all open to the public.
From a business standpoint, the company is trying some interesting ideas, such as Wednesday matinees, with ticket sales geared to groups. "We had (advertising) stuffers that went into this month's utility bill for every household in St. Petersburg,'' executive director Emilie Kuperman said. "We're really shaking the bushes in every possible way.''
Kuperman, 35, former development director for the Tampa Jewish Federation who joined the freeFall staff in January, added, "We budget that a half-full house on average will bring us to break even. We feel that's very achievable.''
With the arrival of freeFall, St. Petersburg now has two theaters that operate under contracts with Actors' Equity, the union that negotiates pay and benefits and working conditions for actors. American Stage is the other. Several new theatrical efforts, such as Blue Scarf Collective and Revolve Theatre, have emerged in the past year or so. The Studio@620 has its own theater program.
"I think we can build a great theater town here,'' said Davis, whose plans for freeFall include professional theater training programs. Acting coach Larry Silverberg is giving classes in the Meisner technique this weekend.
Still, the freeFall founders don't have any illusions about the place of theater in the community.
"At this point, theater is really not in the public consciousness,'' Lane said. "We want people talking about theater. We want people to see it in a new light, that theater can be exciting and something you crave.''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.
This article has been changed to reflect the following correction: Miss Julie is by August Strindberg. Another playwright was credited in a story about freeFall Theatre in Thursday's Weekend section. Also, Thursday night's preview of The Frogs has been canceled.