Shaping the local theater scene: Owen Robertson at Lab Theater Project

Shakespeare had London’s Globe Theater to try out his ideas. Since 2015 Tampa has had the Lab Theater Project, a venue where aspiring playwrights can see if their work can make the jump from paper to live performances.
It’s the brainchild of Owen Robertson, a theater aficionado dedicated to bringing new plays to the stage.
“It’s not an easy path for new work,” says Robertson. “There’s nobody like us in the state of Florida.”
While most people are aware of the rough career path for aspiring actors, few remember that playwrights don’t have an easy time seeing their new work unfold on stage with live actors. The Lab Theater gives them that opportunity.
“We want to grow new artists in our community,” Robertson says.

Robertson grew up in the Washington, D.C. area and landed in Tampa in 2003 when his day job in the warehousing and leasing industry brought him here. Since then, he has watched the Tampa theater scene blossom.
“Between 2003 and now it has grown significantly,” he says.

Robertson, 54, caught the theater bug in college when a classmate in an astronomy class at George Mason University in Virginia dared him to audition for a play.

“She loved my voice,” he recalls. “I said to her, ‘If I audition, will you stop bugging me?’”
He has been hooked since. He portrayed the duke in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in writing for stage and screen at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. He has worked as an actor, designer, producer, director and stage manager.
“I was a theater generalist,” he says.
After time with the New Jersey Playwrights Theater, he moved to Tampa where, in 2015, he founded LAB Theater, literally a laboratory where new playwrights can see if their ideas work onstage.
“I bootstrapped it personally for five years and had good attendance,” Robertson says.

At the end of 2019, he formed a board and establishes the theater as a 501 c3 non-profit institution. In January 2020, he leased a space at 812 East Henderson Ave., just west of Ybor City.

“It was a former barbershop and office space and it was a mess,” Robertson says. “Me, my wife, seven board members and volunteers spent two months cleaning up.”
The space, with a stage and 45 seats, was ready to go. But then the fickle finger of fate intervened. The COVID pandemic shuts down all theaters. The company survives thanks to personal donations, the Hillsborough County Arts Council, the Gobioff Foundation and the Federal Emergency Disaster Fund. By July 2020 they are able to get back into the business of staging new plays.
They also begin to live stream their performances. 

“It was rough at first, but now we average about 180 viewers per performance,” Robertson says. “One of the nice things about live streaming is that we have an international audience with viewers from Ireland, Germany, France, South Africa, Mexico and India.”

Their first live-streamed show had only 10 people in the theater due to social distancing but drew 72 virtual audience members.
“People were starving to see theater,” Robertson says. “They had burned through every Netflix offering and they were looking for alternatives.”
He says the pandemic has had a silver lining.

 “COVID has been very good to me,” Robertson says.  “It forced us to be highly innovative in what we do,” he said.

Now, they are preparing to stage their first original musical, a country and western show, “It Started With a Kiss,” written by James Rayfield with music and lyrics by Mike Deeson, a Channel 10 investigative reporter. In-person performances run July 7 through July 24. On-demand shows run from July 21 through August 4.
 “You will never have heard of our playwrights,” Robertson says gleefully. “However, you might be able to say you first heard of them here in Tampa.

 For more information go to Lab Theater Project or call (813) 586-4272.

This is the fifth in a series on the talented people shaping the local theater scene. To read more, follow these links:
Avery Anderson at American Stage.
Emilia Sargent at Tampa Repertory.
David Jenkins at Jobsite.

Karla Hartley at Stageworks.

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Read more articles by Joanne Milani.

Joanne Milani is a Tampa-based freelance writer and former art and theater critic for The Tampa Tribune. After leaving the Tribune, she served as the executive director of Tampa’s Florida Museum of Photographic Arts and remains a member of the International Art Critics Association (AICA). She graduated from Vassar and worked in New York museums before moving to Tampa.