Beth Gelman Portrays Emma Goldman in “Ragtime”

How an Arts Administrator
Returns to Her Theater Roots

Through May 14
American Stage in the Park
Details here

Most local arts patrons know Beth Gelman as the former Executive Director of the Florida Holocaust Museum – a position she very capably held for eight years. Even before coming to the Tampa Bay area, Gelman lent her skills to other museums and was a creator of museum-based educational curriculums for students.

Most recently she is known as the Senior Director of Arts and Cultural Programming at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas – the arts advocacy organization for all of Pinellas County.

Beth Gelman

That is certainly impressive for anyone who has choosen a career in arts administration, or anyone in general, but a long way from singing your heart out and taking bows under the lights at an American Stage Park production. Lucky for us, that’s just what’s happening right now.

“I just really wanted to do it,” Gelman explains. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while now, and Emma was just such a wonderful role, that I knew it was time.

“I’ll admit I forgot just how much work it is and remembering lines is not quite as easy as it once was – but I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything in the world.”

Beth Gelman (far R) brings activist Emma Goldman to life in Ragtime
– photos by Chaz D Photography

So, what is this past life in theater we’ve been alluding to? Well, in the ‘bet you didn’t know’ department, Beth Gelman has been an Equity actor since 1984. She’s performed in National Tours. She has an incredible singing voice and is currently Cantor at her synagogue. “I’ve always loved performing,” Gelman explains.

An Illinois native and graduate of Northwestern University, Gelman quickly began a career onstage. In Chicago, she performed Shakespeare, worked in The Wizard of Oz and the cast of Man of La Mancha, and was featured in many Windy City productions.

On the National Tour scene, Gelman was a cast member in Best Little Whorehouse (in Texas), My Name is Alice and The Nerd. She’s worked with stars like Ann Dowd (even replaced her in a role), Francis Guinan, Tony Shalhoub and LaChanze.

Maria Lara, Billy Goldstein and Beth Gelman in Ragtime

By any measure, Beth Gelman has had an amazing career onstage. Somewhere in that whirlwind, she met and married uber-talented composer/musician Tom Sivak. “We managed to write a musical together and produced it with our own company, Brainstorming Productions. Not a drop of blood was shed,” jokes Gelman.

The play was titled The Brain That Refused to Die! In 3-D and was a selection in the 2011 NY Musical Theater Festival. The couple have collaborated on many projects together through the years, and Gelman is an astute developer of new performance works.

After the birth of their daughter, touring didn’t have the same appeal for Gelman that it once did. “I knew how special it was to do what I was doing, but the true thrill of it was missing by that time. I thought it may be time to do something with more stability that allowed me to be with my family.”

Jai Shanae and Dante Murray in Ragtime

This began her foray into the world of arts administration. Gelman explains, “I had the opportunity to become the acting manager of school and theater programs at the Terra Museum of American Art. Then I developed a program called Arts Attack! The goal there was to integrate arts programming as a part of mainstream school curriculums.

“All of the sudden, the excitement for my work returned and I’ve been doing some form of administrative leadership ever since.”

She’s been an author, producer, educator, actor, wife, mom – even, as mentioned, Cantor! In her current role with Creative Pinellas, Gelman oversees all exhibitions and special events in the gallery – planning, curation, event organization, and even some outside projects where artist work is displayed.

Freddie Hughes, Gallery Manager, is her right hand. “I couldn’t do any of it without Freddie,” she says.

And now, as a seasoned professional and grandmother, Beth Gelman returns to her first love – the stage. “Everyone at American Stage has been so lovely,” she says. “They are amazing human beings and a powerhouse of talent. I’m so grateful for this opportunity and we’re all working hard to achieve excellence. I believe in excellence.”

Along with several character roles in Ragtime, Gelman plays the role of Emma Goldman, an actual historical figure among the mostly fictional characters in the story. Harry Houdini, JP Morgan, Henry Ford and Booker T. Washington also make cameos, but Goldman figures a bit more prominently in the plotline of Ragtime – a story that explores the very separate experiences of three families at the turn of 20th Century America, and in the lead up to World War I.

One family is white and well to do. One family is a Jewish father and daughter, recently emigrated, and one family is Black – trying to survive the prejudices and dangers at the height of the Jim Crow era. The title refers to the style of music popular at the time – music that acts as a backdrop to the drama onstage.

Onstage in Ragtime, vocalist and spokesperson for RaceWithoutIsm Siobhan Monique was a 2019 Creative Pinellas Emerging Artist

Emma Goldman was, to put it mildly, a highly passionate and motivated activist of the time. She espoused women’s rights, birth control, labor unions, racial equality – and was considered an anti-war socialist, but many called her an anarchist. Of course, most leaders ahead of their time are called anarchists. Ever notice that?

These traits make her the perfect advocate for a number of characters in the story. It’s perfect casting, really – as Beth is very clear in her stance on issues, either social or work related, and she is not often afraid to tell you what she thinks.

And, of course, both women are Jewish. Faith is a very important part of Gelman’s life.

So how have perspectives and approach changed between then and now? “Well, for one, it’s very nice to have someone else leading the way,” Gelman explains. “It’s lovely to focus on exactly what I’m doing and have guidance from the director to make the big performance decisions, and Erica Sutherlin is the best of the best.

“I also feel calmer now – I trust the process. I’m more grounded and centered. I also probably have a greater appreciation for these opportunities than I may have has as a younger actress.

“As far as Ragtime goes,” Gelman reflects, “I believe it is a profound reminder to us all to gain empathy. We certainly need more of it.”


Come say hello to Beth on May 4 from 6-9 pm
at the opening reception for the 2023 Emerging Artists Exhibition.
It’s being held at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas on the grounds
of the beautiful Florida Botanical Gardens in Largo.

. . .
Photos by Chaz D Photography

the recent Yolanda Sanchez exhibit at the Gallery at Creative Pinellas
– photo by Beth Gelman

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