Freefall Theatre Creates New Home In St. Petersburg

About two months before the debut of freeFall Theatre Company's "The Frogs,'' church pews and Sunday school signs fill the company's new space.

At the three-building complex at 6099 Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, freeFall Theatre founders Eric Davis, 36, and his partner Kevin Lane, 33, discuss creative choices and construction details.

They walk through what used to be Second Church of Christ-Scientist, in and out of empty spaces that would become their dressing rooms, bathrooms and mainstage theater. They point out windows that will house art displays, and an opening in one of the outside walls perfect for a potential concessions area.

Just months ago, the company didn't have a place to call its own. Now, a lime green sign in front of the three-acre property lets passersby know this isn't a church anymore. It's a new home.

The theater company arrived on the St. Petersburg theater scene with its debut show "The Wild Party,'' at St. Petersburg's Studio@620 in 2008. Since then, the company's productions have been housed at other local theaters like Studio@620 and American Stage, both in downtown St. Petersburg. FreeFall hired actors for its first show a few years ago, and soon built a company from people in the community who sought involvement in the arts.

"Very quickly, theater companies become like a family," Lane says.

Davis and Lane closed on the old church property around Thanksgiving 2010, after a search that took them to warehouses and parking garages and downtown buildings. Lane, who grew up in St. Petersburg, says he often passed the church building on his way down Central Avenue to his mother's home.

The sprawling complex, which the company purchased for $1.5 million, is made up of three buildings. The largest, the former main church building, will be turned into freeFall's mainstage theater. Until it's ready for full-scale productions, Lane says the company will use the large room for events like indie film screenings.

The second building, down sidewalk corridors and across a grassy area that Davis and Lane envision as the outdoor lobby, will house the company's 150-seat black box theatre. Across freeFall's large parking lot is a third building, which the company wants to turn into a center for education and theater instruction.

The collaborative effort to turn this old church building into a new space for a budding company involves freeFall architect Tim Clemmons, who drew up plans for the theaters, and the company's technical director Thad Engle, who is assessing freeFall's sound and lighting needs during the renovation.

Emilie Kuperman, executive director, helps the theater carry out its mission (which, according to its website, is to "pursue art's greater purposes and the transformative power of theatre") on the business end, and organizes fund raising.

Managing director Jim Sorensen is generally responsible for keeping the theater running smoothly as a business by keeping track of actors' contracts, facilities, concessions, and the box office.

Drawing On A Blank Slate

FreeFall is setting the mood for its new space with a 50 foot by 50 foot black box theater, the first of its new theaters to open. Lane calls the room a blank slate. The space is designed to be flexible, to change from show to show, to be filled with seating that can collapse and disappear or move around easily for, as Lane says, a different theater configuration every show. It is one aspect of their new permanent space that isn't very permanent at all. It's an echo of the different places they've staged shows, of the process of adapting to spaces.

The black box theater opens at the end of January, when freeFall's first production in its own theater (but third this season) begins. Davis, the company's artistic director who directed the American Stage show Hair last spring, says he likes to do shows with which the public is less familiar. "The Frogs,'' running Feb. 4 through Feb. 20, fits the bill.

A comedy originally written in 405 B.C. by Aristophanes, "The Frogs'' was later adapted as a musical by Burt Shevelove and Stephen Sondheim. This 1974 adaptation, which took place in the Yale University swimming pool, is known for having Meryl Streep and Sigourney Weaver in its chorus.

FreeFall is staging this version, expanded in 2004 by Nathan Lane, who also starred in it on Broadway. The company's website contends that the musical is a "hymn to the transformative power of the theatre." Davis says the company won't recreate the swimming pool scene, but he's looking forward to doing a musical that is seldom done and not very well known.

Getting Beyond Entertainment

When discussing plans for the new building with Davis and Lane, it's evident that freeFall's vision goes beyond entertainment. For the blossoming company, education and the performing arts go hand in hand. In addition to staging six shows this season, freeFall Theatre will partner with acting teacher Larry Silverberg. An education center in their complex will host classes for all ages, beginning Feb. 5. Silverberg, of the True Acting Institute, will teach one class for adults and one for teens at freeFall, which will become the institute's new headquarters.

For Davis, who taught theater at Blake High School of the Arts in Tampa and at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts before founding freeFall with Lane, integrating education into their vision is part of another goal he has for the company: becoming a presence in the community.

"Theater companies should be about more than putting on shows," Davis says. "We have more to offer."

This effort to become a unique presence in the community is important in an ever-growing St. Petersburg arts scene. With the recent openings of the Chihuly Collection at the Morean Arts Center and the new Dali Museum, which opens today (1/11/11), St. Petersburg is becoming a destination spot for art and stage events.
A strong arts scene is important in the Tampa Bay region, where tourism is an integral part of the local economy. However, the two don't always go hand in hand. The slumping economy has forced consumers to re-evaluate how they spend their money, and entertainment doesn't always make the cut over necessities.
The new year may signal a slow but steady change in those decisions, and a positive shift toward interaction with the vibrant local arts scene.
With tickets that range from $20-$47, a freeFall experience is more affordable than ones at some of the area's larger venues. But freeFall's most distinct factor may be its decision to plant roots outside of downtown St. Petersburg.
"The addition of freeFall Theatre to St. Petersburg's growing arts community brings a new dimension to the cultural offerings in St. Petersburg," said Elizabeth Brincklow, the city's manager of Arts and International Relations. "FreeFall's location on west Central Avenue creates a cultural bridge between the downtown core and the city's west end and the beaches. And, the addition of another company doing high-quality theater amplifies St. Petersburg's depth as a destination for great performances on stage."

During construction on the new building, a bottle was discovered stuck in the wall of one of the soon-to-be ladies' restrooms. Lane says it's been there since the mid-80s, when the church was built. Davis and Lane plan on leaving the bottle in the wall. Maybe preserve it a little longer by placing some protective glass over it, Lane suggests. It's a neat detail, something others may choose to cover with concrete. It represents a vision at freeFall that is fresh and distinctive.

"We have a different selection of work, and the way that we present it is different than others do," Lane says about freeFall. "So far, we've found that people are willing to come along with us on that journey."

Michelle Stark, a freelance writer who is a newspaper/magazine junkie and a caffeine fiend, frequents Tampa's indie clubs/concerts and does Pilates. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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