Ten years may not seem a very long time, but in the life of a Tampa Bay area theater company, it's considerable. After all, this region can be unkind to even the most ambitious theater people, which is why once-familiar names like the Playmakers, the Tampa Players and the Warehouse Theatre have already faded into history.
For some reason, it's difficult to convince Bay area audiences to fill 100 or more seats four times a week to witness non-musical plays about profoundly important subjects. Sure, people will accept a serious subtext in their Lion King or their Phantom. But offer Frozen or even Hamlet, and you're risking your shirt. So in all of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, with a population of over 2 million, there are only seven (all small) professional companies devoted to serious theater. To start a troupe under these conditions requires inordinate optimism. To keep it running for 10 straight years requires obstinacy — and maybe a bit of genius.
Which brings me to Jobsite Theater. The company begins its landmark 10th season a mere week from now. I sat down with artistic director David Jenkins in a dressing room near the Shimberg Playhouse and asked him to talk about the last decade — successes, disappointments, hopes and regrets. We covered his first season and the one that's about to commence. He was articulate and candid.
Jenkins, 34, reminded me that when Jobsite first began in 1998, it consisted of five key artists making decisions together: he and co-artistic director Michael Caban, Alan Fessenden, John Lott and Jason Evans. "You know, we were five guys, five relatively randy, iconoclastic, middle-finger-flagging guys in our early 20s," Jenkins said. "I think we had visions of several companies in mind when we began: Dario Fo's Franca Rame company was a huge influence on what we were wanting to do, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Steppenwolf — you know, having a theater that's an ensemble-based theater, that is an artistic home, that is doing daring work." Eventually, Caban, Fessenden and Lott left the Bay area for New York, and Jenkins found himself as sole artistic director, a job he wasn't quite comfortable with. But he habituated himself to the position, and meanwhile a core group of artists began to form around Jobsite: Katrina Stevenson, Chris Holcom, Ami Sallee Corley, Paul Potenza and Shawn Paonessa. In time, an eight-member board of directors came together, and last year, Jobsite's acting company included 56 people.
So what's changed over all that time? "We've all grown up," Jenkins said. "We're more responsible, less reactionary, more dedicated to what we're doing. We have regular hours; we used to have rehearsals that wouldn't start till 11, 11:30, midnight. We have set hours now, we have rules, we have a code of conduct, we have contracts, you know, all the sort of things that kind of legitimize what you do. Before, it was sort of a spit and a handshake. ... We're a lot more consistent and a lot more serious about the business side of things."
And there have been milestones along the way, starting way back in '98. "You had the Murphys [of Ybor City's Silver Meteor Gallery], who took a chance on us to do a show [the doubleheader of Christie in Love and One for the Road] for the first time," Jenkins recalled. "We spent time looking for a place to do a show, and nobody'd give us the time of day. And then another door was opened for us to allow us to work in here late night [in the Shimberg, with the play Brownbread]. The residency we were given [at TBPAC] a few years later is another major milestone."
A particularly meaningful corner was turned when it became clear to Jenkins and company that Jobsite could depend on at least a thousand patrons coming to each show during a three-week run. "So that's allowed us to do more financially. ... not just for the performers, but for production costs."
Even with most shows playing to 90-percent capacity, the troupe has no plans to move to a larger venue: "It's hard enough to consistently get 100 to 130 people to come see a show a night," Jenkins said. "I wouldn't want to be, for instance, in the Jaeb and have 268 seats to fill every night — that's a little scary."
Two of the shows in the coming season, Jenkins noted, have been programmed in honor of Jobsite's first 10 years. Later this autumn, the troupe is bringing back Clive Barker's History of the Devil (Oct. 30-Nov. 16), "which was absolutely the first show that was a colossal blockbuster for us," Jenkins said, "that just sort of blew doors off and had people lined up left, right and center to come see us."
Then in summer 2009, Jobsite offers Pericles — A New Rock Musical (Aug. 6-23), written by Neil Gabioff and Shawn Paonessa, and with lyrics by Joe Popp and music by his band, the Hornrims. The show, Jenkins said, is meant to commemorate Jobsite's commitment to new work: "We're using the structure of [Shakespeare's] plot, but it's being completely rewritten, completely updated, completely twisted," he said. "So that was very important, plus Joe Popp was one of our first collaborators."
Other shows in the coming season include Blackbird (Sept. 11-28), Picasso at the Lapin Agile (Jan. 6-25), The Lieutenant of Inishmore (March 19-April 5) and Rabbit Hole (June 4-21). The lineup represents "some of the newest, strongest shows that are out," Jenkins said.
There are still rivers to cross — most important, the theater needs to raise between $75,000 to $150,000 to augment income from ticket sales — but Jobsite starts its 10th season as an audience favorite, with a large boomer contingent and good support from the young and elderly. "We pride ourselves on the relevance of our work," Jenkins said. "We provide an experience that's very immediate, very honest."
And, in fact, his company has matured into one of the most dependable and valuable in the Bay area. Whether you like Jobsite's shows or not, the work is always top quality. If its next 10 years is as impressive as its first, we have a lot to look forward to.