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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014
Politics

Theater festival founder hopes Tampa event wins fans

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New York City has a theater festival, as do Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Orlando.

Even Williamstown, Massachusetts; Princeton, Illinois; and Venice; are known for annual events centered on the live stage.

Tampa — already home to art, music and film festivals, a major performing arts center, and a number of local theater companies — is the latest U.S. city to join the list.

Founded by 39-year-old Lakeland native, actor, playwright and theater producer Rory Lawrence, the first ever Tampa Bay Theatre Festival is scheduled Aug. 29-31.

“I’ve seen other festivals — theater and film — inspire those in the entertainment industry to push their careers to new limits and those who never thought they’d be interested in it give it a try,” Lawrence said.

“And I’ve seen festivals create new fans of their art form. That is what I want this festival to do — inspire people.”

Organizers of similar festivals say they’ve also experienced a rise in tourism and significant growth in the local theater industry.

The Tampa festival will feature five original, full-length plays and as many as eight original short plays from across the country, all staged at The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and Stageworks Theatre.

Educational workshops will also be conducted throughout the weekend.

Each production brings its own actors, director and certain crew members, supplemented by lighting crews and other technicians from the Straz Center and Stageworks.

“We’re ready to go,” said Lawrence, who laughed and added. “And if I’m not, you’ll never know. I’m an actor.”

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Lawrence is still considered a new leader in Tampa’s theater community.

He has been acting in theater since he was a junior at Polk Country’s Mulberry High School but didn’t delve into theatrical production until 2009 when he founded the RL Stage company. He has never sat on a board of directors for any festival.

Anna Brennan, founder and retired creative director of Stageworks Theatre in Tampa, expects many to question whether Lawrence is up to such a challenge. She insists he is.

“He is a phenomenon,” Brennan said. “He is an incredible producer. If anyone can do this, it is him.”

Brennan said she’s confident Tampa is ready for a festival, too.

“Tampa has been waiting for someone to put one together,” she said. “Rory finally did it.”

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.

Brennan said this is the first festival she can remember in her three decades as part of the local theater community. The Florida State Thespian Society convention for high school students is held locally.

“Tampa already supports other festivals,” Brennan said. “A theater fest is the next logical step.”

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.

Lawrence credits the Gasparilla Film Festival as his inspiration for the theater festival.

He has attended since its inception in 2006 and is impressed with how it has grown the local fan base for independent film.

Before then, Lawrence said, independent film screenings here had a scarce audience. Today, they sell out.

“Through their parties, celebrities and films, they created a buzz that got locals hooked on indie film,” Lawrence said. “And I kept wondering why we didn’t have something like that for theater.”

In 2013, his theater company showcased an original play at the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival, where Lawrence saw what a theater festival can do for a city.

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Atlanta’s theater scene had grown stagnant before the festival was created in 2012, said Executive Director Toni Simmons Henson.

“For as much as Atlanta has grown over the past 10 years, it did not reflect in theater,” said Henson. “We revived it.”

Henson said three theater companies formed in Atlanta in the past two years, each crediting her festival as inspiration.

The Atlanta festival has also helped turn the city into a destination for theater fans.

An estimated 3,000 attended last year, Henson said, 65 percent of them from outside the city.

“Some of those who came personally told me they would come to Atlanta more often for theater,” she said.

Henson expects attendance to grow 15 percent a year over the next few years — from locals and tourists.

“The longer we are around, the bigger our name will be outside of the city,” she said.

The residents of Williamstown, Mass., can attest to that.

Williamstown has a population of about 10,000. The 59th annual Williamstown Theatre Festival held in 2013 drew more than 9,000 families, half of them from outside the area, producer Stephen Kaus said.

With a scenic countryside and small-town look, the community draws tourists primarily from New York City and Boston — as much to see Williamstown as they do the plays.

“The experience does not end in our theater lobby,” Kaus said. “The region is gorgeous. People want to come here.”

The same can be said in Atlanta.

“The out-of-towners were theater fans looking for an excuse to visit this city,” Henson said.

Lawrence said he’s sure the Tampa Bay area can draw a crowd with a theater festival, too, pointing to all the attractions that have entertained visitors here for Super Bowls, the Republican National Convention and most recently the Bollywood Oscars.

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Straz Center statistics show theater fans are willing to travel here.

The center’s 2012 report claims 99,857 hotel-room nights were tied to its events.

With a limited promotional budget for the first year, Lawrence is relying primarily on the local audience.

Brennan with Stageworks said an eclectic mix of shows would help launch the festival — gay, romantic, comedy, African-American, musical.

“Each crowd will support their play, giving him an audience foundation right away,” she said.

Brennan also said support from other theater groups is vital.

Besides Stageworks, Lawrence said, Jobsite, Gypsy Theatre and Tampa Repertory Theatre have agreed to market to their members and take part in the workshops.

Theatre Tampa Bay, a promotional alliance made up of 17 area theater companies, will support Lawrence any way it can, said Jon Palmer Claridge, president of the alliance.

“This area’s theater community is on the cusp of being able to break forward into the national spotlight,” Claridge said. “I am in favor of anything that can help increase that exposure.”

Then there is the task of creating new theater fans.

“If we want to grow each year, we need to do that,” Lawrence said.

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As the founding president of the Gasparilla Film Festival, Eric Odum has experience in audience building.

“I think the issue the theater festival may run into will be similar to what the film festival had to deal with — not everyone understands the entertainment value of it,” Odum said.

The film festival’s founding board of directors was confident Tampa would fall in love with independent film if they could persuade people to give it a chance.

“Our first year, we used two words to promote the film festival, films and parties, and we really pushed the second word harder,” Odum said. “Once people came to the parties, we convinced them to see films and they have loved them.”

Lawrence is planning to follow this advice.

He has produced eight plays during RL Stage’s five-year run — a mix of original and Broadway scripts. And every show, said Lawrence, packs the house because he promotes the after-party as vigorously as the performance.

“My first-time audience members are usually men who only agreed to go to the play with their girl because of the after-party,” he said. “Then they become fans. I try to create an experience that creates fans. That’s what I want to do at the theater festival. I’m excited.”

pguzzo@tampatrib.com

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