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Changes in leadership, new voices marked 2015 in performing arts

The year 2015 saw significant changes in the Tampa Bay performing arts scene, both in leadership and structure. The largest performing arts venue in the state, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, is finalizing details for an expansion. Newcomers are making their voices heard in theater and there is an emerging dance scene. Here are some of the highlights.

The debut of Michael Francis

After a long wait, the Florida Orchestra has a new music director. Michael Francis, a native of England who spent many years with the London Symphony, took the baton in October.

Francis holds a more expansive view of the orchestra's role in the community than did Stefan Sanderling, his predecessor. Under Francis, 39, the orchestra has already increased its free concerts and plans to strengthen relationships with public schools, hospitals and retirement centers.

His debut Oct. 2 as music director, Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3, came with an added layer of drama over pianist Valentina Lisitsa. Since playing Rachmaninoff under Francis in other cities, the Ukrainian-born Lisitsa had since angered many with her tweets supporting pro-Russian separatists and mocking the Ukrainian government. The orchestra and Francis stood firmly behind the line that separates artists from their political views. Lisitsa played brilliantly on opening night, and a new era for the orchestra had begun.

Stephanie Gularte takes center stage

American Stage Theatre Company opened its "Season of Awakenings" with Red, a grueling and powerful play about expressionist artist Mark Rothko. It was a fine production directed by Karla Hartley, also marking the debut of producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte.

In Gularte, 44, American Stage board members saw a good fit, someone with the artistic and business experience to take over. A founding artistic director of the Capital Stage Company in Sacramento, Calif., she had produced more than 80 plays and been lauded by the city.

The death of her sister to cancer led to a reevaluation of her career, Gularte said before the start of the season. She wanted something new and has taken the reins of St. Petersburg's longest-running professional theater. She has since directed Intimate Apparel, the period drama about romance, race and class by Lynn Nottage. The show landed on all of the key elements.

Gularte inherited this season's lineup from interim artistic director Meg Heimstead, who succeeded 11-year leader Todd Olson. She will be able to select her own shows next season, which means that her true breakout still lies ahead.

The Tampa Bay Theatre Festival

Rory Lawrence had a well paying but unsatisfying white-collar job at Merrill Lynch. But a dream of recapturing the thrill he felt in high school theater wouldn't go away. He wanted more.

So Lawrence quit his job, took acting lessons from a professional coach and started getting roles. He also started entering his own plays in theater festivals in other cities.

In 2014, Lawrence launched the first Tampa Bay Theatre Festival, something that didn't exist beyond an event for high school thespians. He lined up sponsors, got space from Stageworks Theatre and the Straz Center, organized acting workshops and put on new plays by playwrights looking for a start.

The second festival went off in September, and it eclipsed the numbers from 2014 in every category. The opening night's production of Lawrence's own Hour Confessions, about a group of men and their informal support group, packed the Jaeb Theater. The audience was younger and much more racially diverse than you would see in most other shows.

That is how Lawrence, an African-American man who did not want to put on a "black theater festival," wanted it. The mood in this audience, its level of engagement with the play and with the festival overall, bodes well for the Tampa Bay area. Another festival is planned for September 2016.

Brave new steps for dance in St. Petersburg

In November, a group of dancers put on Beacon: A Performance Series for St. Pete, a project a year in the making and spearheaded by St. Petersburg natives Helen Hansen French and Lauren Ree Slone.

A look around the Palladium (which helped with sponsorship) defied conventional wisdom — the idea that this city will not support modern dance. French and Slone, who each performed that evening, said then that dancers and choreographers who had lived in St. Petersburg for years were tired of commuting to Tampa, Sarasota or elsewhere to do their work.

Each of four performances provided reasons why they might be on to something. French, who made a career as a principal dancer for Buglisi Dance Theatre in New York, and Slone each turned in mesmerizing pieces. In a flowing crepe skirt with a long train, Jahrel Thompson drew cheers as Joan of Arc.

The Beacon evening, which French secured with grant help from the city of St. Petersburg, is all the braver because of its uncertain future. The women put it on without a firm set of ideas about what should happen next. That too is up for interpretation. But the euphoria at the Palladium after the event was real.

The Straz plans for growth

Already the largest performing arts venue in the state, the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts is working on an expansion. Five theaters and 22 studios and classrooms at the Straz and the adjacent Patel Conservatory might seem like a lot, but growth changes plans.

Long-term goals include more parking space, increased usage of the acreage along the Hillsborough River and outdoor art.

"We are trying to prepare for the next generation," president and chief executive officer Judy Lisi told the Times this fall, "by creating a place to just hang out and be."

That can only mean good things for the Straz, and for the Tampa Bay area.

Contact Andrew Meacham at or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.

Changes in leadership, new voices marked 2015 in performing arts 12/31/15 [Last modified: Thursday, December 31, 2015 10:58am]
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