The petal-painting, perfection-seeking Georgia O’Keeffe survived a succession of illnesses, heartbreaks and mischaracterizations to create art until her death in 1986 at 98.
Her indomitable spirit and groundbreaking works inspired Tampa Bay theater veterans Anna Brennen and Midge Mamatas — both resilient women in their own right — to create a theater piece that brings the 20th century master in focus, in her own words, without the analyses that bedeviled O’Keeffe throughout her lifetime.
Brennen, a local theater fixture for more than four decades, admired O’Keeffe’s moxie and wanted to delve into her marrow. She enlisted actor and model Mamatas to perform A Conversation with Georgia O’Keeffe by Constance Congdon late last decade.
But something was missing from the piece — namely O’Keeffe. Though Congdon’s play provides ample history and name-drops several people in the artist’s life, it left Brennen and Mamatas wanting to know Georgia more intimately — to capture her rapid thought process, articulate speech and intriguing idiosyncrasies.
The duo launched a years-long writing process. Mamatas researched and Brennen wrote Georgia O’Keeffe, Pioneer, an intimate chat in the artist’s New Mexico studio highlighting her evolution as an artist. The work in progress debuted more than a year ago and will be presented at the [email protected] in St. Petersburg this weekend.
“The piece offers our unique view of O’Keeffe from her point of view,” said Mamatas, who plays O’Keeffe. “She’s one of the most incredible women who ever lived. A role model to all women, especially young women because she started life in a little farm in Wisconsin and went on to become one of the most famous artists in a world.”
Every line in the play was spoken by O’Keeffe. Mamatas researched her mannerisms and delivery thoroughly.
An HSN spokeswomen, model and actor with delicate features, Mamatas turns 75 in June with no plastic surgery or Botox. Slender and gracious, Mamatas doesn’t resemble O’Keeffe but revives the artist with her no-frills demeanor, miles from her cheerful promotions on a TV shopping network.
Like O’Keeffe, Mamatas has lived in different settings and disregarded the rules imposed on 20th century women. She grew up in the Detroit area, was married twice and lived an “adventure-filled life” as a photographer and journalist in Japan, Switzerland, Greece, Australia and Zaire (now the Congo Republic). For the past few decades, Clearwater has been home.
Brennen could be the polar opposite. At 80, she’s full-figured and dresses with the flair of Rhoda from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. She still speaks in loud intonations when impassioned.
The award-winning director and playwright — among the first to champion diversity in casting and productions — established Stageworks Theatre in 1983 as a roving company that put on shows at Falk Theatre and other venues. The company staged musicals and dramas for paying audiences and as an educational resource.
Before relinquishing Stageworks to Karla Hartley in 2009, Brennen worked with icons like Sandy Misener, Colleen Dewhurst and Judi Dench. She taught acting to adults and brought theater to children aided by nonprofits.
Brennen met Mamatas when she cast her in The Chairs by Eugene Ionesco. Soon after, she hired her to do public relations for Stageworks.
Both Mamatas and Brennen raised children as single mothers.
“We appreciate in each other a grit and gumption, and independence,” Brennen said. “Just like Georgia O’Keeffe.”
• • •
In Brennen’s Davis Islands home, Mamatas put on the signature black kimono and staged a run-through flanked by the knotty pine, theater posters and mementos of Brennen’s parlor.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Pioneer follows the artist’s career from her early education to Stieglitz’s death, in 1965. The photographer is represented with a framed portrait while projections revisit O’Keeffe’s most famous works.
As O’Keeffe, Mamatas addressed the artist’s major influence, photographer and longtime partner Alfred Stieglitz; the exhibitions that framed her career; why she wore kimonos; the anatomical perceptions of her works; how she ended up in New Mexico and found Abiquiu; and why she didn’t have children.
Mamatas is affecting, filled with nuance and candor, even moments of childlike wonder. She helps us understand the vision that informed O’Keeffe’s repetition of charcoals, florals and desert cow skulls and landscapes.
And if you’re wondering about those “vaginal” flowers, O’Keeffe never accepted the idea that they resembled genitalia, Mamatas said.
“When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it is your world for the moment — I want to give that world to someone else,” Mamatas said as O’Keeffe. “I had begun to see things in close up, like Alfred did through his lens … It is only by selection, elimination and emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.”
IF YOU GO
Georgia O’Keeffe, Pioneer