Tampa Bay's Theatre Community Takes Center Stage

Tampa stands at a turning point for ramping up its professional theatre industry.

Founded just over a year ago, Theatre Tampa Bay (TTB) has pulled together an alliance of the area's 13 professional theaters and more than 150 individual members. The organization aims to promote, connect and support professional theatre in the Tampa Bay region. It also provides some structure and scale as well as a networking platform for the theater community.

While it is widely acknowledged that actors in the area need to have a "day job'' to survive, Theatre Tampa Bay's President Jon Palmer Claridge is hoping to see that change.

"The more work there is, the more people decide to stay,'' he says. "It begins with raising the profile of the whole professional theatre community.'' 

Their ambitious plans are well-underway. These include the management of unified auditions, which took place in early June. More than 120 actors had a one-stop-audition before the area's top artistic directors casting for the year.

And now, in an effort to promote the visibility of Tampa's talent, TTB is gearing up for a flashy event: the Theatre Tampa Bay Awards -- a black tie Tony-styled ceremony at which outstanding Tampa theatre professionals from 19 categories will be recognized. There is a panel of judges already in place busily ensuring they see every production.

TTB also has a small grant program, The Jeff Norton Dream Grant, and plans to unveil its recipient as well as TTB's new website when they announce the Awards nominations August 26th at the Tampa Theatre. The Theatre Tampa Bay Awards will take place October 14th at The Palladium in St. Petersburg.

So Many Choices

If you have an appetite for theatre, you have lots of choices -- from Broadway to black box displaying the Tampa Bay region's diverse talent, rich history, eclectic flavors and ubiquitous personalities -- in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Sarasota and surrounding communities. Indeed, too many to include in one story.

Of course, there are the blockbusters for those who want a taste of Broadway. The A-list of the national tours visits The Straz in Tampa, Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg and Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota offering up the best of the best every season. These large performing arts centers attract between six to eight national acts per season and seat large crowds -- well over 2,000 in some theaters. Tickets for the bigger shows can be pricey, but nevertheless it would cost you more to fly to New York.

But perhaps more intriguing is the work being produced locally.

Stageworks Theatre, located in the downtown Tampa Channel District, and also a 30-year veteran of the Tampa theatre scene, strives to perform material with casts that reflect their stated mission of celebrating the human spirit while challenging the thresholds of intolerance and insensitivity. 

"Diversity is our commitment,'' says Stageworks founder Anna Brennen. "We champion minorities in any way we can.'' The commitment is pretty clear – their upcoming season starts in October with "Raisin in the Sun,'' and runs the gamut to "Chinglish,'' "The Divine Sister,'' "A Few Good Men,'' among others.
American Stage, another 30+ year veteran of Tampa Bay, is a "biggie'' on the local circuit, and will kick of its new season themed "Love and Laughter'' in October, which brings everything from The Birds to The Wiz.  American Stage has committed to producing all 10 of African American playwright August Wilson's plays chronicling the experience of black Americans in the 20th century -- 2014 will bring their seventh installment. Currently playing is "My Name is Asher Lev,'' a story of by and about a Hasidic Jew struggling with his artistic yearnings. Located in downtown St. Pete, American Stage performs at Raymond James Theatre year round and also at Demens Landing Park for a musical each spring.
Looking for comedy? Hat Trick Theatre performs at Shimberg Playhouse, one of the smaller theaters at the Straz.

How 'bout dinner? You can find professional dinner theater: Show Palace in Hudson and Early Bird Theatre in Clearwater.

Need entertainment for the kids? Bits'n'Pieces Puppet Theatre, Tampa Bay’s longest-running children’s theatre, produces larger-than-life shows with giant puppets portraying children’s classics. The Carrollwood Cultural Center offers a series of variety children's theatre throughout the year as well, and other compelling kids shows regularly pop up a theaters around the town.

