Runs through Oct. 11, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays at 8313 W. Hillsborough Ave., Suite 250, Tampa, $15, beyondtherapyplay.bpt.me.
Derek Roberts certainly had no Hollywood dreams when he moved south from Delaware nearly a decade ago. But in the past three years, he’s racked up appearances on Burn Notice, Under the Dome, Graceland, Army Wives, and several other TV series and feature films. Looking back on how Tampa has transformed his life, he can hardly believe it himself. “Surprise is an understatement.”
Roberts, like dozens of working actors in Tampa and Orlando, lays much of his success at the feet of Kathy Laughlin, an acting coach, casting director, and theater manager who has quietly fostered a pool of limelight-ready Tampa talent. Her unlikely home base is a small office park on Hillsborough Avenue in Town ’n Country, where for 20 years she’s run the Performer’s Studio Workshop acting school, and its small theatre company, until recently known as the Tampa Bay Players.
Laughlin and her students are quick to distinguish the Performer’s Studio Workshop from most acting schools. “I have never advertised,” Laughlin says. “Ever. You have to find me by word of mouth. And then the training comes.”
That training, rooted in Lee Strasberg’s Method Acting by way of the Eric Morris System, is intense. “Kathy’s a very intimate teacher. She can be intimidating, but the true actors stick around,” says Lance Trafelski, who since starting with Laughlin has had gigs including One Tree Hill, Sleepy Hollow, NCIS New Orleans and Burn Notice. Morris developed his take on Method while heading the Director’s Unit at the Los Angeles branch of the Actor’s Studio, and now, at 82, sits on Laughlin theater company’s artistic board.
Laughlin’s network is at least as important to her students’ success as her commitment and training. She’s one of only four Casting Society of America members in Florida, and casts everything from national commercials to local film productions.
In addition to Morris, her artistic board includes New Orleans casting director Ryan Glorioso; Dori Zuckerman, who has cast projects from the series Wilfred to Kirk Cameron’s Left Behind, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and the horror-fantasy classic Wishmaster; and the four-time Golden Globe Nominee Armand Assante, who, like Laughlin, attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Despite her clout and her students’ success, Laughlin sees things getting tougher for the film industry in Florida, thanks to the recent depletion of the state’s film incentive program. “You can thank the politicians,” she says. “They have killed our business.” The Performer’s Studio students I spoke to all talked about frequent 8- or 15-hour drives to auditions in Atlanta or New Orleans, where series television and feature films, respectively, are booming.
In contrast to the many acting workshops that cater to weekend warriors, Laughlin’s seriousness has earned passionate commitment from her students. “Her genuine interest is in seeing her students move forward,” says Roberts. “That why you become a lifetime member — because you don’t want to leave.”
Laughlin’s commitment to her students couldn’t be more apparent than in the upcoming transformation of her theater company. From the Tampa Bay Players, the group has changed its name to The Heather — Laughlin’s tribute to Heather Philipsen, a promising student who recently passed away due to complications of Type 1 Diabetes.
“She was an incredible, gifted young lady,” says Laughlin. Laughlin is also planning on expanding the theater’s space and, she hopes, raising performers’ pay to rates that would qualify them for Actor’s Equity union membership.
The company premiered its season opener, Christopher Durang’s Beyond Therapy, last weekend. Owen Harn directs.
“I haven’t worked in Florida in three years,” says Harn, whose prominent roles in the film Homeland, True Detective and Warner Brothers’ upcoming Max may make him the most recognizable of Laughlin’s students. Harn’s credits also include —you guessed it — Burn Notice, the USA action-comedy that filmed in Miami for six years and launched many Florida actor’s careers.
Without the subsidy, those sorts of long-term projects are less likely to land in the Sunshine State. Harn, Laughlin and others are now fundraising for a PAC called Fight for Film Florida that would lobby for the film subsidy’s return.
For all the struggle, Harn and his colleagues are committed to Tampa, and to Laughlin.
“I’ll keep my house here,” says Harn. “I don’t mind traveling ... these are my friends. They’re my colleagues. They’re my family.”