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Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Sunday, Sep. 24, 2017 3 years ago

'Pilgrims' defies stormy weather at Urbanite Theatre

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Hurricane Irma changed the date of Urbanite Theatre's last night of "Pilgrims," but that didn't keep ticket holders from immersing themselves in the escape of live theater.
by: Marty Fugate Contributor

Urbanite Theatre had geared up for the closing weekend of Claire Kiechel’s “Pilgrims”—a haunting, claustrophobic drama of two trauma survivors trapped together on an interstellar voyage. But the play’s final flight would be disrupted by an unstoppable earthly force. According to the nation’s weather gurus, Hurricane Irma would be roaring in on the play’s last scheduled night.

Brendan Ragan, the theater’s artistic director and an actor in the play, made a quick change of course.

“We immediately cancelled our Saturday and Sunday performances,” he says. “We had two visiting actors: Betsy Helmer and Cameron Morton. Getting them out of town safely was the most important thing.”

With seconds to spare, Summer Wallace, the Urbanite’s co-artistic director, booked two Saturday flights out of Tampa Airport. The out-of-town actors would get home in one piece. But they’d still be in town on Friday night. Should they join the “Pilgrims” cast on stage for one last show?

Safety wasn’t an issue. Irma’s track was constantly changing. But wherever it went, Friday night’s weather would be fine. The show would be safe. But should it still go on?

The ticketholders had a definite opinion.

“We got a flurry of calls,” says Ragan, “People kept asking, ‘Are you still doing the show on Friday night?’ They all still wanted to go.”

It was time to decide. And it had to be a group decision.

The actors, director and techs huddled up.

“We were all of the same mind,” Ragan recalls. “The prevailing opinion was, “We’re all here; the audience is here; let’s do it.”

The decision was made: The Urbanite players would stay through the storm and put on a Friday night performance. Anticipating a few no-shows, the Urbanite put out a call on social media: Anybody in town still braving the storm could see the show for free. Ticket or no ticket, get on down to the Urbanite! For one brief interlude, you can free your mind of the heavy weather.

Friday night came. The Urbanite’s final voyage of “Pilgrims” was a go.

In a scene of magnificent desolation.

“Downtown Sarasota was nearly deserted,” recalls Ragan. “Except for the Mandeville Beer Garden a block or so away, our theater was the only island of humanity. Everything else was boarded up and strangely quiet.”

Inside the theater, the Urbanite audience was electric with anticipation. The pre-Irma adrenaline might have helped.

And the show did go on.

“I thought the audience might’ve been too terrified to get into the play,” says Ragan. “But they were all ferociously present—just totally lost in the world we were creating on stage.”

Ragan adds that the play’s mood oddly mirrored the lurking fear of the impending tempest. “All these disturbing lines suddenly leapt into focus: ‘We saw our city destroyed; there was no one left alive; let’s play apocalypse.’ There were so many weird resonances.”

“Pilgrims” had its concluding flight at the Urbanite. After 90 minutes, the play came in for a landing. The thunderous applause eventually died down.

And actors and audience came back to earth.

“Cameron and Betsy had already packed their bags,” says Ragan. “Right after the show closed, a staff member drove them straight up to Tampa. They stayed the night there and got to the airport just fine on Saturday.”

He adds that the actors’ terrestrial flights went off without a hitch.

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