Stageworks Theatre: Creating Soul In Downtown Tampa's Emerging Channel District

You're making plans for Friday night in downtown Tampa. There's a new restaurant in Ybor City with an alluring pre-fix menu you've been dying to try.

From there, you can hop on the trolley and pick up your friend at Skypoint before a show at Stageworks Theatre in the Channel District. It gets out just in time to swing by the Tampa Museum of Art's after party.

Sounds like a perfect evening? Stageworks Theatre President and Treasurer Andrea Graham hopes so.

"In addition to restaurants, housing and businesses, what really creates the spirit of a neighborhood is the arts," Graham says. "I think Stageworks will play a very important part in giving the Channel District its soul."

Stageworks, the oldest professional theater company in Tampa, is finally primed to breathe some creative life into the Grand Central at Kennedy space.

It's been a long time coming, too. For 28 years, Stageworks has operated as a gypsy theater moving from the Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz Center to the Falk Theatre, Hillsborough Community College and back to the Shimberg since 2004.

In 2007 Grand Central at Kennedy co-developers Ken Stoltenberg and Frank Bombeeck of Mercury Advisors donated an 8,000-square-foot space to Stageworks after meeting with a site search committee made up of Graham and Mark Sena, president of Tampa-based companies MediaSphere and Mars Communications.

"Ken knew if [Grand Central] was going to be successful, it needed to have live performance," Graham says.

The past four years have involved raising the necessary funds to build out the 99-seat theater. Generous donations from the community, a $125,000 grant from the Community Redevelopment Agency and a $375,000 low-interest loan from The Bank of Tampa enabled Graham to tell the contractors that Phase 2 -- drywall, air conditioning, intricate lighting, drapes, painting, sound -- could begin.

Finishing the theater allows the company the luxury of finally being able to schedule shows on its own terms.

Shows like "Listen to My Heart," a cabaret by New York-based composer David Friedman, that will break in the stage this July.

Graham says the show's title all but sums up Stageworks' mantra throughout the long process.

"Over the last few years, we've been listening to our heart," she says, "and our heart has said, 'Go for it!' "

It's a frame of mind that has pervaded the company and its founder, New York City transplant Anna Brennen, since her arrival to Tampa in 1979.

Through teaching classes with the Carrollwood Players, Brennen was frequently informed of the need for a theater that focuses on women and minorities. Brennen knew that if it was going to work, she'd need the help of her local actors.

Meanwhile, Graham, also a former resident of NYC, sought out Brennen at the advice of friends when she made the decision to relocate to Tampa Bay 30 years ago. She was less than enthused to move from the bustle of a big city to a place then perceived to be nearly devoid of performing arts.

"I called Anna and she said, 'You're gonna hate it, but I'm starting a theater!' " she recalls. Graham would soon find herself involved in more than one ambitious project in Tampa Bay.

Upon her first two months of relocation to Florida, Graham landed a job helping to develop, construct and manage the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, now known as the David A. Straz, Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The project gave her hope that a company like Stageworks could succeed in Tampa after all.

"It was like giving birth to a baby," she says. "It saved me."

Going Beyond Theater

In 2009 Stageworks was a finalist for the Tampa Bay Business Journal's Nonprofit of the Year and Brennen received the 2006 Artist of the Year Award from Tampa's then-Mayor Pam Iorio.

The awards recognize that throughout its 28 years of existence, Brennen and Graham have developed Stageworks into a multifaceted theater company that does much more than provide entertainment.

There's The Rainbow Tribe, for starters. Its a melting pot of actors, directors and teachers who reach out to at-risk youth through live performance and impart messages of tolerance, empowerment and AIDS prevention. The Tribe also visits Hillsborough County public schools with its Tampa Electric Company (TECO) Energy Conservation Play and performs for the elderly on its Senior Cabaret Tour.

Stageworks' conflict resolution and anger management workshops have proven highly successful, as well. Instructor Dawn Truax is responsible for helping Brennen build the program, which began in 2002.

"It's never boring," Truax says. "These kids fascinate me."

The Youth Acting Ensemble: Anger Management Workshop spends 10-12 weeks working with teenagers in the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice system. After-school programs have included kids as young as 7, according to Truax.

Content ranges from simple exercises in deep breathing to more thought-provoking lessons, such as how to effectively communicate your frustrations without placing blame.

Participants are gradually introduced to anger management through two-hour sessions twice a week. Although it doesn't take long to learn the skills, stretching the program over several weeks makes a deeper impact.

"Nobody really teaches you how to deal with anger," Truax says. "It's a real revelation for some kids to realize life doesn't have to be a screaming mess."

Teaching Coping Skills

Instructor Alvon Griffin is all about making noise of a more rhythmic variety. For the past 14 years, Griffin has employed a system of bucket drumming lessons that teaches anger management to kids in the DJJ system.

A few years ago, Griffin met up with Brennen and Truax to "marry" what they were doing to form a new workshop.

Griffin says by teaching kids a numerical system to put together rhythms, it allows them to release pent up anger and frustrations, which in return makes it easier for them to open up to their counselors.

"It's about giving kids a place to start where they're doing something they never thought they could do," Griffin says. "It opens the door of possibilities."

The effect will be extended when Stageworks dedicates a room for The Rainbow Tribe to give kids a place to further their journey in the creative arts.

Children aren't the only ones who will benefit from the new theater. A 2008 study by Americans for the Arts found that nonprofit arts and culture event attendees spend an average of $29 per person per event, including dining and transportation.

"We believe having art in an urban, mixed-use property is something that can increase property value," Stoltenberg says. "Hopefully, when people think of Grand Central, they're going to say, 'That's where Stageworks is.' "

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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