TAMPA — In the days before the first Tampa Bay Theatre Festival last weekend, founder Rory Lawrence was struck by stage fright.
Would there be enough fans to sustain it every year? Maybe every two years, he suggested to his wife.
Lawrence even put his volunteers on alert to sit in on all the workshops and plays to make them look full.
Instead, they ended up surrendering their seats for the crowds that turned out for two of the plays.
“It was crazy,” said Lawrence. “And in a good way.”
He declared it an overwhelming success and said it will be back in 2015.
“I am sitting here still thinking, ‘How in the heck did we do that?’” Lawrence said. “Based on the turnout, I’ve already had new sponsors who want to sponsor the event next year.”
The Tampa Bay Theatre Festival featured five full length plays, a short play competition, four educational workshops, an acting boot camp taught by Tasha Smith of Tyler Perry movie fame, an open mic night, panel discussions and an awards party.
This was the first time Tampa ever hosted a theater festival so no one knew how the public would respond.
Lawrence said he would have been satisfied if each workshop had 20 people attend and if the plays drew 60.
Instead, “Saul’s Juke Joint,” about a mayor’s attempt to shut down his town’s most popular entertainment venue in 1938 Florida sold out at the 268-seat Jaeb Theatre in the Straz Performing Arts Center.
And “East Lansing,” about a 69-year-old woman estranged from her family who has long harbored a painful secret, packed the 100-seat Stageworks Theatre.
“East Lansing” was selected as the festival’s Best Feature Play. It can be seen again 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Mainstage Theatre on the Ybor City campus of Hillsborough Community College.
The remaining three feature plays also had large crowds.
“The Year of Independent Living,” exploring the difficulty in asking a parent to move into an assisted living facility, sold 90 seats at Stageworks, and “Seasons” and “Death Row” both sold almost 150 tickets for performances at Jaeb Theatre.
“Seasons” took the audience on the journey through a loved one’s diagnosis of terminal cancer while “Death Row” followed individuals from different walks of life who end up on death row.
Lawrence said all workshops but one were at 90 percent capacity.
“I recognized there was a need for a theater festival,” Lawrence said. “I am relieved I was right.”
Anna Brennen, founder and retired creative director of the 31-year-old Stageworks Theatre, said the success of the festival is a realization of her dream.
“I founded Stageworks to give theater companies a place to show off their work in hopes that it would help the theater community to grow,” Brennen said. “To see these plays have success at the festival and for Stageworks to be a part of it makes me proud.”
Tampa already was home to the successful Gasparilla Art, Music and Film Festivals.
In 2014, the Gasparilla Arts Festival boasted an attendance of 250,000, the Gasparilla Film Festival had 13,500 movie viewers, and the Gasparilla Music Festival packed more than 15,000 into Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
Tampa also has a proven track record as a popular destination for theater.
According to its latest annual community report, during fiscal year 2012, the Straz Center hosted more than half a million people at 2,318 events and another 53,000 at its 1,125 educational workshops.
Yet the city had never had a theater festival. It may have been the only major city in the United States without one.
“My worry was never if people would care,” Lawrence said. “My concern was whether with a limited budget we could get the word out. I relied on the public to do the work for us and they delivered.”
Tony Stinyard, who wrote and produced “Saul’s Juke Joint,” said every social media outlet he looked to during the weekend was flooded with people commenting on the festival.
“It felt like we as a city took over social media for the Labor Day weekend,” Stinyard said. “I am very happy for our city to have something like this.”
Joe Davison, founder of the Florida Film Network and a theater festival judge, said he was surprised by the crowds.
“I was not expecting that,” Davison said. “I’ve been to a lot of first time festivals for film and other arts and have never seen anything like this. This weekend proved that Tampa is a city that loves its theater. This event is going to be huge one day.”
For 2015, Lawrence promises to add a few feature plays and seek out more celebrity guests.
“We just have to keep growing,” he said. “It’s always scary to add more, it’s always a risk. But I think Tampa wants more.”