Bruce Vilanch And Other Writers Have Been Hired To Create New Work At Florida Studio Theater In Sarasota

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FST commissions writers to create new works
By Jay Handelman, Arts Editor
Posted May 17, 2020

Bruce Vilanch
Bruce Vilanch

Florida Studio Theatre may not be able to produce or present any new shows for a while, but it is preparing for the future by commissioning 32 national playwrights, directors, musical theater creators and sketch comedy writers to develop new work.

The theater is using some of the money it received from the Paycheck Protection Program authorized under the federal CARES Act to hire the writers and other artists as full-time staff members for a two-month period. Their work will be considered for future productions in the theater’s mainstage, cabaret, sketch comedy and children’s theater programs.

Many of the writers, including Mark St. Germain and Larry Parr, have long or recent histories with the theater.

Parr got his start as a playwright at FST with “Hi-Hat Hattie,” and went on to create “My Castle’s Rockin’,” “Ethel Waters: His Eye is on the Sparrow” and such plays as “Invasion of Privacy” and “Sundew.” St. Germain is the most produced playwright in the theater’s history with such works as “Freud’s Last Session,” “Relativity,” “Dancing Lessons,” “Best of Enemies,” “The Fabulous Lipitones” and “Becoming Dr. Ruth.”

St. Germain was already commissioned to create a one-woman play about Eleanor Roosevelt for the theater’s Suffragist Project, which is due to conclude in August. For the Playwrights Project, he will work with Associate Artist Jason Cannon on a historical drama about the real-life meeting of Frederick Douglass and John Brown before Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry before the Civil War.

Carole J. Bufford, a cabaret performer who has spent the last few summers singing in FST’s summer cabaret series, is among the creative talents hired, along with Sandy Rustin, whose play “The Cottage” was presented last summer.

Rustin, an actress and playwright, said the theater is “serving as a light during this uncertain time.”

Kenneth Jones, whose play “Alabama Story” had a run at FST in 2016, said the writing job came at a time when three productions of his play had been canceled this spring because of the coronavirus, resulting in a loss of income.

“It felt like a miracle when FST offered me the chance to work on a new script,” he said.

Kate Alexander, Associate Director at Large, will work as a literary advisor/dramaturg with Jones on a play about a family business at a crossroads in the Deep South.

Alexander also is working with Thomas Gibbons, the author of “Permanent Collection” and “Bee-luther-hatchee,” on a play about dilemmas that come with the rise of digital manipulation.

Bufford said, “Knowing that FST has brought together so many artists to create new works is equal parts thrilling and comforting. Art will always prevail. We need it to challenge our minds, to escape our reality, to delight and take joy in, to celebrate the past and to forge a new path into the future.”

Sean Daniels, artistic director of the Arizona Theatre Company, will work with the FST artistic staff to develop “Tampa,” about two brothers who take different paths in life.

Richard Hopkins, FST’s producing artistic director, said the idea for the Playwrights Project came to him just three days after the theater shut down performances in mid-March.

He said he had a revelation about Shakespeare, who instead of addressing the plagues of his time “wrote, without judgment, about the wonder of humankind, which made me think that now is the time for FST to inspire the creation of plays” and to ask playwrights to write “like Shakepeare and reveal humanity’s complexities without judgment.”

Other past FST artists in the project include playwright Sarah Bierstock, whose “Honor Killing” had its world premiere at FST; Stephan deGhelder, an actor, director and writer who has contributed material to the theater’s recurring cabaret series “Laughing Matters”; Michael McKeever, a Miami playwright and co-founder of the Zoetic Stage whose “The Miamians” and “South Beach Babylon” have been produced at FST; Sam Mossler, an actor most recently seen starring in “Kunstler” and a playwright, whose association with the theater began as a child; Jason Odell Williams, whose play “Handle with Care” was presented earlier this year; Nick Santa Maria, who has worked as an actor and writer at FST in years past; The Swingaroos, a musical ensemble led by Kimberly Hawkey and pianist Assaf Gleizner that puts a modern spin on music of the 1930s and 40s; Ben Mackel, a singer, musician who is part of musical trio The Blue Eyed Bettys; and Gabriel Barre, a Broadway and regional theater director who staged FST’s production of “The World Goes ’Round” at FST.

Among the other artists are nationally known actor, comedian and comedy writer Bruce Vilanch; Brandon Wardell, an actor, singer and producer who is part of the musical group Under the Streetlamp; Rachel Lynett, a queer Afro-Latinx playwright; Mark Kendall, a comedy writer and star of the one-person show “The Magic Negro and Other Blackness”; Jeffrey Couchman, co-author of the play “Three Wise Guys” based on Christmas stories by Damon Runyon; and Deborah Brevoort, an author of plays, musicals and opera librettos best known for “The Women of Lockerbie.”

Lynett is working on a loose adaptation of “As You Like It,” while Williams is working on “America in One Room,” described as a wide-ranging discussion about the state of the nation involving audience participation.

In addition to their creative work, the participants will be leading online workshops and tutorials for the theater’s online educational offerings.