CLEARWATER — Before long, college and high school students from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties will be learning and performing at Ruth Eckerd Hall.
On Friday, the popular concert hall announced a new partnership with educators on both sides of Tampa Bay.
The arrangement, which requires no money from the schools, comes in two parts:
• Ruth Eckerd and the entertainment production company PRG — known for its work on Super Bowl halftime shows and the Olympics — will conduct four daylong seminars over the next school year for up to 50 students. Students will get hands-on teaching about lighting, audio and scenery with the help of industry pros using the newest technology. PRG also will offer paid summer internships for the most promising students.
• After the performance hall is renovated next year, its expanded lobby will have a small stage where local students will put on up to 300 performances a year, starting an hour before every show on Ruth Eckerd's main stage.
"We are about to embark on a fabulous journey," Ruth Eckerd chief executive Zev Buffman said. From his 60-year show business career, Buffman knows the founder of PRG, the world's largest provider of lighting, sound and video gear to the entertainment industry.
On Ruth Eckerd's stage Friday, Buffman met with administrators from St. Petersburg College, the University of Tampa, Eckerd College, the Pinellas County School District, Berkeley Preparatory School, Calvary Christian High School and Clearwater High School.
They were enthusiastic about the chance to get students some training for technical jobs in the entertainment industry.
"There's a need. The kids flock to this," SPC music technology instructor Mark Matthews said. "We want them to get their hands on the gear."
Eckerd College theater professor Gavin Hawk recalled a common question he gets from parents: "Theater's great, but are there any kind of job opportunities in this field?"
Haig Mardirosian, dean of the University of Tampa's College of Arts and Letters, viewed the initiative as a step forward for regional cooperation: "We may not have high-speed rail, but we've got a causeway and we've got the arts."
The new arrangement goes beyond the training available at the Marcia P. Hoffman Performing Arts Institute, the hall's educational component.
Once Ruth Eckerd is renovated next year, its current cramped lobby will be expanded by 7,000 square feet, with high ceilings and glass walls. In one corner will be a stage called the Grand Hall Cabaret Theater, where Buffman envisions 45-minute student performances before each show on the main stage. Students might sing, play music, act out a scene or even do magic, he said.
The four daylong seminars for students also will happen with help from the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry and its touring shows. With these seminars open to 25 to 50 students, Buffman suggested that the educators send five to seven students from each high school or college.
Other schools will be able to participate in the future, Ruth Eckerd spokeswoman Katie Pedretty said. The educators who gathered at the hall on Friday were the first to come on board, so their schools will be involved at the beginning of the next school year.
Buffman said students who learn about lighting, sound, set construction and costume design have a better chance of professional success than those who only want to perform.
"(Production companies) are looking for young people to hire," he said.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151.