Playwrights, performers stage new experiences at Tampa Theatre Festival

Several dozen spectators fill every last folding chair in a backstage room at downtown Tampa’s Straz Center for the Performing Arts. A playwriting workshop is unfolding on a rainy, humid September night – the first night of the three-day Tampa Bay Theatre Festival (TBTF) the weekend before Labor Day. 

Playwright, director and actor Lil Barcaski steps from the five-person playwrighting panel into the role of moderator after festival Founder Rory Lawrence realizes he is needed in a rehearsal.

Panelists and playwrights Tracie Bonnick, Bill Leavengood, William Newkirk, Natalie Symons and Danielle Wirsansky answer questions about editing, inspiration, hearing others read one’s work, talkbacks and sundry other topics. Some are established writers and teachers; others are newcomers to the field.

Symons, a St. Pete resident who attended school for acting and theatre at Boston University, offers succinct words of advice for would-be playwrights: “Write, write, write, write, write, and rewrite!” 

Heed her words: Symons’ play The Buffalo Kings, which debuted at freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg, is nominated for eight Theatre Tampa Bay awards.

Leavengood, who teaches playwriting at the University of South Florida and Shorecrest Preparatory School and attended Rollins College for theatre arts, has been writing plays for several decades. His play, “Moneymaker,” will debut at the Heather Theatre in November. 

Wirsansky, a Florida State University student who is double majoring in theater and creative writing with a minor in history, won a grant that will allow her to turn her thesis paper into a musical -- her first musical -- called “City Of Light.” The story explores what might have been going on in a fake Paris landscape while it was abandoned during World War II. 

Scripting a new narrative for Tampa Bay 

The Tampa Bay Theatre Festival, fresh off a second run, has an unofficial motto: “Not a performance, but an experience.”

Festival founder Rory Lawrence aims to live up to that axiom as the event takes shape each year.

“This festival is a tool for us, as artists, to grow and share the gift of performing and the craft that we love with all of those who attend,” Lawrence says. “That is what we want people to do: have an experience.”

The festival’s overall goal, Lawrence says, is to provide a wide array of local actors and playwrights with “a platform that they would not normally have access to, and to share their performances with an audience that would never get to see them.”

So far, it’s working. Around 1,300 visitors from across Florida attended the first year of the festival, and several thousand more attended performances and workshops over the course of the second annual event. 

During the inaugural festival, the event was new to the city of Tampa and Lawrence’s team aimed for big entertainment and big audience turnout. But moving forward, the festival’s goal has transcended “getting butts in seats” for Lawrence: the real takeaway he hopes to offer attendees is the experience of theatre itself.

Lawrence explains: "Any group of actors or theater company can put a stage play together, promote it, perform it -- and the audience will still leave empty and unfulfilled. Our goal is to put something on that stage that will affect and leave an impression on the audience.”

Whether it’s dissecting dialogue, quoting a funny scene, or debating plot and theme, Lawrence aims to leave attendees with a lasting impact. 

That same level of focus went into the selection of the plays and other performance pieces for the second TBTF; it also went into the planning of workshops for would-be playwrights, performers, and the general public.

Acting instructor and “The Blacklist” star Harry Lennix, along with other industry leaders, moderated workshops that were generally filled to capacity. Shakespearean actor Libya Pugh ran an auditioning workshop; other workshop topics ranged from securing an agent to directing a play or improving improv work. 

“This year we put a lot of energy into making the workshops more challenging; fun, but challenging,” Lawrence explains.

Experience proffers words of wisdom  

Back at the playwriting workshop, Newkirk, a writer whose play “East Lansing” was performed at the inaugural TBTF in 2014, stresses the importance of wording when it comes to playwriting: “You should be able to watch a movie with the sound off. You should be able to hear a play with your eyes closed.”

Bonnick, the owner of Moving4Word Productions in South Florida and a writer and producer of stage plays, agrees. 

To write a play is to engage conflict; to have a source of tension is necessary. Everyone on the panel agrees on that. Otherwise, it’s creative differences that make each playwright unique. For example, Wirsansky researches everything before writing and rarely edits; Leavengood always rewrites his work five to ten times.  

Panel moderator Barcaski muses that writing plays comes down to the audience: “What are you trying to tell the crowd?”

Barcaski, who works at a software company and runs the Gypsy Stage Repertory Company in Dunedin, started writing plays around seven years ago. 

“It feels good to be an artist in that town. We’re an artist community,” Barcaski says.

Five full-length plays, all by penned by women, were selected to be performed at the 2015 Tampa Bay Theatre Festival: Barcaski’s play, “Dinner For Six”; “The Nearly Final Almost Posthumous Play of the Not-Quite-Dead Sutton McAllister” by Kris Bauske; “The Green Grass” by Tiffany Edwards; “Six Triple Eight” by Mary McCallum; and “American Heartbeat” by Martha Velez.

Setting the stage for Tampa Bay as a theater community

Lawrence, whose background is in finance and theology, remembered thespian festivals from his school days and wondering at the lack of theatre festivals for adults. After working with theatre festivals in Atlanta and Washington, D.C, Lawrence founded the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival in 2014.

The second annual festival included events hosted at the Straz, Stageworks Theatre and the Hillsborough Community College (HCC) Ybor City Campus. Ad sales and local sponsors fund the festival; the 2015 premier sponsor was Jack Gordon of Maney & Gordon Attorneys at Law

Festival events include educational workshops and various performances of monologues, short play competitions, a networking meetup and awards party, and five full-length plays.

“We are targeting all audiences, and especially those who ‘would never go to a play,’” Lawrence says.

Look for TBTF to begin accepting short and full-length play submissions early in 2016 for the upcoming third annual festival.

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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