After 30 years as the head of Stageworks Theatre, Anna Brennen is releasing the reins of the innovative company dedicated to challenging perspectives and promoting diversity. • Brennen recently announced her retirement as producing artistic director, and named associate artistic director Karla Hartley as her successor. Hartley joined Stageworks four years ago after working at various locations in Tampa Bay, including the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
"She has a very intimate knowledge of the mission and the programs," Brennen said of Hartley. "I can't imagine, other than funding being the issue, that she won't continue to build on it. I'm sure she'll have new and wonderful ideas that I haven't dreamt of in my philosophy."
Andrea Graham, who resigned from her position as president of the board in July and now is the development fund chairwoman, said they are working on formalizing committees and deepening the board.
"Transition is never smooth but it's a transition that has been in the works for some time," Graham said. "We feel that we have an opportunity now with the transition to strengthen the organization. Though I must say that all of us feel our larger responsibility is to continue the legacy that Anna Brennen has developed for theater in the Tampa Bay community."
Brennen worked as an actor and playwright in London with Sir Laurence Olivier, Peter Brook and Peter Hall before continuing her career in New York and moving to Tampa in 1979.
The company rented various locations in Tampa, such as the Shimberg Playhouse at the Straz and the University of Tampa's Falk Theatre before moving to a permanent home in the Channel District in 2011.
Stageworks' mission, shaped by Brennen's time in London, is "to provide the highest quality professional theater which respects, ignites and celebrates the human spirit while challenging the thresholds of intolerance and insensitivity."
As such, the company produces plays championing themes for women, gays and lesbians, religious minorities and people of color.
"When you subscribe to our season, you're taking a little risk," Graham said. "You may be seeing theater you're not comfortable with. But it will make you think, it will make you question, and you'll have some lively conversation."
The organization also focuses on educational outreach programs with local youth, seniors and incarcerated juveniles.
"Theater is a way of saving the children who are neglected, abandoned, lost," Brennen said. "It's a powerful tool for helping anybody find their way, because it connects humanity."
Hartley, who often taught some of the programs that worked with at-risk and incarcerated youth, said she is dedicated to maintaining the mission Brennen set forth.
"We more often than not see eye to eye, but obviously we differ in style since we're different humans," Hartley said. "I appreciate the trust that she has instilled in me over the last several years, and I look forward to maintaining that legacy while still making it my own and making it something that engages me."
In addition to transitioning from Brennen's leadership to Hartley's, a main challenge for Stageworks, and all theaters, is to continue to find funding while also trying to tap into the younger crowd, namely those younger than 35.
"They work, they drink, they go to sports events, and maybe one or two Broadway shows, or maybe rock concerts," Graham said. "There's been really a whole paradigm shift. They sit home and watch things on their cell phones. In theater, you sit, you turn off and you jump into another reality. From what I've seen, 35 and under doesn't get that."
Graham said she is thankful Brennen is staying in the community and watching the new phase of Stageworks develop.
"She will be watching," Graham said. "And you just do not want to let this woman, this genius, down."
Though she loves the company she founded, Brennen said she is relieved to not have the administrative strain and the financial stress. In addition to getting some much needed rest, she hopes to use this time to travel, visit family and see other theater groups in San Francisco and New York. Her main goal is to complete one of four plays she has started.
"I had a lot of projects of my own," Brennen said. "I want to finish one to my satisfaction by next December. I'm a taskmaster. My demands on myself are no different than I've placed on other people, so it's going to be world-class."
Caitlin Johnston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2443.