Spotlight on the great outdoors

The Straz Riverwalk Stage rises to provide a safe experience for theater-goers

When The Straz, along with the world, went on its pandemic pause in March 2020, the staff went to work finding ways to continue to engage and entertain audiences.

Initially, with people avoiding places where people gather, the electronic hearths of televisions, computers and smartphones became the method of delivery for entertainment. Somewhere between Tiger King and The Queen’s Gambit, The Straz connected with its audience with streams of archived stage performances, Patel choral and music students’ mini concerts and a weekly show, Tampa Total Request Live, that introduced local singers to new and captivated audiences.

By fall of 2020, it was decided it was time to rekindle live performances, under strict safety protocols, and the spotlight shined on The Straz’s outdoor venue – the Riverwalk Stage along the Hillsborough River.

“That stage is such a great way to remind people about The Straz. Having that there … makes a ‘top-of-mind’ reminder for people who might not already be predisposed to coming to the Straz Center to come visit,” says C.J. Marshall, senior director of operations. “When we went back in October 2020, there had been no live shows for six or seven months; this let people come back.”

Jobsite Theater’s production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] on the Riverwalk Stage, 2020. (Photo: James Luedde)

Jobsite Theater, the resident theater company of the Straz Center, and Opera Tampa were the first to entertain live under the stars to masked audience members seated with friends or family at socially distant tables.

For several weeks in October 2020, Jobsite performed The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised], a hilarious raucous race through The Bard’s plays and the perfect antidote to pandemic living. Later that month, the Opera Tampa Singers celebrated Halloween with The Witching Hour, featuring pop and operatic songs suitable for the holiday.

David Jenkins, producing artistic director and co-founder of Jobsite Theater, said his was the first professional theater group to resume productions since the shutdowns.

“People from the very beginning were itching to be back at live shows,” says Jenkins, who is producing his 24th season at The Straz. “There were loads of people that were just walking down the Riverwalk to stop and watch, see what we were doing – people in boats. It was great.”

Although Jenkins says he and his staff knew the Riverwalk Stage wouldn’t be a “long-term solution” to getting shows in front of audiences, the immediate advantages were pretty clear. Among those, the environmental factors – getting the attention of “gawkers” and possibly motivating them to explore The Straz offerings more in-depth.

“With a show that’s interactive and kind of feeds off that energy, the Riverwalk Stage is great for that,” he says.

Construction of the Riverwalk Stage, 2019.

Marshall also touts the Riverwalk Stage’s view and atmosphere. “It’s one of the most unique spots along the riverfront. I think we’re pretty unique with what we’ve got out there,” he says.

The 264-square-foot recycled composite stage took about six months to design and construct. Its roof system is made of steel and aluminum supports and allows the roof to slide up and down on posts so it can be lowered or raised, as needed.

The impetus for its construction, Marshall says, was largely based on the popularity and foot traffic of the Riverwalk. He says it also complements The Straz’s indoor theaters.

“We really wanted to expand and have a presence out there. Then the pandemic hit and it became our one and only usable space, so we started doing whatever we could out there,” says Marshall.

And though there is little-to-no backstage space to accommodate large-scale costume or scenery changes, nearly a year ago it hosted a portion of Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker Outdoor Wonderland.

Transforming the Riverwalk Stage into part of our Nutcracker Outdoor Wonderland, 2020.

The venue is getting a workout this season as well, already hosting Opera Tampa’s The Witching Hour and the free Live & Local concert series on Friday and Saturday evenings.

On Nov. 19, the stage will host Arts Legacy REMIX, a free, diverse cultural celebration with music, dance, storytelling and more. This month’s subject is Voices of the African Diaspora and will feature traditional African dance plus hip hop and reggae music.

The Live & Local series continues with Taylor Reed on Nov. 20, Durik on Nov. 27, violinist Jaquay Pearce will perform Dec. 3 and Chris Flowers will play his own brew of blues, boogie woogie and Caribbean rhythms on Dec. 4.

“We can appeal to people just walking down the Riverwalk and exposes them to some different forms of art that they may not have been necessarily interested in,” Marshall says. “Take opera for example. People might say ‘What is this?’ watch and then want to come back and buy a ticket. Just getting the exposure … was one of the big driving factors and I think it’s working.”

Chief Operations Officer Lorrin Shepard says despite the pandemic, or maybe due to it, the Riverwalk Stage is a resounding success for The Straz.

View of the Riverwalk Stage being prepared for Opera Tampa’s Spanish Nights performances, 2021. (Photo: Will Staples)

He says it is embellishing “the promenade experience” along the river that includes the café Maestro’s On the River and the bar SIP, housed in a retro-fitted 1966 Airstream Safari Land Yacht.

Shephard says the future for the Riverwalk Stage holds the possibilities of adding shading over the audience, additional lighting, sound and projection components and expanding the square footage to accommodate larger productions.

The Riverwalk Stage joins other Tampa Bay-area outdoor stages such as the one in downtown Tampa’s Sail Plaza, Sparkman’s Wharf and Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park as well as Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park north of the University of Tampa and across the river to The Straz.

“We’re happy to join those venues as another outdoor river-proximate venue. (Riverwalk Stage) is a wonderful addition to the numerous opportunities that the Tampa community has outdoors and on the river,” Shepard says.

Photo: James Luedde

Previously published in fall edition of The Straz’s INSIDE magazine.

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