Erica Sutherlin prefers "theater for the community" as opposed to community theater when discussing the play she is directing at St. Petersburg City Theatre, To Kill a Mockingbird. "I think community theater can have a negative connotation that says nonprofessional, and what we're doing here is putting on the best production with the resources we have of an important story," Sutherlin said.
To be sure, the production of Christopher Sergel's stage adaptation of the classic Harper Lee novel is community theater in the sense that the actors are not paid, but it is still an ambitious undertaking, with a cast of 17.
To Kill a Mockingbird opens this weekend along with two other notable productions at community theaters in the bay area, The Producers by Eight O'Clock Theatre in Largo and Luv by West Coast Players in Clearwater.
"Community theater seems to be really active," said Ben Taylor, playing Max Bialystock in The Producers, his first role in the area since moving to St. Petersburg from Tallahassee in November. "In Tallahassee there were two community theaters, and already here I've come across half a dozen close by me."
Theatre Grapevine, a monthly publication that has chronicled the Suncoast community theater scene since 1978, lists 17 companies in its directory.
Sutherlin's direction of To Kill a Mockingbird is a landmark: She is the first black director at the venerable theater, which was founded in 1925 and bills itself as the oldest continuously operating community theater in Florida.
"It's 2013 and I'm the first black director — I think that's kind of cool," said Sutherlin, 33, who teaches theater at the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School.
To Kill a Mockingbird has several iconic roles, such as Atticus Finch, the lawyer played by Gregory Peck in the movie, and his precocious daughter, Scout, from whose point of view the story is told. Mike Menszychi is Atticus, who defends a black man against a charge of rape by a white woman, and Calista Bodimer is Scout in the production.
"I think it's interesting to have a black female director to explore a play that deals with a racial situation," Sutherlin said. "But I'm not here to play white vs. black, even though that's in the play. It's about how we grow and change and evolve. How do we get to today from 1935 (when the play takes place)? How do we evolve into our greater selves?"
The Producers is another big show, and Eight O'Clock Theatre has assembled a cast of 23, directed by Rocco Morabito. It is the first community theater in the area to do the Mel Brooks musical that starred Nathan Lane as the wily impresario on Broadway.
"Max is a bear of a role," said Taylor, 51, whose favorite roles include Uncle Archie in The Secret Garden and another Max, the opera company factotum in Lend Me a Tenor. "He's onstage 85 percent of the time and is in 11 musical numbers. It takes a lot of stamina. This is definitely the biggest thing I've ever done."
Eight O'Clock has done other big musicals like Beauty and the Beast, Urinetown and Funny Girl, but The Producers is this season's largest. There is so much dancing — including a famous number with little old ladies on walkers — that it takes not just choreographer Ronnie DeMarco but also assistant choreographer Sandra Robinson. It features a 10-piece orchestra, conducted by Emi Stefanov.
Luv is not a big show, with just three characters, but the offbeat comedy by Murray Schisgal is typical of what West Coast Players does. "We pride ourselves on doing shows that are unusual for community theater, not the usual musicals and comedies," said Jason Freeman, 47, president of the company. "It's the niche we have."
A hit on Broadway in 1964, Luv is directed by Domenic Bisesti for West Coast. It concerns an encounter on the Brooklyn Bridge between Harry (Tom Jay) and his old college chum, Milt (Rand Smith), who is contemplating committing suicide. Absurdist hilarity ensues when Milt, who wants to run off with his mistress, seeks to hook up his wife, Ellen (Francesca G. Jay), with Harry.
West Coast's programming has brought it respect from peers. At last fall's STAR Awards ceremony — the local community theater version of the Oscars — it won nine awards. A recent show, The Red Velvet Cake War, set an attendance record for the company.
"Comedies are more well-received than dramas," Freeman said. "But we try to mix them up. The Red Velvet Cake War was a slapstick comedy, set in Texas. Luv is very different and has a feminist theme running through it."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.