Venue deals in the highbrow
By KATHERINE GAZELLA
© St. Petersburg Times, published February 5, 2001
TARPON SPRINGS -- In the plush seats below, ladies in tasteful dresses and men in suits chatter quietly and rustle programs for an evening of Mozart and Brahms. From his perch above the theater, Michael Raysses dims the lights.
Raysses, the theater operations manager, slides a few levers on the light board, and a spotlight shines on a few potted plants against a black backdrop. He moves another lever, and the light illuminates four chairs in the middle of the stage.
The Penderecki String Quartet emerges from backstage.
With the first notes of Mozart's String Quartet in G Major, another evening of highbrow entertainment is under way at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center. The theater once was a high school basketball court. Now, on most Tuesday nights, it serves as the meeting room for Tarpon Springs City Commission. On other evenings, however, it becomes a local hub of culture and worldly entertainment.
One or two performances are offered almost every week at the venue, which seats up to 370 people. That is similar to the number of events held at the smaller theaters at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, which has a much larger staff and the ability to draw residents from a bigger city.
Performers at the Tarpon Springs theater range from classical musicians to folk singers to actors performing one-man plays.
"We try to do things that people wouldn't see elsewhere," said Kathy Monahan, director of cultural affairs in the city and the driving force behind the arts center. "We want people to feel they know more when they leave than when they came."
In some ways, Tarpon Springs is an unlikely place for weekly performances by string quartets, flamenco dancers and John Philip Sousa operettas. With only about 20,000 residents, Tarpon Springs is far from being a big city. In the minds of many, it is associated with sponge divers, a rugged waterfront and spinach pie or spanikopita.
But Tarpon Springs has been a home for the performing arts for decades, Monahan said.
Early in the century, Tarpon Springs had a citizens band that performed throughout town. Old photographs show scenes from two theaters in the city, including one that had performances of "polite vaudeville" shows. In the 1920s, she said, performances were held on a floating stage in Spring Bayou.
In addition to having a solid history of performing arts in the city, there are other reasons for the theater's success, Monahan said.
The building, which was once Tarpon Springs High School and now houses City Hall, is a charming venue that has been altered for good acoustics, she said. Also, the people who live in Tarpon Springs contribute greatly to the success of the theater, she said.
"It is a town where people like to go out," she said. "I really think the more opportunities you provide, the more people will get in the habit of going out."
She would never say so, but there is another reason the theater thrives: Monahan herself. With a doctorate in musicology from the University of Pittsburgh and a keen interest in classical music, Monahan, 51, books most of the artists and ensures that the quality of the acts remains high.
"It's because of Kathy's expertise," Raysses said. "Quality is our No. 1 thing here. Everything has to be top-notch."
Before coming to Tarpon Springs six years ago, Raysses, 49, did lighting and sound work for concerts by dozens of acts, including the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith and Bob Seeger. He was a stage technician for concerts by the Cowboy Junkies, David Byrne, New Order and others.
In many ways, he said, he prefers working in a small theater that hosts lesser-known artists.
"A small venue like this is like a handmade object. It's like a mom-and-pop restaurant," he said. "So many new venues are so sterile. Here, we're not removed from the process."
People in Tarpon Springs and surrounding communities have built a solid fan base for performances at the Arts Center. Patrons pay $10 to $15 for tickets, which, along with grant money and donations, covers the expenses of operating the theater and paying the artists.
The budget for the theater is tied in with other aspects of the city budget, Monahan said. Last year, $115,000 was paid for artists' fees and some part-time employees, she said. If any money remains at the end of the year, it is carried over for the following year's performance budget.
Monahan first suggested using the venue for music and plays, and the city recieved grants from the state to redo the interior. Before the theater got off the ground, some people in the city suggested holding basketball games on the stage in addition to performing arts. Ultimately, though, the city decided to use the venue for meetings and performances, not sporting events.
In the early days at the arts center, audiences were made up of a small but loyal group of locals. Monahan remembers calling them and reminding them about upcoming performances.
Today, the arts center still has its core following. But more and more people are coming to performances.
Since performances started in the early 1990s, attendance numbers have risen dramatically. In the 1993 season, Monahan said, about 3,700 people attended shows at the Performing Arts Center, starting with a performance of Greek singing by Sophia Bilides and her Ensemble. Last year, 14,000 people came to 80 shows.
Part of the increase can be attributed to a greater number of shows being offered at the theater. But Monahan said the main factor is that word is spreading to a wider audience.
"We have a good crowd for just about everything," she said. "I think there are more people wanting high-quality events than people realize."
At a recent performance of the Penderecki String Quartet, patrons said that they were pleased by the Arts Center's offerings.
"It's the only chance you'll ever get to see Penderecki's music in the area," said Zack Mullikin, who plays guitar in a band called Dahlia in St. Petersburg.
"I think it's outstanding," said Laura Messing of Palm Harbor. "We come for practically half the productions."
The artists who perform there have a similarly high opinion of the theater. They say the acoustics are good, the people who run the theater are friendly, and the theater has developed a reputation as a place that draws in high-quality acts.
"It's a nice space. They really take attention to detail," said Christine Vlajk, who plays viola with the Ontario-based Penderecki String Quartet. "And it's an educated audience."
"There are a lot of venues in the country where you really don't get the impression that people care very much," said New Orleans-based folk musician Martin Simpson, who is known as one of the best finger-style guitarists in the world.
But at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, he said, "they're really putting themselves into it, heart and soul."
Simpson, who performed there Jan. 13, said the people of Tarpon Springs are lucky to have the arts center. He gave credit to Monahan and Raysses for committing themselves to skillful but lesser-known artists.
"I think they're really trying to give the town a first-class art center," he said.
- Staff writer Katherine Gazella can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or email@example.com.
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