Tampa Bay theater vets remember the creative and combative genius of the late Anna Brennen

She died on Feb. 12.

click to enlarge Tampa Bay theater vets remember the creative and combative genius of the late Anna Brennen
Courtesy of Lisa Deal

Anna Brennen rubbed shoulders with giants. From Laurence Olivier at London’s National Theatre to understudying Tony-winner Coleen Dewhurst in Central Park with Joe Papp. Her mentors are iconic names of 20th Century theatre: Stella Adler, Wynn Handman, Sandy Meisner, and Lloyd Richards; visionaries themselves, who spawned another in Anna, who was born on June 27, 1938 and died on Feb.12.

She came to NYC prepared by the theatre craft she absorbed at Carnegie Mellon and the academic and psychological rigor culled from UC Berkeley, which honed her keen intelligence until it was as sharp as a straight razor.

New York fueled the fire of her artistic ambitions, but the mean streets of the city also harassed her beloved daughter, Lisa, with lowlifes who were interested in more than rubbing shoulders. Ever the protective mother, she jumped on a job opportunity in Tampa, but found herself in the land of sunshine and jet skis. If the theatre scene of her dreams wasn’t here in the early ‘80s, she’d just have to create it. And so she did for THIRTY years, as designer Keith Arsenault remembers with “her dogged perseverance in producing important, relevant theatre in storefronts, in temporary social club spaces in Ybor City, in whatever venue a deal could be done.”

She was as creatively combative, combatively creative as they come. Which is an apt description of her relationship with long time Board Chair and Energizer bunny, Andrea Graham. Their yin-yang was filled with mutual admiration, but tinged with volatility—like a flinty old married couple that often seems at odds but always manages to spark. The indomitable pair willed Stageworks Channelside home into existence after 17 seasons as a gypsy theatre “challenging the thresholds of intolerance and insensitivity [with work] addressing the issues of the disenfranchised.”

As a playwright herself, Anna had a reverence for the text and little patience with anyone who didn’t give wholly of themselves to make the storytelling come alive. Artists with vision are often obsessive. They see beyond what others can envision. Anything that fails to meet their idealized conception in service of the play is like a cancer that must be excised. And like that unforgiving disease that often requires extreme measures, Anna’s unvarnished passion took no prisoners in service of mounting a production. She was tough and expected others to be able to accept direction without ego—even if sometimes she seemed like a surgeon with a machete (see Jerome Robbins).

click to enlarge Tampa Bay theater vets remember the creative and combative genius of the late Anna Brennen
courtesy of Andrea Graham

In her theatrically embroidered caftans and bohemian tunics, she was “Drama Mama,” Earth mother of the stage. But one who embodied the fullness of nature; she was a volcanic presence—as much like a tornado as a verdant meadow. Nurturing an ever-growing brood while demanding their best. It was tough love born of her hardscrabble Nevada roots.

Anna had an eye for talent and for cultivating it. Tampa, after all, was not NYC with triple threats (actor/singer/dancer) jamming the pre-pandemic sidewalks. Especially for a non-Union professional theater stretching every dollar, she needed keen instincts like a prospector during the gold rush—finding nuggets that no one else could see and mining veins of talent for every ounce of value.

Good directors must understand the psychological motivation of character. What’s beneath the words on the page—or subtext. Anna was quick to diagnose and pigeonhole characters—both in life and on stage—with uncanny accuracy. So many people have stories about the many opportunities they were given at Stageworks. Actor Matthew McGee quips it’s “like Six Degrees of Anna Brennen.”

Dawn Truax, Stageworks’ long time Director of Education Outreach, gets to the heart of what was perhaps her greatest gift. “Anna had the remarkable ability to see within you abilities that even you did not know you had.  Once spotted, she would then coax, cajole, and yes, even bully you at times until you demanded as much of yourself as she demanded of you.” Hundreds of artists owe their success to Anna.

Rory Lawrence “had a small part in a play and Anna gave me her card,” he recalls. “I didn't touch base with her until a year or so later when we ran into each other at a show. She remembered me and said ‘Rory, you never called.’ I was stunned. From that day she became my mentor. She encouraged me to start my own theatre company, to write, and to start the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival because she saw something in me that I didn't even see.”

Anna came into Ricky Cona’s life at a time when “I felt broken down by the theme park industry. She made me realize that the theatre offered endless possibilities for a character actor, who was often told that his height and voice was a hindrance, if I cultivated what made me unique. She changed my life.”

Broadway World’s Peter Nason recalls that as a director “she could be quite a handful, and the no. 1 thing that you didn’t want to do was to disappoint her.  Ever.  She was a visionary, fiercely opinionated, frustrating and easily frustrated, and always forcing you—forcing me—to strive to be the very best. It was always fun talking theatre with her, especially after seeing the same show, where she never held back the daggers. But when she loved something, the work obviously earned it and she would unabashedly sing its praises.”

“She was sensitive in the deepest sense, but never, ever afraid,” reflects Creative Pinellas’ Lisa Powers Tricomi. “Theatre was her passion, at times to her detriment because theatre is a cruel mistress. Anna had the fire of an artist seeking truth, and the tenacity of a pit bull; she was more interested in providing a thought provoking experience over pleasing an audience.”

Rosemary Orlando remembers “she had a way of creating poetic moments and a relentless pressing for discovery. As frustrating as she could be, her direction was invaluable. And she was always there as a friend when loss came around. I treasure those moments as much, if not more, than the theatrical ones.”

Though an actor, Midge Mamatas treasures “Anna's visual sensitivity as she directed a play; she created unforgettable pictures.” And for actors, “her mantra was, shoulders back, chin up and mouth open; breathe through your mouth . . . and keep it open to always be ready to speak.”