Off The Beaten Path

While tried-and-true plays and musicals are the safest to pull off, and often necessary for marketing and guaranteeing ticket sales, there is clearly an effort among local theatres to push beyond that. 

Jobsite Theater, 15 years on the scene is now a regional presence and the resident theater company at the Straz. Jobsite notes on its website that one of their main areas of emphasis is the creation of new works and the exploration of material that is often overlooked in the hustle to produce "what's hot'' coming out of New York. They maintain that each season hosts new or otherwise under-produced works. 
freeFall Theatre Company of St. Pete values "risk taking and a sense of daring'' in its offering of a range of classical and new works, often musicals.
Tampa Repertory Theatre
dedicates its professional mainstage performances to American classic theater, but has an incubator company, TRT2, that performs at the intimate Silver Meteor Gallery with an edgier profile and has a performance called "Tampa Wrights'' -- one-act plays written by Tampa Bay playwrights. Stageworks and Carrollwood Players do something similar.  

A bustling, quality community theater movement is also part of the Tampa Bay region's theater scene, producing a continual stream of musicals, comedies, theater for and by children and straight plays. These performances are often right around the corner, depending on where you live. Check out: Carrollwood Players, New Tampa Players, M.A.D. Theatre of Tampa, Masque Theatre in Temple Terrace, MAS Community Theatre, Gulfport Community Players, St. Petersburg City Theatre, to name a few.

Great Theatre, Good Times

In other words, there is something for everyone. Great news for consumers -- but also great news for the Tampa Bay economy. There is a growing recognition that supporting the arts translates to jobs and an attractive urban environment.

"Theater and cultural hubs are critically important to attracting young professionals and in vitalizing our community,'' says Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan. The Hillsborough County Commission financially supports many artistic endeavors in the community such as the Arts Council, The Straz Center and the Carrollwood Cultural Center.

While funding for the arts has been experiencing some lean years recently, the Hillsborough Arts Council has provided nearly $1.2 million in cultural development grants since the early 1990s to theater organizations. In 2013, the Arts Council awarded 22 grants totaling $194,000 to cultural organizations and $14,000 to individual artists.

"Ninety percent of our grant monies go towards paying salaries,'' says Art Keeble, the Council's Executive Director.

That spells jobs, and in more ways than one. The Council cites the Arts and Economic Prosperity III study from 2008 which found that Hillsborough's nonprofit arts industry generated nearly $300 million and well over 8,000 jobs. Obviously the economy has changed since the study was done, but the numbers serve as a benchmark as the county returns to normalcy post-recession.

A Little Historical Perspective

Theatre in Tampa can trace its roots back, at least in part, to the late 1800s settling of Ybor City and the Cuban cigar factories. Cigar rollers would hire one of their own as a "lector,'' a reader, who was paid by the workers to entertain and educate them through the reading of everything from newspapers to novels and even opera scripts as they hand-rolled cigar after cigar. The lector was a plum position and talented lectors were well compensated. This tradition led to the creation of organized "show committees'' and formed an integral basis for the theater culture in Tampa. 

English-language theaters were also growing at the time in downtown Tampa through the early 1900s until the Great Depression hit, when it came to nearly a standstill.

The Federal Theater Program (FTP), the New Deal program designed to put theatre professionals back to work and to enrich the lives of the poor, chose Ybor City in Tampa to headquarter its Spanish-language program unit, when Los Angeles or New York might have been more obvious choices at the time. The Centro Asturiano hosted the Spanish-language FTP shows, English-language at the Rialto Theatre.

Today, the oldest continuously performing theater company in Tampa is indeed the Spanish Lyric Theatre -- currently in its 55th season and still run by its founder Rene Gonzalez.  Although its main focus is on Spanish and Latin classic musicals from the late 19th century, performed in Spanish, it has also performed English-language musicals for decades. And often at the very same Centro Asturiano.

Kendra Langlie is freelance communications professional and cultural enthusiast living in Tampa. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Kendra Langlie.

Kendra Langlie is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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