The more the merrier. That seems to be the theme of a prospective theater boom in St. Petersburg, with several new companies announcing plans to start up this year.
First out of the box is Blue Scarf Collective, composed of three women — Roxanne Fay, Aleshea Harris and Heather L. Jones — who open Triage: The Mortality Plays this week at the Palladium Theater.
In the wings are three other ventures. Brian Becker's New American Theater plans to launch a season of musicals with Pump Boys and Dinettes in October, also at the Palladium. The St. Petersburg Shakespeare Company will make its debut with Hamlet July 29 at Eckerd College. And freeFall Theatre is expected to announce in August the acquisition of a permanent space of its own in St. Petersburg. In the meantime, it will begin the 2010-11 season with Rooms, a two-person rock musical, and Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at the Studio@620.
All this theatrical activity joins American Stage, the 31-year-old company that is heading into its second full season in its new home at St. Petersburg College; stage productions presented by the Studio@620 and the Palladium; St. Petersburg Little Theatre and other community theaters; plus tours that play Mahaffey Theater.
What's going on?
"I think people are trying to be part of the change,'' said Blue Scarf's Harris, a writer and actor who was in the American Stage in the Park hit production of Hair in spring. "They want an arts community in St. Pete. I think our area is turning a corner, and I think it's about time as far as creativity and being proactive and having that get up and go about oneself.''
The recession doesn't appear to be hindering these efforts. "I think what's happening is what happens during bad economic times,'' said Jones, a playwright. "You see all these grass roots things happening with artists. We're like weeds. We just fight ourselves out of any kind of situation, and there's so much to express in difficult times.''
Becker, whose background includes a stint as assistant to the artistic director of the Madison Repertory Theatre, an Actors Equity-affiliated company in Madison, Wis., has lived in the bay area since 2002. He is encouraged by the recent box office success of American Stage and other bay area companies in spite of the economy's woes.
"Theater is doing pretty well here,'' Becker said, adding that Broadway Across America pulling its series from Mahaffey a year ago spurred him to start New American Theater. "Musicals have always been my forte, and I was surprised that there wasn't a company here devoted to them.''
For Pump Boys and Dinettes, he plans to hire some Equity actors in the seven-member cast, and has budgeted the production at $57,000 for a month's rehearsal and seven performances over two weeks. Other shows to come are A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, Songs for a New World, a song cycle by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Parade), and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
American Stage staffers — though a bit irked at possible confusion between their company's name and New American Theater (named by Becker after a company in Rockford, Ill., where he first got the theater bug) — welcome the competition. "Our feeling is that the more theater we have here, the better off everybody is,'' marketing director Andy Orrell said.
Blue Scarf got its name on a chilly day in January. "We were sitting in a coffeehouse, where we often meet, and two of us had blue scarves on,'' Harris said. "It has a neutrality that we like. It's also just an interesting name.''
Triage consists of three one-act plays that "examine the melancholy, mystery and motives surrounding the ending of human lives,'' according to a program note. Aftermath by Fay is about a disaster cleaning service. One of the characters in Big Trick by Harris is an inmate on death row. Both plays will be directed by James Rayfield with casts that include Christopher Rutherford, Lynne Locher, Carla Johnson and Destiny Ramsey.
The third play is Jones' What Remains, which was being rehearsed one Thursday afternoon in the Palladium's downstairs space, where Triage will be performed. Fay, an actor scheduled to be in Banyan Theater's Side Man in August, was directing a scene by Harris and Millie Ann Shipe. The playwright watched and added an occasional comment.
"What Remains is about the lengths people will go for stuff, and how people place their values in reference to life and death,'' Jones said. "Most of my plays have death in them.''
"But these plays are not necessarily about people who die,'' Fay said. "They're about what death does to people who are around it.''
The three women all just happened to have plays on death more or less written when they were ready for the premiere of Blue Scarf. "I think it would be strange if our plays didn't have death in them,'' Harris said. "I mean, everyone dies. We all ponder it sometime.''
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.