Everything was in place: Roles had been cast, the stage had been set, and seats had been sold to eager theatergoers. Tampa Bay area media outlets —including Tampa Bay Newspapers — had publicized the March 2020 world premiere of “The People Downstairs” by St. Pete playwright Natalie Symons.
Of course, we all know what happened in March 2020.
With only a few hours left on the clock before crowds would gather for opening night, American Stage — along with most other performing arts venues throughout the world — went dark. In addition to all the other horrors and tragedies spawned by the global pandemic, COVID-19 effectively deprived the community at large of the opportunity to experience live, in-person theatrical performances — at least temporarily.
Many area theaters found new and innovative ways to connect with audiences over the last 17 months. Now, it is time to “reignite the fire for theater in our community,” as American Stage associate artistic director Kristin Clippard said when announcing the theater’s 2021-2022 season schedule.
“We have been missing the thrills and chills we get from watching a powerful story, so this season is crafted to remind us of the theatrical wonder and splendor we love,” Clippard continued. “I can’t wait to hear people laugh, sniffle, and gasp as these stories play out onstage. Those reactions are fuel for artists, and we are ready to reunite audiences with performers in October.”
But before American Stage officially launches its 2021-2022 season, there is some unfinished business.
American Stage will — finally — present the world premiere of “The People Downstairs” as the finale of its 2020-2021 season. The production, directed by Chris Crawford, will run Sept. 15 through Oct. 3, at the Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg. For tickets and information, visit americanstage.org, call 727-823-7529 or email BoxOffice@americanstage.org. This production is recommended for audiences age 12 and older.
In Buffalo, New York, aging funeral home custodian Miles lives with his middle-aged daughter Mabel, who spends her days writing letters to prison inmates. When a court-appointed guardian threatens to take away their home, Miles sets out to set Mabel up with Todd, an inept mortician. It is a father’s fierce determination not to accept his daughter’s fate that ignites an endearing human comedy about love, loss, loneliness and the healing power of laughter.
The cast includes Don Walker as Miles, Teri Lazzara as Shelley, Matthew McGee as Todd, and Sara Oliva as Mabel.
Oliva is thrilled to be returning to American Stage, where she was last seen as Church Lady in “Between Riverside and Crazy.” She received her MFA in acting from Brandeis University.
Walker was last seen at American Stage as Leonato in Ben Ismail’s production of “Much Ado About Nothing.” In Sarasota, he performed often for Banyan Theater Company. At Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe he is slated to appear as a corrupt judge in the premier of “Ruby,” a musical retelling of the mystery surrounding a 1952 murder in Live Oak. He also will appear in April in the Sarasota Jewish Theater’s production of “Tuesdays with Morrie.”
Lazzara is a Seattle actor and will be making her first appearance at American Stage Theatre Company. This is Teri’s second time around in a Symons play, having originated the role of Thelma in “Lark Eden” at Seattle’s Theater Schmeater, where she served as managing director for six years.
McGee returns to American Stage where he has performed in numerous plays and musicals since 2006. Recently, he appeared in the series “Life’s Rewards” now streaming on Amazon Prime, and as a featured voice actor in freeFall Theatre’s “The Rose and the Beast.” A celebrated drag performer, McGee is a three-time Best of the Bay Award Winner and has worked with Walt Disney World, the Asolo Rep, freeFall Theatre, American Stage, St. Pete Opera Company, The Hippodrome and Stageworks.
A world premiere three years in the making
In addition to being a playwright, Natalie Symons is an actress and a novelist. Her plays — including “Lark Eden,” The Buffalo Kings,” “Naming True,” and “The People Downstairs” — have been developed and produced at theatres across the United States, including freeFall Theatre, ACT Theatre, Aurora Theatre, American Stage, New American Theatre, Theater Schmeater, Florida Studio Theatre, Bridge Street Theatre, Theatre22, Amas Musical Theatre, New Century Theatre, and Urbanite Theatre.
Symons talked about her introduction to theater in a recent interview with Tampa Bay Newspapers.
