TAMPA — Libya Pugh surveyed a sold out Jaeb Theater on Friday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, and gestured toward the seats.
"This is a very diverse audience, and you don't see that very often," said the actor, 42, who earlier that day had led a workshop at the second Tampa Bay Theatre Festival.
The crowd included former Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy in an audience that skewed younger than is typical for local theater events. The opening play, Hour Confessions, follows an informal men's support group hashing out their love lives, financial portfolios, the Bucs and Barack Obama.
Written by festival founder Rory Lawrence, the play provoked strong responses over two hours. The crowd reacted with hoots and cheers and spontaneous applause — which is also unusual (and for this reviewer, refreshing).
After a string of other jobs, including a lucrative stint at Merrill Lynch, Lawrence, 42, chucked the 9-to-5 lifestyle to return to his first love of acting discovered in high school (with Pugh in Mulberry).
He took acting lessons, got parts in a few movies and eventually began entering original plays in theater festivals in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta. Last year, he founded the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival, the first of its kind in the area.
The festival encourages participants to enter contests for full-length plays, short plays and monologues. This year's winner for best play, Six Triple Eight, by Mary McCallum, centers on the women of the segregated 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion during World War II.
Playwright April Bender won the short plays competition with The Sub, and Matt Mercurio won the monologue competition.
The festival Lawrence created (with sponsorship help from many this year, including the Tampa Bay Times), offered workshops in acting, directing, play writing and becoming a talent agent.
Lawrence drew on what he had learned at other festivals, but with one critical difference.
"When I have gone to festivals in the past, it was either predominantly white or black," he said. "No in-between. I told my team to look around the room at each other. My team is very multicultural and very diverse, and I told them this is what I want our festival to look like. And it did … I could have easily (called it) the Tampa Bay Black Theatre Festival, but that is not the vision of what we are trying to do. We are trying to unite everyone to come and enjoy the world of theater that this beautiful city has to offer."
Lawrence's persistence on the phone moved actor Harry Lennix of NBC's The Blacklist to lead a master class, even reducing his asking price.
Hour Confessions, one of six full-length plays offered over the weekend at the Straz, Stageworks Theatre and Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus, was set in a living room. Over a period of several months, the arc of the men's group evolves and deepens. They zing each other over being unemployed or henpecked or being a religious fanatic, and the laugh lines are plentiful.
The real issues surface by the second act and include family tragedy, addiction and infidelity. The cast of five men and two women comes from varying amounts of acting experience. All went for authenticity in a production that did what it set out to do.
The wisecracking Tracy, who is defensive about not having a job, is the star of the ensemble, and was played quite successfully by Shawn Brown, who could bring down the house with a raised eyebrow or an uncomfortable shift on the couch.
While this never billed itself as a professional production, Hour Confessions at the Straz accomplished what many professional shows do not: The audience had a good time.
Among them was acting coach and Venue Theatre founder Corinne Broskette, who worked with Lawrence for two years.
"I didn't know he had it in him," Broskette said of her former protege. "He's not just confident, he is brave with it."
The festival more than doubled its attendance from last year, Lawrence said.
"I am blown away," he said. "It far exceeded last year, which is a good indication of the potential that this festival has."
Lennix was impressed, too. The actor has volunteered to serve on the board for next year's festival, Lawrence said.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.