Hello, Goodbye

Tampa Bay loses a great actor and a theater company.

It's not easy to conduct a theater career in the Tampa Bay area: There are only so many stages offering work to actors and directors, and only so many people buying tickets to see their artistry. That doesn't stop talented people from seeking success in Tampa and St. Pete, but it does mean that occasionally some of them cash in their chips and move on. Today's column is about one of our best actresses and one of our most promising theaters: One has moved to Los Angeles and the other is giving up its attractive space in Ybor City and going dark for at least a year.

Hello L.A. One of the brightest lights on the local theater scene over the last decade or so has been Colleen McDonnell. A former Best of the Bay winner, she's appeared in everything from The Crucible at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to Private Lives at American Stage, The Beauty Queen of Leenane at Jobsite Theater and Uncle Vanya at Banyan Theatre. Now she's scheduled to play a key role in Dinner With Friends at American Stage — but there'll be a commute. McDonnell and her husband have moved to Los Angeles, where the opportunities aren't limited to a few Equity theaters, and actors can supplement their theater work with jobs in television and film.

"We're living in Santa Clarita," McDonnell said over the phone, "which is just north of downtown L.A. ... It's gorgeous, actually. My place overlooks the San Gabriel Mountains, and it's breathtaking, really, flowers everywhere. Roses flourish here, so there are roses everywhere."

She sounded enchanted and enthusiastic. Why did McDonnell choose to move to the West Coast? "It was a tough decision," she said. "I'd been in St. Petersburg for 15 years, and I never actually expected to stay there that long. I came down after college and thought that I'd be there maybe two years, and then come out here. But I started to get work." And, she added, she really loved Florida — loved its residents and climate and her apartment in Coquina Key where she could watch dolphins swim by. "It was probably too ideal," she said. She found it all but impossible to leave.

Then, a couple of years ago, a series of events led to her putting her Bay area career in perspective. First, she learned that her sister-in-law had cancer. "I went up to Minneapolis, and I was up there for five weeks, helping to take care of her and my brother's kids. And then I was going back and forth in between shows ... and it was really a long year, really tough, financially, emotionally. And so after doing Sight Unseen [at Banyan], I decided to take a break — just needed a respite."

She turned down some job offers, took a vacation to Chicago, and eventually came to realize that "it has just become very, very tough to work in Tampa Bay as an Equity actor..."

More and more theaters, she observed, have been cutting costs by putting on plays with small casts, and otherwise saving money by hiring only the very minimum of union actors. So-called Broadway touring shows were coming through with no Equity actors at all. Further, local stages were often bringing in out-of-towners in favor of locals, making it harder for Bay area talents to have enough weeks on stage to qualify for union health insurance. The conclusion was inevitable: "If an area can't sustain the actors that it has, then it becomes time when you have to go looking somewhere else."

McDonnell says she won't try to put her L.A. career in gear until her work in Dinner With Friends is completed. "The last thing an agent would want to hear is that, you know, 'Here I am, but I'm about to leave town in less than two weeks to go do a show for six weeks.'" But once she really gets going, "I don't want to stop working in the theater. That's my real passion, stage work. It's what I was brought up with. My father was a theater director, and I grew up sitting in the back of the theater watching the actors rehearse and perform. And that's where my true love is. But, you know, I'll see what's in store for me. I have no idea. It's an adventure and a challenge and hopefully it will go well."

Goodbye Ybor. When Acorn Theatre moved into its new home at Centro Ybor, it looked like the fledgling company had finally found a permanent space. After all, artistic director Levi Kaplan had searched for years for a venue where his Acorn could grow, and his tenacity finally paid off with a handsome, flexible home in a retail complex with high visibility.

Acorn's first show there for adults — Goldoni's A Servant of Two Masters — was only partially successful, but the venue was an instant winner; one could only marvel at Kaplan's stamina in searching for, and finding, this superb location.

Now the sad news: Acorn's leaving Centro Ybor only a few months after moving in. According to Kaplan, the move is financial and a result of the cancellation of Slawomir Mrozek's Emigrants, which should have opened last month, as well as the birth of two new babies — Kaplan's own and his business manager's. Kaplan also predicts that Acorn will produce nothing in the 2006-2007 season — not at Centro Ybor, not anywhere.

What happened? Well, first there were problems with Emigrants. "We had an actor 24 hours before the first rehearsal tell us that he no longer wanted to be part of the show," Kaplan explained. Then a second actor signed on — and a few days later checked out. Since no other "worthy" actors had auditioned, Kaplan decided "that it was better to not do the show than to do it poorly."

But with no income from Emigrants, Acorn couldn't pay the rent on the Ybor venue. And meanwhile, four of the six core Acorn team members — Kaplan and his wife Julie, and business director Carl Campagna and wife Sherry — had newborn babies, and found theater time hard to come by. "If the Acorn had been up and running flawlessly beforehand," Kaplan said, "then it wouldn't be so difficult; I could hand over the reins and I could take a subordinate role. But that's just not the case." Acorn gave notice to Centro Ybor only days ago.

And Acorn's future? "The spirit that the Acorn started with is still there," Kaplan asserted. "All of us are very committed to what it is that we believe in concerning theater. I don't think you've heard the last of any of us."

Let's hope that's the case. Because the Bay area has too often greeted even our best actors, even our most promising new companies, with ambivalence. I wish I could say otherwise, but I've attended too many local productions where stunning performances were greeted by only a handful of audience members. "Ambivalence" is a nice word for what I've witnessed. And ambivalence is not going to keep top talent or ambitious venues around for very long.

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