American Stage finds a new leader in Stephanie Gularte

Stephanie Gularte will take on the role of producing artistic director at American Stage in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24.
Courtesy of American Stage
Stephanie Gularte will take on the role of producing artistic director at American Stage in St. Petersburg on Feb. 24. Courtesy of American Stage
Published January 20 2015
Updated January 20 2015

Days after American Stage fans celebrated a new slate of plays and musicals for next season (Spamalot in the park!), there is more news to cheer: a new leader.

The St. Petersburg theater company named Stephanie Gularte its new producing artistic director Tuesday, after a nationwide search that brought in some 75 applications. She starts the job Feb. 24.

Gularte comes from the nonprofit Capital Stage Company in Sacramento, Calif., where she was founding artistic director for more than a decade. She led the theater from infancy to a professional level, producing more than 80 plays from Anna Karenina to Enron. In 2014 she received a proclamation from the city for her artistic contributions.

She and her husband are looking for a place to live in St. Petersburg, she said, and plan to make this a long-term venture.

"I really do like to root myself in a community, so looking around at the Tampa Bay area and St. Petersburg when I was interviewing was an important part of the process," she said. "I was really interested in the position to begin with. Once I spent a little bit of time there, I became hungry for the position."

Gularte, 43, succeeds Todd Olson, who led American Stage for 11 years before leaving in May to become executive director of the Columbia Festival of the Arts in Maryland. American Stage director of education Meg Heimstead served as interim artistic director.

American Stage is the longest-running nonprofit professional theater company in Tampa Bay, and Olson brought stability after a wave of artistic directors cycled through. He also oversaw a 2007 partnership with St. Petersburg College that moved the theater into a $17.8 million addition.

Gularte was familiar with American Stage before the job came open. Knowing the work of other regional theaters was part of her job.

"The Tampa Bay community is very comparable in many ways to the Sacramento community," she said. "So I paid attention to the work going on in Tampa and St. Pete and Sarasota."

Gularte left her position with Capital Stage in 2013, looking for a change. She helped hire her replacement and then struck out to do freelance work. But she yearned for a more formal role, for a professional home.

"When I was freelancing, it was a really great opportunity to clarify how much I truly love artistic leadership," she said.

American Stage's board of directors liked Gularte's mix of business acumen and artistic vision, board president Matthew Conigliaro said. Both aspects are vital for American Stage, to keep the business in check and audiences entertained and inspired.

"We came away extremely happy that we found the right person to help lead us, who has the experience of having led a theater and performed all those artistic roles, but also had the experience of managing a theater as a business," Conigliaro said.

Gularte has multitasked her whole life. One side of her family ran a custom cabinet business, and the other operated a restaurant where she started working at 12. Weaving details into a bigger picture is a strength, she said.

"I'm really comfortable in that environment," she said. "I find it exciting, sometimes frustrating. It would be great to never have to worry if a show is going to sell or not, but ultimately that kinds of revs me up, and I enjoy being able to move from the business to the artistic side."

She hopes to bring more original works to American Stage. She doesn't want to sacrifice the classics American Stage's more than 2,200 subscribers love, but she wants to find ways to make them feel more relevant.

She'll take the rest of the current season and the 2015-16 season announced last week, which includes A Tale of Two Cities and 4000 Miles by Amy Herzog, to learn and create ideas for her first full season.

Especially exciting, she said, is the annual outdoor musical in Demens Landing Park, a tradition that draws big crowds. In the Heights debuts in the park April 24, and in 2016 Monty Python's outrageous comic musical Spamalot follows.

Producing a large scale outdoor musical will be a new challenge, but Gularte feels ready. She's been producing since she was 11, when she put on her first play in her family's garage.

At the "show" she figured out a way to sell tickets. She went to the local quickie mart to buy snacks. And she recruited a neighborhood boy to sell concessions.

"Looking back I realize I wasn't just performing," she said. "I was producing."

Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.