TAMPA — It took Hat Trick Theatre Productions three years to get from Ybor City to downtown Tampa.
The company that moved its base of operations 45 miles north, to Hudson, took a year off and went through some personnel changes. But Hat Trick has returned to Tampa, with an apparently permanent home at the Straz Center.
Its first production since returning home is Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, which opened Thursday and runs through Oct. 14 at the Straz's Shimberg Playhouse.
Local audiences that followed Hat Trick since its early days at the tiny Silver Meteor Gallery might notice that the company has evolved.
"It's not that we didn't know what we were doing, but we've just learned so much along the way," artistic director Jack Holloway said.
A group of University of South Florida theater students and recent graduates started Hat Trick in 2004. The idea, production manager Paul McColgan said, was simply to keep working together and to produce plays they loved.
"Basically, it was anything that excited us when we read it," he said. "We wanted to be able to do shows that people maybe weren't familiar with."
They staged their first couple of shows at Viva la Frida, a now-closed restaurant in Seminole Heights that had an outdoor theater space. Then they settled into Silver Meteor, which seats about 50, has a minuscule stage and no amenities. The dressing room was the lawn behind the building, McColgan said. But its productions were popular and respected.
Local-theater stalwart Steve Mountan was running a performing arts center in Hudson and was looking for a resident theater company. He knew and liked Hat Trick's work and offered the troupe the theater. It had 700 seats and actual dressing rooms, so it was an easy offer to accept.
While the actors never filled the theater, they routinely attracted twice as many people as Silver Meteor could hold, and along the way they learned how to do more technically complex shows than they had ever been able to do before.
Then, in a fairly short span of time, Mountan left to take his current job with American Stage in St. Petersburg, the owners of the performing arts center in Hudson decided they didn't want a resident theater company any longer, Hat Trick's longtime artistic director Joe Winskye left to get his master's degree in Hawaii, and Stageworks Theatre opened its own theater and moved out of the Shimberg Playhouse.
That left Shimberg with lots of room in its annual schedule.
It was a pretty easy decision for the Hat Trick people — who were all still living in the Tampa area and commuting to Hudson — to come back to Tampa.
They won't be considered a resident company at the Shimberg, at least for the moment, but they'll be doing all their shows there for the foreseeable future, McColgan said.
For the 2012-2013 season they have three shows scheduled. Besides And Then There Were None, there's Paul Rudnick's Jeffrey in November and Tim Firth's Neville's Island in May.
And Then There Were None is rather atypical fare for Hat Trick.
"It's the first thriller we've ever done," Holloway said. "I think Agatha Christie unfairly gets kind of a bad rap. This just jumped out at me when I read it."
The play, which Holloway is directing, features a large group of people, all with some kind of ominous secret, who start dying off one by one. The 10-member cast features some of the area's best actors, including Betty Jane Parks and Amu Sallee.
It has elements of the Agatha Christie formula, Holloway said, but the characters are more complex than in some of her other works.
"What we've tried to do is to make these real characters so the audience can put themselves in her place, and really feel the fear," Holloway said.
Marty Clear is a Tampa freelance writer who specializes in performing arts He can be reached at [email protected]