Bringing the entire cast, set, and magic of a production like HAIR or Mamma Mia!, to Demens Landing Parkisn’t a simple feat. But it’s a part of life here in St. Pete. However physically impractical, American Stage park shows are a tradition that the city flocks to every April. Each year - barring three years surrounding COVID-19 - American Stage hosts a theatrical production in the park.
The theatre company’s next show is Ragtime - the Musical, running April 12-May 14.
While the event in Demens Landing is widely known - attracting 17,000 people at it’s highest per-production attendance - most don’t know the history and evolution of the park. The keepers of knowledge at American Stage are the folks who saw the theatre transform from a small, regional house in the ‘70s and ‘80s into what it is today.
In 1986, American Stage - now the longest-standing professional theatre in Tampa Bay - was still trying to get on the map. Hosting an American Stage show at Demens Landing was an effort to do just that, said former American Stage Artistic Director Victoria Holloway. Holloway held her title from 1980-1995, putting her smack in the middle of American Stage’s evolution and a huge part of the gradual leak into the park. That first year, American Stage produced Shakespeare in the Park: The Taming of the Shrew. That was 36 years ago; back then park shows were free and the show ran four times a week for a two-week period, nowadays there are six performances for 5 weeks.
According to Holloway, St. Pete donated $3,400 worth of police and trash clean-up services to show support. Renowned metal artist Paul Eppling, whose sculptures still sit in Pinellas schools and Boyd Hill Nature Preserve, created the first Shakesphere set from car bumpers and scrap metal. Despite t-shirt sales and chair rentals, American Stage wasn’t making a profit. “The idea was, we wanted people to know us. We were a small regional house and moving to the waterfront, where there was more activity made sense,” Holloway said. “I directed Shakespeare all my life, and the combination of Shakespeare as the draw and the beautiful setting made it very successful.”
Lisa Powers started at American Stage as an actor on the Mainstage production of Independence in 1988, when Holloway was the theatre’s artistic director. In the following years, Powers went on to direct a number of other American Stage productions, such as Lonely Planet and Macbeth.
In ‘88, Powers played a part in Shakespeare in the Park: The Comedy of Errors. “The beginning of park was such a blast to be a part of. Each year the audiences grew bigger and bigger,” Powers recalled from her Arkansas home. “People would get there two hours early to picnic before the show, it really was the big thing to do.”
Even after years away from American Stage, Powers remembers the bigger than life energy that park shows held and the people that made them happen. “It’s a totally different beast,” Powers said. “Bigger casts, you need really good management, but it all comes together for such a lovely moment,” Powers said.
Does Holloway, the “park show” creator, have any regrets?
“Well, people knew ''Shakespeare in the Park” but they didn’t know that American Stage was in the park. My mistake, I suppose,” Holloway said with a laugh.
Until 2006, American Stage’s park shows were always Shakesphere productions or adaptions of Shakespeare plays, such as hip-hop remake Bomb-itty of Errors. After the first musical in the park, Crowns, the theatre company stuck to putting on flashy, fun musicals in Demens Landing.
Scott Cooper, seasoned set designer in St. Petersburg, worked most recently as the scenic designer on 2022’s Green Day’s American Idiot, and has been in-and-out of the theatre since his first show with American Stage, A Child's Christmas in Wales, circa 2000.
“I was the new designer on the scene, and I think it was a test,” Cooper said.
If it was a test, Cooper passed it, as he’s worked as the set designer on a number of American Stage productions, including hits like RENT (2010) and HAIR (2011), both at Demens Landing.
“I think that park is a spectacle, it’s so big and there’s so much to see, and hear, it’s really a special place,” Cooper said. “It’s a big party, and everybody wants to be a part of that.”
Maybe park shows give audiences the chance to lose inhibitions just as the walls of the theatre are lost. Maybe Demens Landing holds this history in its foliage.
See for yourself at the next American Stage’s next production at Demen’s Landing, Ragtime - the Musical: April 12 - May 14, 2023.
About the Show:
American Stage's annual musical at Demen's Landing Park invites everyone to enjoy "Ragtime - the Musical '' while hanging out in the spring air. Set in the melting pot of turn-of-the-century New York, three distinctly American tales are woven together – that of a stifled upper-class wife, a determined Jewish immigrant, and a daring young Harlem musician – united by their courage, compassion, and belief in the promise of the future and the power of the human spirit to overcome. Drinks, food, and spirits are available before and during the show.
Showtimes: April 12 - May 14
A two-act show.
Park opens at 5:30 p.m.
Show starts at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets are available here. $45 single tickets. Call the box office at (727) 823-7529 for group sales.