“If you don’t have new work you can atrophy and die,” says Richard Hopkins, Producing Artistic Director and CEO of Florida Studio Theatre. “Or at the very least become less consequential.” Hopkins is speaking on FST’s New Play Development, which has long been the lifeblood of the theater company. Developing new plays, however, is about more than just bringing new plays to the stage. For FST, it’s about staying in front of the times and never falling behind – responding to the atmosphere of the era, creating a dialogue with audience members and keeping a finger on the pulse of American culture. “Our chief reason for developing new works is so we can speak to the moment of the day. We consider ourselves Sarasota’s contemporary theater and so we want to be doing the most up to date and relevant productions.”

It’s a responsibility that Hopkins shares amongst the staff at FST, most notably with Literary Manager Catherine Randazzo. “Shepherding new productions gives us a platform to discuss the things in our community that we want to see changed. It also creates a really good opportunity for us to do outreach as well,” says Randazzo. This season, FST is featuring three types of productions each resemblant of a different way that the company develops new plays: Babel by Jacqueline Goldfinger, Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!) by Bruce Graham, and their Winter Cabaret series, which is produced in-house by Hopkins and FST’s development team.

Babel, which premiered on January 18th in FST’s Stage III Series – the section of their season devoted to more challenging and contemporary work – takes place in a not so unrealistic future where expectant parents can learn about the future behaviors and traits of their unborn children and explores the murky subject of modern eugenics. The company’s production of Babel is part of the National New Play Network’s Rolling World Premiere Program, an alliance of professional theaters that work together to create new plays, and exemplifies FST’s status as a Core Member Theater of the network.

Babel was an idea that Jacqueline  pitched us in 2017. We’d told her we were looking for a really strong play to address abortion but not head on. We liked it and had the chance to nominate her for NNPN’s Smith Prize for Political Theatre and she won,” says Randazzo. “We were awarded funding to help develop it so we did all the initial front end work with her: we brought her in for a residency and ran workshops,  provided her with actors, dramaturgs, and our staff to work on the process and hear the script, and once it was ready to be shown, we did 2-3 different showings to test audiences to see if the play was moving in the right direction and how it spoke to our audience.”

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“One of the great things about having a commission and starting a project with FST, is that, because you’re working with collaborators that are going to follow through till production with you, you can immediately begin creating a piece that is specific and unique to that theater and that theater space,” says playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger. “One of the reasons that Babel features four characters is because we knew from the start that we wanted to produce it in the Stage III space. We thought about how we could tell the story the best that we could in this specific space.”

At the same time, Goldfinger was going through a similar process with other theaters in the NNPN interested in producing Babel. As part of the Rolling World Premiere Program, different versions of Babel were set to appear in four different productions over an 18-month period, the last of which was meant to be at FST in January of 2020. Due to the pandemic, however, Babel found itself pushed back until early 2023. “Although it’s premiered in several different productions around the country, the Stage III premiere is the one that I’ve been waiting on for three years now,” says Jackie. “I’m like a kid in a candy store. All of the ideas that Catherine and I have been discussing for over three years now are finally coming to fruition. I think that’s one of the reasons why FST is one of the primary developers of new work in the country–they understand what it takes to go from a very basic two page pitch through full production and they’re committed to every stage of the process, which is incredible because not many theaters do it that way.”

Although the COVID-19 pandemic pushed production back by three years, there are some unforeseen benefits.  “Babel was written prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling on abortion and with that it takes on a whole other meaning. The story becomes a little less about the future of genetics and a little more current in its discussion of whether or not the government should be making choices over anyone’s body,” says Hopkins.

If the pandemic impacted FST’s production of Babel, then it deserves even more credit for the development of Bruce Graham’s Meet Joe Whitefeather. The comedy, which makes its world premiere on FST’s Winter Mainstage this April and focuses on a 1970s tourist trap town’s use of cultural appropriation to generate revenue, is a product of FST’s The Playwright Project. The artistic initiative, born out of the pandemic’s shutdown of production, commissioned 33 of the nation’s top writers to create new work for FST, many of which are still under development today. “We invited playwrights throughout the entire nation to submit pitches for us in the middle of the pandemic,” says Randazzo. “Bruce was one of the people that we took his pitch as is and developed on Zoom through multiple readings that culminated in a zoom reading, and finally got it onto a stage in front of a live audience last August.”

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While developing Meet Joe Whitefeather virtually brought its own set of challenges, it also provided FST with insight on how to operate in the future. “It was difficult but there were pros and cons. Pros were that you saved a ton of money on resources. You could workshop it and get an idea of what it sounded like with actors, but save a ton of money because you didn’t have to fly in the playwright and everybody else associated with the production,” says Randazzo. “The downside is that what worked in a very small screen and quick paced atmosphere wouldn’t always translate well on a stage in front of a live audience. You had to be open to making that adjustment.”

“The good news is now that the pandemic is over, we can choose from what really worked for us, and now do a lot of the early development process over zoom. It saves significant money which allows us to do more new play development,” Hopkins adds.

The productions of FST’s Winter Cabaret series represent a truly in-house development strategy – each of which are created by Hopkins and his fellow development staff at the theater. While the Cabaret series occupies a different genre and style than that of their narrative-driven productions, they still allow the company to interrogate various aspects of today’s culture. This is especially relevant in The 70s: More Than A Decade and A Place In The Sun: A Tribute To Stevie Wonder. “One of the beauties of this medium is that musical revues give us an extraordinary peek into the history of the US during their specific eras, so that we can compare those eras to our own. We can see how Americans handled things then, that they were rife with their own issues, and that there is a lot of overlap in the problems that we face today,” says Hopkins.