Shaping the local theater scene: Karla Hartley at Stageworks

Part 1 in a series.
Founded in 1983, Stageworks Theatre has the honor of being Tampa’s longest-running professional theater company. Ironically, its home is in one of Tampa’s newer neighborhoods, the Channel District.
The late Anna Brennen was the mainstay and founder of this venerable company. For the past eight years, Karla HartleyKarla Hartley has taken on Brennen’s role as president and producing artistic director. Hartley, who is also the lighting and sound director for their upcoming production, has received three Tampa Bay Best Director awards and four Best Director Awards from Creative Loafing.
It was Hartley’s fate to be hit with the task of surviving the onslaught of COVID-19.
“It was very difficult at first. We do live events,” Hartley says. “We had had a big fundraiser in February, four to five weeks before COVID hit, so we were blessed going into the pandemic. We have a cushion to maneuver through this.
During the pandemic, Stageworks found a new way to deliver performances.

“We began asking actors around town to self-tape a small story or song, three to five minutes long," Hartley says. "We would put it on social media.”
Stageworks could pay the actors only $25 to $50 each, but it helped the actors a little.
“It was exposure in a small way, but we were helping artists who had no work, and it reminded people that we were there,” Hartley says.
Stageworks posted it on a weekly basis on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
“We did not reopen to the public until 2021, and some people were anxious to come back,” she says. “However, with social distancing, we could use only one-third of the seats. We had masking and temperature checks at the door.”

Gradually, the audience returned.
“It was a slow go, but people came,” Hartley says. Things got better and better. By October 2021 we were selling out and our audiences have been pretty steady."

Over time, a new normal emerged.
“So, the world changed, but not a lot," Hartley says. "We take more precautions and check our actors one to three times a week. This has made things more expensive. It has been a struggle for us… but when you get back to it, you are grateful.

Following COVID, Hartley says there has been a noticeable demographic shift in the theater's crowds. 
“Some of our audiences are skewing a little bit younger," she says. "There is a thirst for live theater. But some of our long-term subscribers are not coming back.”

County and state funding has been steady as has federal dollars through a shuttered venue grant. The company did not receive a city grant in 2021 but “individuals have been very generous,” she said.
Stageworks' production of “Anna in the Tropics” opens May 6. Set in Florida in a Cuban-American cigar factory in 1929, the play sounds like a true Tampa tale. In fact, it is. In it, workers in an Ybor City factory listen to the lector read aloud to them Leo Tolstoy’s novel, “Anna Karenina.” Tolstoy’s tale of love and lust gets played out in real life in this play.

The play by Nilo Cruz garnered the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for drama. That was a true long-shot because the play had not been seen yet in New York City.

It was, however, received in Tampa with great enthusiasm and has been staged here since.
For more information go to [email protected] or call the box office at (813) 374-2416.

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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.