“My grandparents were theatre patrons, and they took me to see theatre from a very young age,” Symons said. “The first play I saw was ‘Godspell.’ At the end of act one the cast invited the audience up on stage to have wine. I was 4 years old, holding my grandfather’s hand while he drank wine with Jesus! Naturally, I wanted to be an actor after that experience.”
Symons said that she has been working as an actor — among a hundred other day jobs — for most of her adult life. When she started writing for the theater, she approached it from the perspective of an actor.
“In 2011, I wrote “Lark Eden” with no expectations for it to be produced. It’s an epistolary play, told through letters written between three women over the course of 75 years, an homage to my old female friends. It's been my most popular piece so far, and has had multiple productions around the country.”
When asked about the source of inspiration for “The People Downstairs,” Symons offered a curious response.
“Pudding. A friend of mine posted a video on Instagram of him looking for Patti Labelle’s Banana Cream pudding at Walmart,” she explained. “The play obviously evolved into something more interesting than pudding — at least I hope so — but I cannot lie, the whole thing began with a scene involving a man eating his delicious pudding.”
Symons also said that she was inspired by an image of an aging custodian mopping a floor in the prep room of a funeral home.
“Don’t ask me why, I just thought, I wonder what it’s like to work around cadavers,” she said. “It can’t be easy. Or maybe it’s strangely calming. I mean we’ll all end up there, so maybe there’s less to fear about death when you see it every day.”
Symons also talked about the creative process behind “The People Downstairs,” including the 2019 staged reading at the American Stage 21st Century Voices New Play Festival.
“The workshopped reading was a vital part of the process,” she said. “Theatre does not usually transition from the page to the stage with ease. It’s a delicate, collaborative development that takes months or years of writing, readings, rewriting, more readings, more rewrites. The only way to find the nuance and emphasis of a play is through readings and workshops. Films are shaped in the editing room, whereas theatre is shaped through collaboration.”
The fact that the play was delayed by a pandemic that prompted lockdowns and social isolation is not lost on the playwright.
“The play is about loneliness and the need for human connection and laughter to help us heal,” Symons said. “It’s almost eerie how the play foreshadows what was about to come. We’ve all felt, in some form or another, grief, fear and isolation brought on by this pandemic. In the play Todd says to Mabel, ‘I think you and I are that same kind of lonely.’ That line is more resonant now, after what we’ve all been through. I mean, even if you didn’t personally experience isolation or a sense of loneliness, you were most likely aware of those who were alone. When I think about people alone and fearful during the first year of this pandemic, it’s almost too much to bear. So, I watch ‘Schitt's Creek’ or ‘Baskets’ on FX and drink wine. Laughter and wine (and my dog): These are my lifesavers.”
Symons hopes those who see “The People Downstairs” will make an effort to recognize individuals that might be in need of a connection.
“This play centers around people who live on the fringes of society — people who we might not pay much attention to because they don’t demand or draw attention to themselves the way so many of us do,” the playwright said. “Especially with social media, it feels like everyone is very loud right now. This story is about quiet souls. I hope people walk away from this play and that they might notice someone on the street that they might not have paid much attention to before, and either smile at that person or ask them how they’re doing today. Or sit and talk to someone. Small acts of compassion and connection will change the world.”
Previews of “The People Downstairs” will be presented Wednesday, Sept. 15; and Thursday, Sept. 16., at 7 p.m. Opening night will take place Friday, Sept. 17, at 8 p.m. The production will continue through Sunday, Oct. 3. Performances will be Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7 p.m.; and Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m. Matinees will be presented on Saturdays and Sundays, at 2 p.m.
Due to the rise in positive cases of the COVID-19 virus, the following protocols will be in effect for the health and safety of artists, staff and patrons:
• All performances will have a reduced capacity audience.
• Masks are required for all attendees, staff and volunteers before, during and after the performance. The performance will be paused if a patron removes their mask and until they replace it.
• Concessions will be available before the show and at intermission, but all food and drinks must remain in the lobby.