Opening of a new performance space and a theater school • St Pete Catalyst

Last month, Ward Smith was driving east on the 1st South Ave. He glanced at 2260, the longtime home of Andi Matheny Acting Studios. An actor himself, Smith knew Matheny, instructor Eugenie Bondurant and other members of the team. Some students too.

He was surprised – “dumbfounded”, it’s more like – to see a FOR SALE sign planted in the grass ahead.

A few business moves, a few handshakes and a signed check later, Smith was the proud new owner of the 3,000 square foot building. In a few months, maybe less, it will be reborn as Studio Grand Central, a rehearsal and performance space for local artists.

The drama school aspect, Smith said, will remain. “I bought a widget factory and would like it to remain a widget factory, so to speak.”

Studio Grand Central is a joint project between Smith and his sister. “My sister and I had always looked for something to become available,” he said. “A little sandbox in which we can do things. She is a visual artist and sits on the board of the Morean Arts Center. There were two places in my mind that were ideal, if they ever became available.

One of them was the Matheny Studio installation.

Actress/teacher Matheny and her husband, screenwriter Tom Flynn, are moving to New York after more than 10 years in the Bay Area. The school’s specialty was preparation for television and film production, including the proper way to do a video audition. “Ten years in any business in this town is a big milestone — not to mention this business, which is small and more selective,” Smith said. “And Andi was fantastic.”

At the center of the building is a professionally lit performance space, a 43-seat black box in a graduated stadium format.

It will be the home of the Off Central Players, Smith’s resident troupe, and for rentals. “We were looking for a neat little black box,” he said. “Not necessarily to compete with American Stage or freeFall, but just another offering.”

It will be a multipurpose room. “We can do cabaret, spoken word, author evenings, reading evenings, all kinds of events. I want to make it a stage for local artists, and various artists from different backgrounds. Whatever the job, just to give it an outlet.

Smith is in the cast of the drama American Son, which opens March 12 at the Stageworks Theater in Tampa. The company’s artistic director, Karla Hartley, reconfigured and expanded the seating area to accommodate more people with more space.

“I take mental notes of how they go about toning down and opening up,” Smith explained. “They just finished a play (The lifetime of a fact) which was a success, and we are right behind in terms of people feeling safe to come to the theater. And work in the theatre.

Once the pandemic passes, he said, he will adapt. But Studio Grand Central will probably, safely, open before that time. “People just get itchy. They want to go back to something that feels normal.

Smith, a longtime Bondurant student, agrees that creating the perfect video audition, for potential TV or film work, is “pretty much the wave of the future. You have to be good, and you have to be better than the next person.

“Because competition is everything – and now, with production shut down, everyone is out of work… and everyone is looking for work.”