1. Stage

Freefall Theatre delays season opener after Irma damages performing space

Hurricane Irma’s winds damaged the roof at the Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg. Repairs are estimated at $90,000.
Hurricane Irma’s winds damaged the roof at the Freefall Theatre in St. Petersburg. Repairs are estimated at $90,000.
Published Sep. 14, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Hurricane Irma blew sheeting off part of the roof at Freefall Theatre, leading to water damage that will cost an estimated $90,000 to repair and forcing a shift in performing space and the season schedule.

The world premiere of White Fang, Jethro Compton's adaptation of Jack London's tale of a hybrid sled dog, has been moved from Sept. 30 to Oct. 7. The British playwright Compton, who is also directing the show, will take White Fang to London after the production at Freefall, which will employ puppetry reminiscent of the Broadway hit War Horse.

Rehearsals had already been cut short by the storm as actors left the area and were further affected by power outages. Freefall's co-founder and artistic director Eric Davis came to Freefall on Monday to find water flooding part of the lobby and performing space of the former Christian Science church at 6099 Central Ave. Damages included the facility's ceiling and wood flooring and audio and lighting equipment, community relations coordinator Matthew McGee said.

Consequently, the show will open in the adjacent auditorium space. Plans have already been made to block windows of the former sanctuary to allow a portable lighting rig to function as intended, and to supply additional electrical power with generators. Insurance will cover repairs to the theater's interior but not the roof, McGee said. Repairs will take about three months. In the meantime, the theater will use the auditorium space for its productions.

The development has the theater scrambling.

"White Fang is one of the most far-reaching and impactful endeavors we have ever undertaken, a world premiere co-production with an international reach," Davis said in a statement. "We owe it to not only our audience in St. Pete, but to the talented team at Jethro Compton Productions in London, which is staging our production of White Fang in London following Freefall's run. We're excited to be drawing international attention to St. Pete's thriving arts community."

Freefall opened nine years ago with a pre-show cocktail party, an introduction to composer and lyricist Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party. Based on a 1928 poem of the same name, the darkly sensual vaudevillian escapade closed after eight weeks. Since those beginnings at the Studio@620, Freefall quickly gained a reputation as an individualistic theater committed to hiring the best actors and backstage personnel it could afford.

Those standards come at a literal price, as executive director Cheryl Forchilli told donors at a fundraiser in April. Two of the theater's biggest hits in recent years, Mame and The Light in the Piazza, either lost money or achieved negligible gains despite nearly sold-out runs. Those razor-thin margins in the best of times make Irma's onslaught feel like a punch in the gut, McGee acknowledged.

"When I first heard about it, I was devastated," he said. "But I was determined to get to work to help them in any way, to make sure White Fang is produced. White Fang is just something we do not want to cancel, because of its international reach. It's a big deal."


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