From the Guest Editor, Stephanie Gularte: A Conversation
Creative Pinellas is proud to present the November 2016 edition of Our Journal and with it a new Guest Editor: Stephanie Gularte. Gularte joined St. Petersburg’s American Stage Theatre Company in January of 2015 as its Producing Artistic Director. She took time in the middle of a busy season to speak with us about her path into the performing arts, the challenges facing theatre today, the role of performing arts in a community and more.
Do you remember when you were first attracted to the theater? What attracted you to it?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by people and stories. From a very young age I had a very active imagination, trying to understand why people do the things that they do. As a young child one of my favorite things was to enact stories about people. I remember at the age of about 10, gathering the neighborhood kids and devising an original musical, performing it in my garage and going around the neighborhood and selling tickets, using my allowance money to stock concessions. Looking back, that’s when I recognize I also had a real interest in the leadership and producing side as well as the actual craft itself.
That’s funny, you don’t often see the production side being of interest to a kid. That must’ve made an impression on your parents.
I think it came back around for me later because my parents were small-business owners and I think that that influence was just there without us consciously discussing it. Kind of through osmosis, I inherited a small-business entrepreneurial spirit. But I pursued acting and that was my passion and what I did full-time for a few years before I started producing. Once I started producing I remembered and started connecting the dots of how I arrived at that place because it wasn’t something I originally set out to do.
Did you get to experience much theatre or culture in general when you were young?
Yes, mostly through school and somewhat through church. I grew up in elementary school in the ‘70s and high school in the late ‘80s and during those two decades the arts were still offered throughout your education in public schools. So, I was fortunate to have gone to schools where I had access to the arts. I’m not sure where I might have ended up if I hadn’t had that exposure. But I graduated high school knowing that I wanted to pursue the arts even though I tried to resist it for a while. In college, I tried to change majors a couple times trying to find myself in a field that was a little more pragmatic. Nonetheless, I still landed back where I started: in the arts.
That reminds me of our recent Conversation With the Fellows event. A lot of the artists related that they were encouraged by mentors that, if they could do anything that was not art, they should pursue that for pragmatic reasons. Did you ever feel pressured in that way?
I did but mostly self-imposed pressure, and maybe somewhat societal pressure. Once you start truly pursuing the arts you can’t help but come up against the reality, even before you start your career, even when you’re just in the education process, that it is not a career that offers a great deal of stability or even a great deal of respect, frankly [chuckles]. America is not particularly a culture that values the arts or artists in ways that some other cultures do. So, I certainly had that self-imposed sense that I needed to find something more dignified and more stable and I ended up with a bachelor’s degree in political science with the intention to go to law school but that was not to be.
Now you’re here and with American Stage, one of the most important theaters in the Tampa Bay area. From a big picture perspective, what is, in your view, the ideal role of a theater in a community?
A gathering place for community, where it offers an opportunity for people to connect with the human experience in a way that is more powerful and more visceral than any other form of entertainment and storytelling. Because of the live nature of the artist and audience relationship, it gives us the opportunities for stories to take on greater potency. It gets us engaged and thinking about ourselves and one another, I think, in a more profound way then, for instance, movies.
That’s something I had wondered about. I’m personally based in visual art, and visual art isn’t really ever expected to entertain, not often at least. But theatre is expected to entertain while also culturally enriching its audience. With that in mind, what sort of value does a theater bring to a community beyond an evening of entertainment?
I think entertaining audiences is the minimum standard that a theatre company should be holding themselves to. Entertainment, in the sense of holding one’s attention, the theater when done well certainly does that in a meaningful way. Beyond that I’m always looking at, “What is the point of telling this particular story?” and “What is the point of telling this particular story at this moment in time?” I think that offering contemplation and reflection and connectedness – the potential for that in the theatre is unlike any other milieu.
Does it, at times, feel like a challenge to balance entertaining an audience while also going beyond that? I was having a challenge figuring out what phrase to use besides “culturally enrich.”
Yeah, I think when people in general hear that kind of language, “cultural enrichment,” they run in the other direction when it comes to what to do on a Friday night [laughs]. So, it’s certainly top of mind that what we’re looking for comes through in a way that engages people, that really leaves audiences feeling stimulated and excited. I happen to be a firm believer that you can achieve that most successfully with stories that are impactful and told at a high level of professionalism. It is a challenge, and some people think of entertaining as always having to be humorous and never being thought provoking. I just don’t think that’s the case. The current production we have running at American Stage is a great example of a play that is very entertaining, people are very engaged and enjoying it and leaving talking and buzzing. But it has so much going on for people to chew on, it’s very substantive. Ultimately, that’s what I think fulfills people. There’s so much meaningless entertainment on offer out there that when people get offered something that is actually nutrient-rich and tastes good, then you’ve got a winner.
That’s something that is perhaps often missing in contemporary art – it’s frequently not concerned with entertaining people and leaves it feeling pretentious to many because of that.
Accessibility is so important. In theater, it’s just a rehearsal until there’s an audience. So, I’m ever-mindful to what our audiences are going to experience and in what ways they’re going to find our work compelling. We always come back to that. It’s not about trying to please everyone. Because once you’re trying to please the widest possible audience, the work does become meaningless and you’re essentially not pleasing anyone. But I think accessibility is important for artists to keep in mind.
In line with that, are there any challenges that you’d say theatre in general is facing now that it hasn’t faced as much in the past?
Two specific things come to mind. One is technology and the ways that we receive information and entertainment have changed so dramatically. That has impacted not only theater but other forms of entertainment that require people to leave their homes and put their gadgets down. It’s just so convenient to find entertainment without leaving the comfort of your home. The second thing I alluded to earlier when I was speaking about my own background is the fact that arts education in many States across the county has virtually disappeared from public education. It means that we’re not planting the seed of arts appreciation in young people. What the theatre typically enjoyed was an audience that had arts exposure at a younger age, perhaps they moved on to building their careers and raising a family, but they came back to it in a very committed way because they had that impression made on them at an age that really made a difference in their lives. Without that experience for young people, the arts are challenged to try and get people who are adults to establish a new appreciation for the arts. It’s harder to get adults to try something new in that way. It’s a concern for our industry.
There are a couple of things we’re doing to counter both of those challenges. One: remind people how powerful live performance is and the difference between that and a more removed, passive experience of watching things on your computer, your television or iPhone. I find that a lot of people, when they’re reminded of that or experience it for the first time are very excited by it. The other is: American Stage offers a very robust education program. We try to make arts education accessible to many people in our community, from little ones five years of age and up. We try to do our part and fill that gap that kids aren’t necessarily getting from their schools anymore.
Well what about that community that surrounds a theatre? What are some of the most important things that a community can do to support their local theatre company?
I think that the number one thing is to attend. Buy a ticket and attend a performance and do that as regularly as you can. At American Stage we have all sorts of different opportunities for people of different financial means to see our work. That’s the reason we exist: for an audience. That’s is above all what a community can do, participate in the art by being there, purchasing that ticket. And for those who have the means—contributions. American Stage is a not-for-profit. We qualify as a nonprofit because we’re deemed to be offering something that is of greater value than the market will allow from a price point standpoint. Almost half of our budget relies on individual donations and grants, foundational giving and corporate giving. That kind of generosity is truly essential. For those who don’t have the financial means to do either of those things, there are always volunteer opportunities at American Stage and I’m sure other arts organizations as well. It’s a terrific way to get involved and support your local favorite arts organization.