Stagewrights: Creating A Collaborative Community In Tampa Bay Theater

Stageworks Theatre is mostly known for its transformation from gypsy theater company to established playhouse in the Channel District's Grand Central at Kennedy.  But the theater group not only produces popular shows such as their latest Neil Simon's "Biloxi Blues," they're nurturing new shows from the ground up with Stagewrights, an in-house playwriting collective.

It began nearly 27 years ago as a side project for the theater and an opportunity for individuals to develop as dramatists under the guidance of venerated writers such as University of South Florida and Eckerd College professor Mark Leib and Bruce Rodgers, executive director of The Hermitage Artist Retreat in Sarasota.

The class gradually evolved into a collective, allowing a revolving door of playwrights the chance to share their work and get feedback from other members. Actors would volunteer their time to read through scripts and for the past 18 years Stageworks has selected the work of two Florida playwrights a year to be guided by the Chicago Dramatists to develop their script in the Stageworks Breaking New Ground Playwrights Competition. Winners are given a director and actors to produce a public staged reading of their work, according to Stageworks founder, Producer and Artistic Director Anna Brennen. 

But after years of the same routine, the group began to feel aimless, according to St. Petersburg-based member Ed Stevens, 59, who joined Stagewrights nearly seven years ago.

Upon returning from New York, where he'd finished a staged reading of his play "Viewer Discretion Advised" at the Abingdon Theatre Company in 2010, Stevens felt inspired to challenge the group.

"Even putting on an off-off Broadway production takes an incredible amount of work," he says. "After having climbed that mountain, I thought, 'What can we do to energize ourselves?' "

They settled on a goal: Create an evening of short plays that share a common theme. Members spent the last year developing, writing and revising their plays, and the last four months, putting the production aspects together.

On June 8 and 9 the product of their efforts will be unveiled at Stageworks Theatre with "TampaWorks," a collection of nine 10-minute plays written by Tampa Bay-based playwrights.

Scenes In Tampa Bay's History

The show will take audiences to various locations and time periods in Tampa Bay, including the Pinellas Memorial Pet Cemetery in Pinellas Park for Stevens' "Sorry For Your Loss," downtown Tampa's Knotty Pine Bar in 1963 during the Johns Committee witch-hunt against gay and lesbian students and teachers in Teryle Traver's "Pentimento," and North Dale Mabry's popular Village Inn diner in Jim Wicker's "The Village Idiot."

All of the actors, directors, playwrights and crew donate their time and, in some instances, money to the show. A $10 donation was collected from Stagewrights members at their bi-weekly meetings to raise funding for the project.

"Ordinarily Stageworks pays its designers, stage managers, crew and actors, but this particular exercise is a first time out for us so we're treating it as a fundraiser for the theater," says Jeanne Adams, Tampa-based playwright of one of the featured plays, "Over the Top," and director of Stevens' play "Sorry For Your Loss."

Members have their hands in every aspect of the event's pre-production from hosting auditions at Stageworks back in mid-April to scheduling rehearsals, printing scripts, designing costumes, building set pieces, working with the Tampa Bay History Center to find backdrop photos for each location, acquiring props and shaping the flow of the show.

"We're not going to have black-outs where people sit for five minutes while we change things," Stevens says. "As the actors go off stage, they'll be taking pieces of the set off and helping to set up for the next play."

Wicker, 60, and Adams, 54, are acting as the show's literary directors, carefully selecting the order of each short play to keep the audience engaged.

"We've tried to structure the evening in such a way that it's a celebration of the Tampa Bay area," Wicker says.

It's also a celebration of the Tampa Bay region's talent, including Wicker, the group's unofficial leader, who recently retired after 15 years in the Hillsborough County School system, and St. Petersburg-based playwright Traver, 60, who teaches drama at H.B. Plant High School.

Building A Collaborative Effort In Theater

Perhaps the event has drawn such broad support from the theater community because Stagewrights treats the process of playwriting as a collaborative effort -- the way it should be, says WMNF Operations Manager Sheila Cowley.

Cowley's play "Boulevard" is one of nine short plays featured in the show. The 45-year-old playwright began attending Stagewrights meetings with her husband, WMNF web manager Matt Cowley, 45, a year and a half ago.

The constructive feedback she receives from the group helps bring her work to life, she says.

"You just can't do [playwriting] by yourself," she says. "You can only do it by having other people read it, seeing what works, what doesn't and working on it until you get something that's produceable."

Getting their original work produced is usually the biggest hurdle playwrights face, according to "Over the Top" Director Bridget Bean, managing director of Tampa's Gorilla Theatre from July 2005 to December 2011. 

"Think about how many plays an average theater does in a year," she says. "Six or so, out of all the plays that've been written. The opportunity to have a new one produced is very slim."

Twenty-seven-year-old St. Petersburg-based actor Nathan Jokela, a 2007 University of Tampa theater graduate, appears in several "TampaWorks" shorts including "Pentimento" with 51-year-old Dunedin-based actor Robert King. Working on the show for the last month has given Jokela a renewed appreciation for the network of actors, writers, directors and artists in Tampa Bay.

"There's a lot of blood, sweat, tears and time that's gone into this," Jokela says. "It's not Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams or some guy that I know a lot about but have never met writing these plays. These are all people here and this is their brainchild."

Wicker hopes "TampaWorks" will inspire the public to continue supporting local artists.

"We hope that people will recognize there's a great deal of writing talent in the Tampa Bay area," he says. "Great plays don't always have to come out of New York, Chicago or L.A."

Matt Spencer, a University of South Florida grad, is a native Floridian who enjoys sharing his love for Patty Griffin, browsing produce stands, spending hours in record shops and gawking at the ice cream selection in grocery stores. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.
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