An air compressor did most of the talking as the small crew stapled down flooring to the stage. A master carpenter kept unskilled but eager workers on track, telling them where to line up edges. An astringent smell of glue permeated the set of A Raisin in the Sun, opening Jan. 26 at American Stage.
To these apprentices in an American Stage program and their bosses, learning how to build a set counts just as much as acting, which is on par with brainstorming marketing ideas or selling tickets. Already, one of them says he wants to run a theater company some day. The program has been around a couple of years.
But recently the theater has been most concerned about who is coming through its doors. And that is about to change. American Stage, now in its 40th season, recently announced a major perk to young theatergoers: free admission.
As of the new year, people who fill out a brief form and show an ID can see shows at no cost. The Under 20 Free Passport applies to mainstage productions.
Another program, the Under 30 Pass, permits theater fans in that age group to purchase passes for $15 a month and see anything — mainstage, park, improv nights, other special engagements. Under 30 has been around for a year in a "soft launch," meaning the theater was trying it out. Those price breaks, plus a renewed commitment to a 2-year-old apprenticeship program, constitute the Young Americans Initiative, unveiled with some fanfare at the end of 2017.
The decisionmakers at American Stage know they’re going to lose money giving away seats. But they are hoping the goodwill and interest will drive more people to it, and banking on the community to support the cause.
"I’ve been producing theater for 16 years," producing artistic director Stephanie Gularte said. "For a long time, including before my tenure as artistic director, the conversation has been, where are the young people, and how to do we encourage more young people to come to the theater? And how will we survive if they don’t, as current audiences age out of attendance?"
Announcing Under 20 Free Passport and making the Under 30 Pass official is a consciously crafted major statement. It’s a way of combining answers to old questions about attrition from the arts, especially performing arts that can be expensive and often require cultivation even to appreciate. Staffers looked through other programs nationally to see what was working. They found that things like "student rush" night and other price-slashing measures attracted young people.
Without such a buffer, young people who consider the quarter-pounder meal a treat are hard pressed to come up with the $25-$40 ticket prices for most professional theater shows in the Tampa Bay area.
"They’re trying to eat," said Kody Hopkins, 23, one of the laborers on the set. A recent graduate of the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, Hopkins ushered so he could see shows.
"There’s a feeling that theater belongs to older people," said fellow apprentice Tarilabo Koripamo, 22.
Michael Alford, the chief administrator of American Stage’s board, needed look no further than his daughter’s circle of friends at the Gibbs High performing arts magnet for evidence.
"By talking informally to her and her friends, we know there is what appears to be a significant segment of young people who could be facing obstacles to attending theater, or it has never been presented to them as an opportunity," Alford said.
Brianna Melton, 17, a ballet dancer and a senior in the International Baccalaureate program at St. Petersburg High, said she enjoyed two summers of theater classes at American Stage but knows people who aren’t as fortunate.
"I think St. Pete is a good place for music and dance and theater, and there’s a lot of exposure available to people interested in it," she said. "But maybe sometimes the expense of classes gets in the way."
Studies have linked exposure to the arts with other positive outcomes, including college degrees and higher paying jobs. But even gaining that appreciation takes money. For example, a 10-year study by the National Endowment for the Arts found that 62 percent of respondents from the highest income levels had been to at least one arts-related activity, compared with just 16 percent from the families with the lowest incomes.
Even so, the same study showed that young people 18 to 24 downloaded more theater and dance into their phones or tablets than any other demographic group.
The newly announced programs mark a step forward for American Stage, which like most other theaters was already giving discounted rates to students. Nonprofits are better known as objects of generosity, not for giving things away. Several years ago the theater was limping, either barely breaking even or losing money.
In 2016, after a year with Gularte as producing artistic director, American Stage revenues exceeded its expenses by nearly $6,000. But there were other signs of strengthening financially, and those have continued.
"The theater is doing very well," Gularte said. "We’ve ended each of the last fiscal years in the black. We’re seeing increases in pretty much every area of development — single ticket sales, subscriptions, to individual donations at events."
The timing was right, she said, to take "a measured, thoughtful risk. It’s been talked about, mulled over. I think it’s a smart move, and I think it’s a progressive move for American Stage."
The move got off to a great start when philanthropist couple Scott Wagman and Beth Houghton pledged $25,000 to back it. Within a week, other donations matched that $25,000 total. A sense of euphoria went up among young people with Gularte’s December announcement at the theater.
"I gave them $100," Hopkins said. "And I don’t have $100."
A class for teenagers at the theater also paused to hear the announcement. Afterward, Gularte said, a teenage girl walked up and threw her arms around her in thanks.
"I was overwhelmed in that moment," she said. "It just crystallized for me that this is going to have an impact. This is something young people want."
Contact Andrew Meacham at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.