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A Simple Theatre keeps things simple in fourth season

A Simple Theatre’s Miracle on South Division Street features actors Becca McCoy, from left, Georgia Mallory Guy, Bonnie Agan and Stephen Ray. The play unfolds the tale behind a 20-foot Virgin Mary shrine in a family’s home.

Photo by Gavin Hawk

A Simple Theatre’s Miracle on South Division Street features actors Becca McCoy, from left, Georgia Mallory Guy, Bonnie Agan and Stephen Ray. The play unfolds the tale behind a 20-foot Virgin Mary shrine in a family’s home.

While Gavin Hawk was managing student loan debt from his acting diploma at the Juilliard School, he owned just three pieces of furniture.

A mattress on the floor. A 15-inch television. A Playstation.

"Juilliard wasn't cheap," he said. "I wasn't upset about it. It was just the way it was."

Tellingly, he chose to concentrate on sleep and entertainment. And around that time Hawk learned it was possible to live within your means and focus resources on what you love.

He's since changed his furniture but not his philosophy. Hawk, 39, is the artistic director of A Simple Theatre, a nonprofit professional theater company in residence at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. The theater's fourth full-length play, Miracle on South Division Street, opens Thursday.

"I think every year we've gotten a little bit better," said Hawk. "We have a full board now for the first time. We're getting really excited about what this theater is becoming."

Hawk is an actor, director and associate professor of theater at Eckerd who also performs as one half of improv duo Hawk and Wayne. He founded the theater in 2011 with Meg Heimstead, currently interim artistic director at American Stage.

They envisioned the theater as something to complement the others in town, not compete.

"We feel like we fall into the middle area of quirky, off the beaten path, while staying totally accessible," Hawk said.

Moreover, a Simple Theatre would keep it simple. Hawk promised to be fiscally responsible and never operate with debt, focusing on just one full-scale production a year produced in the slow summer theater season.

The rest of the year, A Simple Theatre would focus on staged readings, with actors reading from scripts without sets or costumes. Getting audiences to give staged readings a try is a challenge, Hawk said, but once they do, they come back. Most have drawn at least 60 people, he said.

"Gavin is one of those rare talents in that he has such a highly developed artistic sense, but he also has a really good business mind," said Paul Carder, an early supporter of A Simple Theatre who is now the senior advisor to the theater's board.

Sustained by donations and ticket sales (the top price for a show is $30, and staged readings are $15-$20), they have never operated in the red, Hawk said.

"We've come close, but we've never done it."

A Simple Theatre started at St. Petersburg's ubiquitous space for artists, the Studio@620. In 2011, it produced the political thriller Death and the Maiden.

Then in 2013, A Simple Theatre partnered with Eckerd to work from the school's Bininger Theatre. The move provided a permanent home with equipment, props, costumes and parking, while allowing Eckerd students and interns to get experience working on shows.

The first full play in the new space was Dorothy Fortenberry's Good Egg, directed by Hawk and starring Heimstead, about a young woman having her embryos screened for the mental illness that ran in her family.

Hawk chose Tom Dudzick's Miracle on South Division Street for the company's fourth full play, hoping to show range and step away from heavier material of the past. It's about a New York family with a 20-foot Virgin Mary shrine at their home. The shrine allegedly materialized in the father's barber shop. The family legend, naturally, begins to come apart.

"He's sort of the Catholic answer to Neil Simon," Hawk said of Dudzick. The play "has a heart, a really nice heart to it, but it's also light and fun."

Hawk has started looking into government arts grants, he said. And the theater has been buoyed by an anonymous $5,000 donation, a vote of confidence going into the fifth season.

With enough money coming in, A Simple Theatre might eventually move to more full plays a year, making everything a little less simple.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

If you go

'Miracle on South Division Street'

Runs Thursday through Aug. 17 at A Simple Theatre's Bininger Theatre at Eckerd College. Shows at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. $25-$30. 4200 54th Ave. S., St. Petersburg. (727) 864-7811. asimpletheatre.org.

A Simple Theatre keeps things simple in fourth season 07/28/14 [Last modified: Monday, July 28, 2014 5:17pm]
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