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Theater festival still holding its own in third year

The Tampa Bay Theatre Festival survived a storm threat over the Labor Day weekend and left participants with a post-conference buzz.
A standing-room crowd of more than 300 packed the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts' Jaeb Theater Friday, as Tampa native R. Anthony, a popular contestant on Season Five NBC's The Voice, opened the festival with an R&B number.
By the Sunday night awards party at Maestro's Restaurant, participants had sampled workshops (including a three-hour master class in acting by Harry Lennix, of NBC's The Blacklist and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), six full-length original plays, 14 short plays and 15 monologues.
"I was super nervous about the weather and how it would affect opening night," said Rory Lawrence, who founded the festival three years ago. Friday's main event was Between Calls, Lawrence's play about the bumpy relationships among co-workers at a call center. Lawrence trimmed the play, his first, by a third since writing it five years ago. At its funniest, the show highlights awkward attempts by black, white, Asian and Latino workers to find each other through a thicket of stereotypes.
Winners for annual competitions included Karleigh Chase for her full-length, one-woman show, Memoirs of a Painted Woman; and Ryan Bernier for his short play, The Fruitiest Man in All the Land. Kendra Treuberg Pepe won the monologue competition.
Conference crowds included high school seniors who had won free passes through Dr. K's Scholars, a program created by festival co-founder Kahlila Lawrence, a child psychologist and Rory's wife.
Though workshop attendance was down a bit from 2015, more people showed up to an opening night networking party than last year, where more local theaters had set up tables.
"There were a couple people there from two other festivals, the Atlanta Black Theatre Festival and the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem (N.C.), and they were simply amazed," Lawrence said. "Especially with this festival only being three years old."