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St. Petersburg playwright waits to see her work premiere, finally

Natalie Symons has waited 18 months for “The People Downstairs” to be seen.
At American Stage in St. Petersburg, playwright Natalie Symons and director Chris Crawford observe rehearsals of Symon’s play, "The People Downstairs," which was to debut in March 2020 but was put on hold due to the pandemic.
At American Stage in St. Petersburg, playwright Natalie Symons and director Chris Crawford observe rehearsals of Symon’s play, "The People Downstairs," which was to debut in March 2020 but was put on hold due to the pandemic. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]
Published Sep. 9
Updated Sep. 9

Natalie Symons remembers March 13, 2020.

It was supposed to be the day that she could see the world premiere of the play she’d been working on for three years. It turned out to be the first day of 18 months of wondering if the public would ever see it.

Symons, 51, spent a year writing The People Downstairs before she let anyone read it. She saw it go through table readings, casting and rehearsals. In the days before the planned opening, she watched it preview for two nights. She sat in the back row with the director and observed — the play worked. The audience was engaged and, maybe more importantly for a comedy, laughed. Everything looked set for the 8 p.m. first show at American Stage in St. Petersburg.

“I couldn’t wait to share it,” Symons said.

Her phone rang five hours before the grand opening — the play had to be canceled. She hadn’t realized that while she was entrenched in rehearsal for half of February and March, the coronavirus was making its way to Florida.

Symons was there when the cast and crew got the news and mourned with them.

“I kept beating myself up for that because I knew that there was so much true suffering,” Symons said.

On endless hold

Symons was depressed for months. She stopped practicing yoga and started eating doughnuts and cookies. She didn’t write as much and watched more TV. She began to take antidepressants, something she had always tried to refrain from out of fear of dulling her creativity.

She still beats herself up for self-pity over the play when people all over the world were losing their lives.

Symons soon remembered she had a roof over her head. And a good rescue dog, named Chloe. Sure, she and her husband had their hours cut back at their jobs, but that turned into spending more time together. She talked and laughed on the phone with her close friend and lead of the play Matthew McGee, who experienced similar emotions in the months after the cancellation. Eventually, the urge to write returned.

Don Walker, right, who in Natalie Symons’ play "The People Downstairs" plays Miles Lisowski, and Matthew McGee, who plays Todd Schneider, rehearse at American Stage in St. Petersburg.
Don Walker, right, who in Natalie Symons’ play "The People Downstairs" plays Miles Lisowski, and Matthew McGee, who plays Todd Schneider, rehearse at American Stage in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

“I think a lot of happiness is having something to look forward to,” Symons said. “I want to constantly be working on something. I need to be creating to be happy.”

She finished writing a book, Lies in Bone, during the pandemic and it’s set to be released Sept. 21. Then she started to write another one.

“I want to live and live in the moment and it’s so hard to do that,” Symons said. “I want to be able to do that and appreciate the process, the journey of creating art and sharing it.”

Turning points

The People Downstairs is the fourth play Symons has written.

“I’m never going to forget it,” she said. “It will always be this turning point in my writing career because everything shifted.”

The play premieres Sept. 17 at American Stage. Symons and the rest of the cast and crew were back at rehearsals Aug. 31, but Symons still worries.

Has the shift to home entertainment during the pandemic done irreparable damage to in-person shows? What if her play aged poorly? Is theater going to be different?

The play coincides with some of the personal battles with isolation people face because of the pandemic, and she thinks it is going to resonate on a different level now than it would have before. The People Downstairs is the story of a middle-aged, visually impaired, agoraphobic daughter whose father is trying to help her get out of the house to experience the world and find love.

“It’s a play about ‘Don’t let things pass you by,’” Symons said.

The set has not moved since the day the play was delayed. Symons thought often about going to see it, but it felt too creepy. She wasn’t sure how she would react.

Symons finally saw the set on Aug. 1.

She was with her husband, Jim Sorensen. Symons rushed out after catching a glimpse, knowing that in a few weeks she’d be back in the theater, preparing once again for the premiere.

Playwright Natalie Symons is pictured during rehearsal of her play, "The People Downstairs," which was to debut in March, 2020 and has been on hold since because of the pandemic. The play will finally open Sept. 17 at American Stage in St. Petersburg.
Playwright Natalie Symons is pictured during rehearsal of her play, "The People Downstairs," which was to debut in March, 2020 and has been on hold since because of the pandemic. The play will finally open Sept. 17 at American Stage in St. Petersburg. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]