The opening of Deathtrap on Friday marks the start of the 28th season for Eight O'Clock Theatre. Eight O'Clock, which began at Largo Community Center in 1982, is proof that community theater not only can survive despite this sagging economy and with no big-city name, but it can thrive.
Need evidence? Check the numbers.
10. For the last 10 years, Eight O'Clock Theatre has operated successfully without the city of Largo's financial support. Instead, the troupe, which moved to Tonne Playhouse inside Largo Cultural Center in 1996, has been able to earn the center money through its ticket sales, says Betsy Byrd, business manager for Eight O'Clock.
$263,000. For the 2009-2010 season, Eight O'Clock Theatre earned $263,000 in ticket sales.
9. Last October, Eight O'Clock Theatre received nine Lary Awards, Tampa Bay's version of Broadway's Tony Awards, including favorite director, favorite choreographer and favorite drama.
Another mark of Eight O'Clock Theatre's success is the audience itself, said Byrd. "We've definitely grown a lot since we started, and you can see this by things like how our season ticket holders are not just from Largo. We have people subscribing now from throughout Tampa Bay,'' she said.
This doesn't mean that Eight O'Clock Theatre has not seen its share of obstacles.
Back in November, while Singin' in the Rain was in production, Byrd was diagnosed with breast cancer. In January, during Gypsy, Byrd underwent chemotherapy. However, because Eight O'Clock Theatre's operating system is built on collaboration, the show went on smoothly, she said.
"I was able to keep stage managing through Gypsy, actually. I work as a team with Janet Tucker, the other stage manager. When I needed it, she could cover me,'' Byrd said.
And during the production of Deathtrap, the team at Eight O'Clock persevered through a switch in directors. Judy Becotte, a longtime board member of Eight O'Clock Theatre, had been selected to direct. However, unexpected hip surgery forced her to give up her duties for this show.
"But we are blessed to have on our board Linda Woodruff Weir, who was able to step in and direct,'' Byrd said. "I'm sure it was a little bit of a headache for Linda, because she's getting ready to direct our next production, Big River."
For Woodruff Weir, who admits that up until August, her mind was filled only with Big River, helping out Becotte was not a stretch.
"Judy and I have collaborated together for quite a while,'' said Woodruff Weir, who directed last year's Steel Magnolias. "And I was lucky because I actually sat in on auditions for Deathtrap, so that helped, too.''
Deathtrap, a play within a play, was the longest-running comedy thriller on Broadway. The central character, Sydney Bruhl (played by Tim Rankin), is going through a low point in his writing career and turns to criminal behavior, involving Clifford Anderson (Trey Ryan). His behavior gets to be a bit too much for Sidney's wife, Myra (Lynne Coleman), and more twists and turns are accentuated with the arrival of psychic Helga ten Dorp (Patricia Bates Smith).
Without giving away any plot, the beauty of this production of Deathtrap is that it offers something new, Rankin said.
"I have a punch line: If I have to sit through Oklahoma one more time, I'm gonna take a hostage,'' he said. "And with this Deathtrap, it's old, but it's new again.''
The 2010-2011 season also includes Big River from Oct. 29-Nov. 14, Bye Bye Birdie, March 4-March 20, The Drowsy Chaperone, May 6-May 22 and I Hate Hamlet, July 8-17.