Josh Goff notes that Anna was “challenging to deal with at times, but she had a good heart; I have seen her help out countless people in times of need, as well as myself. As an artist, she gave me a chance to grow as an actor. Sometimes you would not see it at first, but she just kept pushing, and pushing, and when you finally got there, you would see what she was talking about.”

“Hi!  It’s A.B.! Two things, darling,” she would say to Kathi Grau (and countless others). “And that’s the way it was. The two things Anna needed to talk about escalated into a plethora of thoughts, ideas, suggestions, etc.” Angela Bond adds that “darling” was her favorite term of endearment. “Aren’t these darling?  Isn’t that a darling chair?  Darling, what were you thinking?” 

Grau captures the consensus. “Anna was a creator drunk with ideas and needed to be reminded that exuberance could hinder and frustrate.  Her intent was never to make herself look good, oh no, it was to bring out the best in you.  Too many times the curse of being a strong and opinionated woman stepped on our egos when we were reminded that we could do so much better.” 

After shattering so many glass ceilings, she finally decided in 2014 to turn the reins over to Karla Hartley, her hand-picked successor. American Stage’s Todd Olsen waxed eloquent about the magnitude of her tenure. “It’s not easy starting a professional theatre; Anna Brennen did that. It’s not typical for a Founding AD to stay with their theatre for three decades; Anna Brennen did that. It’s more and more difficult for a professional theatre to reach the 30-year mark; Anna Brennen did that. If you look at Stageworks’ production history, many of those plays never would have been done in Tampa Bay; Anna Brennen did that. A few Tampa companies followed Stageworks, but many more Tampa companies during the past 30 years did not survive; Anna Brennen did. A small handful of folks knew Theatre Tampa Bay would be important in the future of TB’s artistic community; Anna Brennen was at that table.”

After her retirement, she barely took time to catch her breath. Norma Caltagirone, one of Anna’s closest friends since the early days, notes that “despite battles with multiple cancers, Anna continued her own creative processes. She worked hard to perfect her playwriting; she also staged readings and gave actors a platform via her nonprofit, ArtsFusion.”

click to enlarge Tampa Bay theater vets remember the creative and combative genius of the late Anna Brennen
Courtesy of Lisa Deal

When Anna turned her considerable focus to write what she planned as a trilogy about her Western roots, she chose her “darling” Angela Bond to portray the female protagonist. “I worked long and hard with her on her magnum opus, “Echo Nevada,” a play she started decades ago then put aside, then picked back up again after she retired. She was working on rewrites up until she died. It was so personal—the story was inspired by her life as a young girl on a Nevada ranch in the 1940s.  Her characters were wonderfully drawn and intriguing. The dialogue was incredibly authentic.” 

Scott Swenson’s luncheons with Anna to discuss the project would “quickly derail into a series of non-sequitur conversations about how attractive the waitress was at our favorite Thai restaurant or how difficult healthcare had become. Our focus would eventually return to the task at hand, but our friendship always forced us to take the long route ‘panning for gold.’ Despite the swirling murky randomness of our conversations, I would always come away with a precious nugget of wisdom. I will miss her brilliant chaos.”

Former Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Editor-in-Chief David Warner remains “awed by her unflagging energy and breathtaking candor. In recent years, I was honored that she asked me to provide critiques of her play-in-progress, ‘Echo Nevada.’ She never took my advice to split it into two acts, but she was always generous in her thanks and passionate about the work. And it’s good work—Echo Nevada reflected her own Nevada roots but also exemplified the qualities that she’d championed from the beginning at Stageworks: diversity, empathy, a respect for underserved communities, and a sure sense of drama. It’s hard to accept that none of us will ever receive another Jacquie Lawson e-card (her signature) from Drama Mama.”

Without Anna’s friendship with David, I never would have gotten the opportunity to write for CL. She recommended me not long after I relocated from Washington, D.C. We bonded after I reached out to learn details of her Channelside deal, as I had worked developing  new space for small theatres in Arlington, Virginia. Like many others, we spent happy times discussing theater craft and going off on tangents. I last saw her on a pre-pandemic jaunt for a sauvignon blanc-fueled dinner and a splendid evening admiring Kristin Chenoweth. We spoke on the phone periodically about “Echo Nevada,” and when CL asked me to assume the theater critic duties, I thought “I must call Anna.” And then, she was gone.

Anna‘s love and theatrical passion are fierce. And I say “are” because the fruits of that love still thrive and will continue to spread abundantly across our region’s theaters. Her enduring goal was always “reaching out amid all the differences present in the world to create a bond that embraces us all.“

“Love doesn’t die, people do.
So, when all that’s left of me is love,
Give me away.“
—From Merrit Malloy’s Epitaph

Dawn Truax once told Anna that she deserved a Viking funeral. “A woman with such a ferocious life force deserved nothing less than a warrior’s send off. So today [we] say, light the torches, sound the horns, one of the great ones is going home.”

Anna dedicated her life to cultivating a community that continues to nurture diverse artists. Your donation to the Anna Brennen Memorial Fund at stageworkstheatre.org will continue to support the development of BIPOC actors in the Tampa Bay area and Stageworks programming.

UPDATED: 02/22/21 8 p.m. Updated with expanded version for print.

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About The Author

Jon Palmer Claridge

Jon Palmer Claridge—Tampa Bay's longest running, and perhaps last anonymous, food critic—has spent his life following two enduring passions, theatre and fine dining. He trained as a theatre professional (BFA/Acting; MFA/Directing) while Mastering the Art of French Cooking from Julia Child as an avocation. He acted...
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