At an arts hub, trouble at its center

The performing arts scene in St. Petersburg seems to be thriving. But the city's venues are stuck in a vicious circle, and it all comes down to this: money.

Published February 11, 2007

There has been lots of talk lately about theaters and concert halls in St. Petersburg. It has to do with the city's budding aspirations as an arts center - but there's a bleaker subtext that isn't getting as much attention.

Downtown St. Petersburg has three principal performing arts venues: Mahaffey Theater, the Palladium Theater and American Stage. All were involved in moves last month to try to create a so-called arts hub.

At the center of it all is St. Petersburg College, which acquired the Palladium from the nonprofit group that had converted the onetime Christian Science church into a community theater in 1998. SPC also played a decisive role in American Stage's plan to build a new theater on college property facing Williams Park.

The Florida Orchestra was brought into the mix after its deal to move its offices to Mahaffey collapsed. Once again SPC was the catalyst in this hastily conceived grand plan engineered by the school's president, Carl Kuttler. The orchestra will have office space in the college's downtown property, though it rejected the offer of using the Palladium for rehearsals.

There was a predictable round of self-congratulation and praise by political and business leaders behind the deal last month, but the happy talk covered up the depressing reality. Both American Stage and the Palladium are involved for the same basic reason: They - like so many arts organizations these days - cannot survive on their own. They must have an institutional partner like the college to help pay the bills.

Nor has there been much discussion of how American Stage and the Palladium will maintain their artistic independence while meeting their new partner's demands.

Perhaps most troubling, the deal does nothing to address the orchestra's perennial quest to find a home. An office in downtown St. Petersburg is nice, but without reliable rehearsal and performance space, the Tampa Bay area's largest performing arts organization faces a dubious future.

The stage's the thing

American Stage is heading into uncharted territory. It will finance its new home, in part, by selling its current building to a developer for $1-million. That seems on the low side for such prime downtown real estate, but the company probably had no other option. The current building needs extensive repairs and there is no way to expand without capital investment beyond the company's reach.

For all its deficiencies, the 148-seat theater is beloved for its quirky charm. The small, diamond-shaped stage has tested the ingenuity of set designers to come up with solutions to some inherent limitations, such as a supporting column that stands in the playing area. The often elegant results are proof that having to work around problems inspires creativity.

Losing this stage will be a blow to the theater's identity. In the 1990s, the National Endowment for the Arts put out a calendar illustrated with photos of a dozen great theater spaces around the country, and American Stage was one of them.

As its new theater is being built during the 2007-08 season, and if it has to make way for the wrecking ball, American Stage is thinking of taking up temporary residency at the Palladium. This could be a challenge, since only larger plays i.e., more expensive plays make much sense in the 840-seat venue.

It could also be a risk. The Florida Orchestra took a financial hit when it had to play most of last season at Pasadena Community Church while its main St. Petersburg venue, Mahaffey, underwent renovation.

The church wasn't suitable for the orchestra, and in similar ways, the Palladium doesn't really work for theater. For one thing, there is no wing or fly space, and even more important, the sight lines make most of the audience have to work too hard to enjoy a performance.

The problem is the relative flatness of the "rake," the angle at which seats downstairs face the stage. Basically, the audience looks up or straight at a performance, without the sense of intimacy that gazing down, as if from an Olympian perch, provides to the spectator. Balcony seats are slightly better but, of course, farther away and more detached from what happens onstage.

The Palladium has been tinkered with to improve its acoustics, but the hall's limitation were clear at a recent chamber orchestra concert by members of the Florida Orchestra. Mozart's Turkish violin concerto, with concertmaster Jeffrey Multer as soloist in front of about 30 players (winds and strings), sounded the best. Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3, with about 50 players, including a half-dozen brass, had too much punch for the hall. The dynamic range of the music was squashed in the small space.

In late January, the orchestra went through the motions of considering the Palladium as a possible rehearsal space, complete with a visit from an acoustical consultant who declared it would never work.

A homeless orchestra

This empty exercise was sadly typical of past efforts to solve the orchestra's problems.

The orchestra, which performs mostly in three halls, has office space in Tampa's West Shore area and rehearses wherever it can, landed in the SPC deal after learning it would cost $1-million more than expected to get itself installed in a new building next to the Mahaffey. But if that deal had been a good idea, it's hard to imagine that the extra money couldn't be found. The real problem was the orchestra's discovery that it probably couldn't use the Mahaffey for as many rehearsals and concerts in the future.

Why? The city wants to present Broadway shows and other attractions at the Mahaffey, which has hardly been busy in recent years.

Despite Mayor Rick Baker's assurance that the orchestra was key to the city's plans for the renovated Mahaffey, the office idea now seems like an unconscionable waste of time when creative, hard-headed leadership was needed. And the orchestra board and management played along with the fantasy.

Technically speaking, Mahaffey doesn't have the acoustical finish of the orchestra's two other main venues, Morsani Hall of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in Tampa and Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. Still, the St. Petersburg hall is many concertgoers' favorite place to hear the orchestra, because it has an intangible sense of warmth. Part of that stems from the loyal audience there, part from the relatively small scale of the 2,030-seat hall. The spacious, renovated lobby with its great view on the waterfront is a handsome enhancement.

The orchestra is sounding the alarm about not having the access it is accustomed to at Mahaffey. This is a familiar warning - the orchestra has cried wolf many times, and people tend to tune it out - but under the direst scenario, it has no place to play when TBPAC, Ruth Eckerd and Mahaffey are occupied with their own shows.

And it's far from clear that the city's new ambitions for Mahaffey will pan out. The city is subsidizing entertainment promoter Live Nation with $250,000 a year, but you have to wonder what it's getting, if the 2007-08 season is any indication. Does anyone seriously believe that the 10 Tenors, an Australian act that has never played Broadway, has the appeal to sustain eight shows a week? Of the four shows announced for Mahaffey, only the gritty revival of Sweeney Todd is artistically interesting.

It would be a tragedy if the city wastes a few more years chasing the Broadway dream at Mahaffey, while its longtime mainstay, the orchestra, fades away because it can't get the space it needs. It could happen - just ask fans of the late, lamented Florida Philharmonic.

Not a great start for St. Petersburg's downtown arts hub.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com.

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American Stage

211 Third St. S

Founded: 1977

Venue: black box theater

Seating capacity: 148

Stage size: 26 by 27 feet

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Palladium Theater

253 Fifth St. N

Year built: 1925

Venue: concert hall

Seating capacity: 840

Stage size: 70 by 26 feet

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Mahaffey Theater

Progress Energy Center

400 First St. S

Year built: 1965

Venue: concert hall

Seating capacity: 2,030

Stage size: 93 by 62 feet