American Stage CEO and producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte announced in a news release that she would be stepping down from the St. Petersburg theater company in 2021 after she was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa in March.
She will leave in the first quarter of 2021 but will continue consulting with the company through the leadership transition.
In a Facebook post on her personal page, Gularte said that in February she received an “unexpected health diagnosis” when she found out that she’d lost her peripheral vision. She said that the night blindness she’d experienced in her 20s was a symptom of a rare genetic condition that progresses to loss of peripheral vision and can eventually lead to complete blindness.
She received the diagnosis of retinitis pigmentosa after genetic testing in March. There is no cure for the disease.
“Currently there is no treatment for RP,” she wrote in the post. “How fast my disease will progress is a question that the medical experts cannot answer with any certainty. I am resolved to remain hopeful that my progression will continue to be slow and that there will eventually be advances in treatment options. I’m determined to do everything I can now to take care of my health in an effort to slow the progression of my disease while I prepare for a different future than the one I’d planned.”
Gularte announced that she would step down in 2021, but that over the next few months she would continue to plan American Stage’s 2020-21 programming, continuing the development of a COVID-19 re-emergence strategy and an anti-racism, equity, diversity and inclusion action plan with the board and the staff.
“It is painful to be planning my exit at this extraordinary time and under this difficult, personal new reality,” she said in the post. “But I am confident that American Stage will emerge from this moment strong and prepared for a new era as our world looks to our arts organizations to help us recover, rebuild and re-imagine.
“All of this being said, I am relatively philosophical and am open to the new possibilities for my future that I have not yet imagined. As I share this personal news I ask that you please not pity me or begin to count me out. I intend to find a new path and way of making an impact that is meaningful and fulfilling. As I make this important adjustment to my life, I look forward to finding new ways to thrive and to contribute to my community.”
Gularte joined the company in 2015 after a nationwide search. She moved to St. Petersburg from Sacramento, Calif., where she was the founding director of the Capitol Stage Company.
Under her leadership, the company developed a new works festival, professional apprenticeship and fellowship programs and the completion of the August Wilson American Century Cycle. There was increased diversity in the seasons of contemporary plays that touched on socially relevant themes. Gularte introduced works from playwrights Dominique Morisseau, Stephen Adly Guirgis and Qui Nguyen to local audiences.
She also implemented the Next Generation initiative that offered free tickets to people younger than 20. Gularte also directed American Stage in the Park’s production of Mamma Mia, and other mainstage productions including Good People, The Invisible Hand and Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberly.
“The Board was saddened to learn about Stephanie’s diagnosis,” Robyn Rusignuolo, Chair of the American Stage Board of Trustees, said in the release. “While the loss of Stephanie’s leadership will be deeply felt, we understand and fully support her decision to take time to focus on her health. Stephanie is an extraordinary leader. Not only has American Stage’s programming flourished under her artistic direction, but her business acumen and proactive strategic planning have contributed significantly to the financial health and sustainability of the organization. By every measure, Stephanie elevated an already-venerable institution to even greater heights.”
The Board of Trustees has formed a transition committee and will start the process of a national search for Gularte’s successor in the fall.
On Monday, August 24 at 6 p.m. Gularte will discuss her decision to step down with her personal mentor and friend Beth Houghton in a Creative Conversation on American Stage’s website, americanstage.org/creativeconversations.