Designing, acting and directing keep Karla Hartley stagebound

click to enlarge Karla Hartley, in a role she knows well, as her multi-talented self. - Courtesy Karla Hartley
Courtesy Karla Hartley
Karla Hartley, in a role she knows well, as her multi-talented self.

Karla Hartley is probably the most versatile theater artist in the Tampa Bay area. At 38, she's an actor, director, set, lighting and video designer. She's de facto artistic director of the Shimberg Playhouse of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center — responsible for booking the national performance artists who present their work there — and she's also an occasional stage manager. In The Rocky Horror Show, which finishes its run at TBPAC this weekend, she codirected with Rick Criswell, plays two parts — one a wheelchair-bound scientist — and designed the video that plays all through the show on a circular screen, as well as the minimalist set. And, oh yeah, she sings.

So how did she become this Jackie-of-all-trades? "I decided in college [Boston University] that I probably wasn't going to be able to make a living as an actor," she says. "I mean, not that I didn't think that I was any good, but I just knew that it was a transitory business. So I decided at that point that I was going to learn pretty much everything that I could."

And not long after she finished her college training, this Tampa native — and Tampa Prep alumna — returned home, where she'd already (at 15) debuted with the Tampa Players. It was the winter of 1994, and she "hooked up" with Wendy Leigh's Loft Theatre and eventually became that stage's technical director. "So I ended up doing a lot of design over there," she says, "which is where I met most of the people that I know today, actually."

Since then, Hartley has acted, directed or designed for Stageworks (The Mystery of Irma Vep), Jobsite Theatre (Boston Marriage, The Goat and Blackbird), Gorilla Theatre (An Oak Tree) and Eckerd College (the coming production of Craig Lucas' Reckless) among others. As a director, she can be depended upon for intelligent, emotionally honest productions that ask the utmost in vulnerability from her actors. As a designer, her trademark is quietly persuasive competence.

Hartley's committed to the Bay area — she has a house here with her longtime partner Noreen Maier and their almost-9-year-old daughter — and enthusiastically believes that the local theater scene is expanding. "When I was in my teens, there was the Tampa Players and the Playmakers and that was pretty much it, because the Loft came along a little bit later ... ," she says. "But I'm very pleased with Jobsite. I think that over the 10 years they've been here, I've certainly seen their work grow. ... And of course Anna [Brennen of Stageworks] has been around forever and a day, and she continually does very interesting work."

Hartley hasn't worked with St. Pete's American Stage or The [email protected] — yet — but thinks that this area can keep her employed and busy. "I do love Tampa," she says. "I think that it's a great city. I've seen over a number of years both a flourishing theater scene and a not-so-flourishing theater scene in the middle there, and I feel that it's on the upswing. I feel that we can really do work here that's going to be provocative and interesting and bring something new to the area that they wouldn't necessarily see."

Her optimism isn't wholehearted, though. As artistic director of the Shimberg, she's had to try to understand why solo performance artists, who used to sell 85 percent of the theater's seats during a run, now tend to sell about half. She suspects that the culprit is runaway technology. "Mostly, from my perspective, I think that we're battling the digital age," she says. "We're rearing a whole generation of people who are used to getting their culture for free or at the most, 99 cents a song." But she's not a bit tempted to give up on the performance series. Instead she insists that it's nearly unique in Florida and too valuable not to continue.

Her favorite playwrights are Brecht, Mamet and Lillian Hellman, and she's delighted that the current version of Rocky Horror Show is "more Marilyn Manson than it is Tim Curry." Coming up is the design of Reckless and codirection of the reprised Cigar City Chronicles at the Jaeb, to be followed by a new Jaeb show called Waist Watchers. And after that ... and after that ...

Karla Hartley is busy. Watch for her on any — and every — stage in the area.

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