Shaping the local theater scene: Matthew McGee at freeFall Theatre.

Ten years into its existence, St. Petersburg’s freeFall Theatre was hit with a wallop. 

The feisty theater, which labels itself as “unexpected, daring and authentic” and invites audiences to “escape awhile," could not escape from the disruption of the COVID pandemic.
  
“All theater was unable to continue,” says Matthew McGee, freeFall’s outreach and marketing director. “We were unable to do what we did every day in our ten years of existence.”

The professional theater company that was founded in 2012 by Eric Davis, Jim Sorensen and Kevin Lane faced a shutdown. Online options were not considered.
 
“We are theater makers, not filmmakers,” McGee says. “We had to find the kind of programming to stay afloat… but we were not interested in doing a play on Zoom.”

If necessity is the mother of invention, freeFall used the resources at its disposal to reinvent itself.
          
“We are on Central Avenue between 60th and 61st Street,” McGee says. “We have one of the few places with free parking.”
 
With 165 parking spaces at its disposal, freeFall invented its own mode of survival.

“We created a drive-in with an outside stage,” McGee says. “We also had a large screen mounted on the side of the building. Audience members were ticketed by the car. They stayed in their cars and tuned in to a radio station to hear the show and music. For their protection from COVID, performers were in different parts of the building and were linked in for the sound.”
 
The theater company adapted the alien invasion classic “War of the Worlds” and filmed parts of it in Plant City. The multi-media production using digital technology and live performers was wildly popular.  
 
“It was a huge success,” McGee says. “We even filmed a cameo video with Mayor Rick Kriseman.”
  
Their entire 2020-2021 season was staged as multimedia experiences with live audiences who could attend within the safety of their cars.
 
“Also, we were able to keep actors and musicians working during a difficult time,” McGee says.

Using social distancing, freeFall moved back into its 150-seat theater for the 2021-2022 season and enjoyed a sellout with McGee’s original comedy, “The Night Before,” described as the “Andy Williams Christmas Special Meets Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”

Michael Raabe, the company’s musical director, provided the special musical parodies. After the turmoil and uncertainty of COVID, the show emerged as an audience favorite. It sold out.
 
Coming out of COVID, freeFall has also discovered the advantages of coproductions with other theater companies as a way to maximize limited resources. This season’s production of “A Skeptic and a Bruja,” which ran from May 20 to June 19, was a collaboration with Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre.
 
In the new season, freeFall is co-producing “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill” with the award-winning Black theater company Ebony Repertory Theater of Los Angeles.
  
“Co-production is a great way for theater companies to share expenses and be able to present quality shows,” McGee says. “It makes sense these days. We are not out of the woods yet. People still don’t feel it’s safe to attend. We need to become part of people’s routine again.”
  
“Theater is born out of a need that arises in a time of uncertainty,” McGee says. “Psychologically, it’s a bit of medicine. We want to help audiences escape these troubled times.”

The next production at freeFall, 6099 Central Ave., is “The Agitators,” which runs July 29 through August 8. For more information go to freeFall theatre,
call (727) 498-5005 or email [email protected].

This is the seventh in a seven-part series of stories on the talented people who lead local theater companies. To read more follow the following links:
JL Rey and Cyndee A. Dornblaser at Spanich Lyric Theatre.
Owen Roberts
on at Lab Theater Project.
Avery Anderson at American Stage.

Emilia Sargent at Tampa Repertory.
David Jenkins at Jobsite.

Karla Hartley at Stageworks.
 

Read more articles by Joanne Milani.

Joanne Milani is a Tampa-based freelance writer and former art and theater critic for The Tampa Tribune. After leaving the Tribune, she served as the executive director of Tampa’s Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and remains a member of the International Art Critics Association (AICA). She graduated from Vassar and worked in New York museums before moving to Tampa.