Giving Theatergoers The Works

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How's Stageworks' health?That's the question I put to producing director Anna Brennen as we sat in Rick's Italian Restaurant on Davis Islands a few days ago. I've known Brennen for years, at one time taught a playwriting workshop at Stageworks and was even (briefly) on the company's Board. I know other things too: that some people find Brennen's personality abrasive, that she can be more than a little combative when she feels like it, that her candor can sometimes cross the line into insult. On the other hand, she's been a consistent employer for work-starved theater artists in the area and has occasionally produced and/or directed some terrific shows: Uncle Vanya, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and The Laramie Project among others. Now Stageworks is celebrating its 20th year, and I wondered: Where does the theater stand?

"When we left the Falk (Theatre three years ago) we were in the best condition we'd ever been," she says, "and next year, barring any unforeseen circumstances, we should be in a better year than we've ever been." She's talking about budget, which this year is $115,000, only $35,000 of which comes from box office receipts. The rest is gifts and grants, a crucial part of any theater's income. Brennen says she's particularly glad that her school-touring "Rainbow Tribe" theater program is about to get its first grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and she notes that individual contributions come to about $12,000 annually. Further, she's proud that Stageworks is now financially able to hire a minimum of six Equity actors a year.

One thing that's not so cheering, though, is that Stageworks still doesn't have a permanent home. Brennen reels off the names of the places where her company has performed over the years: at a storefront in Ybor City, the Italian Club, a black box theater at Hillsborough Community College, the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, the Loft in North Tampa and the Falk at the University of Tampa. For the last few years, the Performing Arts Hall at HCC's Ybor campus has seemed like a stable venue, but renovations and the demands of an expanded dance program now mean that the theater isn't as readily available as before. Just recently, for example, Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart had to be canceled because the HCC dance and music departments unexpectedly needed the space.

Brennen thinks there's a positive side to not having to worry about a building. She runs Stageworks from her house, she says, and "that's why we've survived. It's not been about a space. It's about the work. And a phone. And a computer."

Still, she hopes that Stageworks will eventually find a permanent residence, perhaps at a black box theater planned for the new Cultural Arts District in Tampa, or in a Tampa venue that's like St. Petersburg's Palladium. "What I'd love ideally is to have the concept of the Palladium over here, where there is a space ... where Alley Cat, Dog & Pony, Stageworks go, and Stageworks knows, well, they've got four slots there. And it's monitored, maintained by the Arts Council or some public entity."

For next season, though, Stageworks will again have to be a guest — at TBPAC, HCC and the Gorilla Theatre. Which brings our conversation to the shows in next year's lineup: Jane Martin's Talking With ...; Neil LaBute's The Shape of Things; local writer Ray Zacek's Desperados; and Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning Angels in America. It's an impressive lineup, and a reminder that Stageworks can usually be expected to produce challenging, provocative plays. And of course, there'll be Stageworks Briefs, the collection of 10-minute plays that gives some playwrights their very first professional production.

But what about this issue of Brennen's personality? All through our interview she's been on her best behavior: cheerful, polite, even deferential. This is a credible Anna Brennen, but hardly the only one I've seen. Still, she tells me that the real Anna Brennen is different from who her detractors might say she is. "I am opinionated, I am passionate ... a strong sense of integrity, she says. "I'm very honest, which most people can't handle. ... In New York it would be nothing."

She's ruffled more than a few feathers in her time. But she's also brought some important plays to this area: Glengarry Glen Ross, A Moon for the Misbegotten, Hedda Gabler and Kindertransport, just to name a few. So even her detractors will have to admit: Stageworks is a positive force in local theater.

We'd be poorer without it.

Crucial Auditions. One of the most important audition opportunities of the year is coming to the Tampa Bay area on June 17. Anyone serious about performing in local professional productions should take action on this immediately: the deadline for scheduling an audition is May 20.

And now, the facts: The Florida West Coast Theatre Alliance is a consortium of more than 20 theaters on Florida's west coast, all of whom get together once a year to learn about the talent in the Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota areas. Participants include the Eckerd Theater Company, Florida Playwrights Process, Asolo Center for the Performing Arts, American Stage, Theaterworks, Florida Studio Theater, Angel Cabaret, Gorilla Theater, Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, Jobsite Theater, LiveArts Foundation, Stages and Actors Repertory and others.

The Alliance is seeking both Equity and non-Equity professional actors, and looks for diversity in casting. To schedule an audition appointment: Prepare a picture with an attached resume, indicate whether or not you intend to sing at your audition, indicate if you're a Florida west coast resident or have access to west coast housing, prepare a self-addressed stamped No. 10 envelope, and send it all to Florida West Coast Theatre Alliance Auditions, ETC/Ruth Eckerd Hall, 1111 McMullen-Booth Road, Clearwater, FL 33759.

Once again, submission deadline is May 20th (postmark); the auditions themselves will take place at Sarasota's Asolo Theatre June 17 from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Audition timeslots will be scheduled on a first come, first served basis. Notification will be made by mail.

An information-only phone line has been set up at American Stage at 727-823-1600, ext. 231.

Contact Mark E. Leib at [email protected] or call 813-248-8888, ext. 305.

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