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American Stage presents 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival in St. Petersburg

The plays deal with themes of mental health.
An image from a previous 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival at American Stage. 2021's festival is entirely virtual and focuses on themes of mental health.
An image from a previous 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival at American Stage. 2021's festival is entirely virtual and focuses on themes of mental health. [ Courtesy of American Stage ]
Published Jan. 8
Updated Jan. 8

American Stage has had to pivot to present theater this past year, so much so that their current season is called Reimagine. But with 21st Century Voices: New Play Festival, there was an opportunity not only to carry on a tradition, but to make an impact.

The plays presented in the festival running this month focus on themes of mental illness, wellness and resilience.

The festival highlights four plays, chosen from 200 submissions from around the world, that are still in development. The selection committee was led by Kristin Clippard. They will be presented as virtual readings on the theater’s Virtual Stage, with actors performing from their homes via Zoom. The festival spans two weekends, Jan. 15-17 and Jan. 22-24.

The festival includes post-show discussions with the playwrights and mental health clinicians, wellness workshops, and a community health conversation featuring April Lott, the CEO for Directions for Living.

“There is a collective anxiety and I think mental health is something we’ve needed to talk about for a long time before the pandemic,” American Stage CEO and producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte said. “It’s part and parcel of our health. There is an opportunity to do what we can, to use the arts to help destigmatize mental health.”

Gularte said the idea to create a dialogue about mental health first came about when preparing for a play from their last season that was never produced because of the pandemic. Next to Normal addresses mental illness, and the team had begun to reach out to community health experts for a program called Creative Wellness that focused on the arts as an outlet for mental health.

When it came time to put the call out for the festival over the summer, the theater decided to ask for works about those themes.

It was also serendipitous that the festival has always featured readings, an ideal format during a pandemic because no staging or sets are required.

“We tend to choose plays that are about the stories, the words and the performances,” Gularte said.

Two plays are presented each weekend. The first on Jan. 15 is In Search of the Mothman, which follows two sisters as they cope with tragedy. On Jan. 16, Sons of Liberty explores post-traumatic stress disorder, what it means to be a veteran in America and the experience of being Black and struggling with addiction and mental illness.

On Jan. 22, The Polar Bear Society follows a group of teens with bipolar disorder who convene online. In Gated, on Jan. 23, a wife battles anxiety and isolation to deal with Veterans Affairs and help her husband, who has early onset Parkinson’s disease and possibly dementia.

Throughout the festival, American Stage will provide resources for local support to audiences and creative team members.

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Bank of America is the presenting sponsor. As part of that sponsorship, tickets to the festival will be donated to Feeding Tampa Bay, Tampa Bay Crisis Center, St. Petersburg Free Clinic, and Directions for Living.

Gularte said she was thrilled by the partnership with Bank of America because it elevates the importance of their efforts.

She was equally effusive about other sponsors, including the Community Foundation of Tampa Bay and the Love IV Lawrence Foundation. (The Tampa Bay Times is a sponsor of the theater’s 2020-21 season.)

“This last year, it’s been hard to stay inspired and feel like we’re having an impact,” Gularte said. “This festival has become a tremendous energizer because of the response of people.”

If you go

21st Century Voices: New Play Festival. $55 all-access pass for the whole festival; $30 weekend pass for one weekend; $15 individual play readings and workshops. $10 individual panel discussions; the Community Conversation on Jan. 24 is free. Purchase them at americanstage.org. Patrons are encouraged to contact American Stage at 727-823-7529 or boxoffice@americanstage.org if they have any questions, or if they’d like assistance in accessing their American Stage account or connecting with the Virtual Stage.