ST. PETERSBURG — The first two plays to run at freeFall Theatre in the former Second Church of Christ, Scientist, at 6099 Central Ave., have met with good reviews, strong attendance and the trickle effect is starting to trickle.
An outdoor film festival is planned for the theater's lawn, which is close to half of a city block in size. Nearby O Bistro is seeing a 20 percent increase in business on nights that coincide with plays. Two new restaurants are opening and counting on the theater crowd to be an added boost.
"Frogs (the first play at the theater Feb. 4-20) was huge for us. We had a big theater crowd," said Sharon O'Gradney-Krkljus, owner of O Bistro at 6661 Central Ave. "I do believe this theater is the catalyst to this neighborhood making substantial changes."
An ad for O Bistro is on the back of tickets for extended hours after performances with a special menu and drinks. When the film festival starts this month, O Bistro will offer take-out picnics. And when Man of La Mancha is in the theater June 23 through July 10, the restaurant will offer Spanish wines and tapas.
"This is exactly what this area needs. A destination, a reason to come here," said Matt Yoder, who is opening Westy Grille and Pub at 7220 Central Ave. this month. He was planning his casual restaurant before learning about freeFall, but now believes the theater will be a big factor in his business.
Restaurant Alisia is also opening soon on Central Avenue near freeFall and will serve breakfast and lunch with pastries, sandwiches and noodle bowls.
Kevin Lane, freeFall's producing director, said attendance so far has exceeded expectations. The theater seats 140 and averaged about 100 patrons during the run of Frogs, a modern comedy based on Greek mythology. It has been a little lower for Miss Julie, an intense three-person drama running through today, but still strong. A Midsummer Night's Dream will run May 12 through May 29. The theater's artistic director is Eric Davis, who directed Hair at American Stage in the Park last year and is directing Rent at the same venue this month and next.
At first Lane and Davis, who own freeFall, were looking in Tampa, then downtown St. Petersburg and finally they saw the Christian Science church was for sale. Freefall Properties bought the church for $1.5 million in August. The studio theater with sleek, black, tiered seating, a ceiling full of lights and an intimate stage looks nothing like the pink Sunday school it was before. By 2013 the former church's nave will be converted into the theater's main stage so it can host multiple productions at once.
The outdoor film festival will take place the third Wednesday of every month April through July on freeFall's "green." If it's well-received, it will continue through the year, said Margaret Murray, who has organized film festivals in Tampa Bay and Washington, D.C.
"One end has beautiful, old oak trees. It's just the perfect location to sit and watch some movies," she said. The running order of the films is Breakfast at Tiffany's, Rear Window, The Apartment and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?. Ticket prices will be $5 to $10. Drinks and snacks will be for sale, but people are encouraged to bring their own with a contest each month for the best picnic basket and most tempting spread of food.
"We'll just look at it," Murray laughed. "We won't be tasting anyone's food."
Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or firstname.lastname@example.org.