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Inaugural Tampa Bay Theatre Festival features actor Tasha Smith, five plays

Rory Lawrence is about to host the first ever Tampa Bay Theatre Festival, and the feelings are familiar: the energy, the ambition, the anxiety.

It's like the time he studied acting for two years without going on a single audition, afraid he wasn't good enough. Or the time he directed a production of A Raisin in the Sun and got in so over his head he almost called off the show.

Along the way, friends and mentors stepped in to help him. His play was a success. He started landing parts. And he realized it was those intense experiences that really made him a better performer.

It's the mission of Lawrence's theater festival, a fledgling project he hopes will challenge the area's actors and expose audiences to things they might not otherwise see.

"We're a very diverse group," said Lawrence. "We're willing to do anything that inspires people, that we think is gripping, funny, dramatic."

Lawrence, 39, has worked in investing, counseling, customer service. But he couldn't ignore the tug to the stage, planted as a high school drama kid in Mulberry.

In 2005, Lawrence decided to buckle down as a performer. He quit his job and enrolled in Venue Actors Studio in Pinellas Park. He eventually formed his own production company and put on a one-act play in a showcase at Hillsborough Community College. That led to bigger and better projects.

While attending the Gasparilla Film Festival, Lawrence realized the area was lacking something similar for the stage. He thought about the Florida State Thespian Festival, which draws thousands of teen performers to downtown Tampa. What was here for adults?

He entered theater festivals in Washington D.C. and Atlanta to see how they ran. Back home, he started reaching out to the theater community for help, raising money through sponsorships, donations and entry fees.

"This has been a year in the making, trying to get this thing up and going," Lawrence said. "I tell you what, initially it seemed like it would be easy. You look at the big scheme of things and know you can do this. But it is tough. You realize right away that people don't know who you are, and it hasn't been done in Tampa."

He enlisted two dozen volunteers to do everything from marketing to getting coffee. They secured space to host the events at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts and Stageworks Theatre in the Channelside district.

Starting Friday, Lawrence will see how it all comes together.

The weekend includes five full-length plays, plus 15 short plays, parties, competitions, open mics, networking and awards. But the most important element, Lawrence said, are the workshops fashioned to help people like him improve.

"When I started doing my own shows, we would have tons and tons of people come out who wanted to be involved. It was amazing how many people did not know the process. They did not know they needed a head shot. They did not know they needed resumes. They didn't know what it means to develop a character. We have to get educated. If we get educated about what we're doing, that's empowerment."

He hired a cadre of talent to run workshops, including Tasha Smith, star of Tyler Perry's Why Did I Get Married? and Why Did I Get Married Too? Lawrence said Smith was initially out of reach for the budget, but she lowered her fee to come help him.

Lawrence met Smith when he took one of her acting workshops.

"She gave me some compliments on my work. We started building a friendship. I said, 'Hey, I'm doing this festival in Tampa. It's never been done. I like your style and I think you'd add some credibility."

The area needs a legitimate theater festival to be taken seriously as a major producer of theater arts, said Lil Barcaski, artistic director of the Gypsy Stage Repertory theater in Dunedin. Her play, The Year of Independent Living, was chosen to show at the festival.

"We keep saying we want to be a major threat in the theater world," said Barcaski. "We want to be like Atlanta. We want to be like Chicago. One of the things that is true of all these other cities is they have this kind of festival."

Lawrence might have more courage than sense, she said. And with something as ambitious as throwing a new theater festival, that's an important ratio.

"He believes in theater," he said. "He's just a gutsy guy, and I think we should be behind him."

Contact Stephanie Hayes at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716. Follow @stephhayes.

Tampa Bay Theatre Festival

Want to partake in the first ever Tampa Bay Theatre Festival?

All events are open to the public for different fees.

Here's what you need to know:

The workshops

Tasha Smith will teach a 5-hour intensive acting boot camp focused on scene work, critiques and deepening characters. Creative Loafing theater critic and playwright Mark Leib will offer a class on playwriting. Libya Pugh's workshop will focus on auditioning, how to find a good monologue and what to do if you're called back. And Georgia Mallory Guy will teach the business side of acting. Gavin Hawk, a professor at Eckerd College and one-half of the improv duo Hawk and Wayne, will teach improv, but not in the slapstick way you see on Who's Line is it Anyway? "We encourage people to not worry about being funny," said Hawk. "We encourage them to just try to be real in the beginning. We need that foundation for them to get to the funny later."

The plays

A panel of festival readers selected five full-length plays from dozens of submissions. The playwrights and their teams will produce and stage the selected plays either at Stageworks Theatre or the Straz Center, depending on the size of the production. Death Row dissects different men accused of different crimes. Saul's Juke Joint exposes secrets and lies in a Florida bar in 1938. Seasons, a musical, challenges questions of love amid themes of cancer and pregnancy. The Year of Independent Living follows a father and son learning to live on their own for the first time. And East Lansing tells of a resilient grandmother who sets out on a new life path.

If you go

The festival runs Friday through Sunday in Tampa. You'll want to browse online for detailed dates, times, locations and prices for each event. A $100 weekend pass gets you into all the workshops except Tasha Smith's boot camp, which is $95. The weekend pass also secures you $5 off T-shirts and tickets to the full-length plays. Visit tampabaytheatrefestival.com.

Inaugural Tampa Bay Theatre Festival features actor Tasha Smith, five plays 08/25/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 26, 2014 3:32pm]
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