Transition time for Stageworks Theatre

Talking with longtime head Anna Brennen and her hand-picked successor, Karla Hartley.

Posted by Mark E. Leib on Mon, Jan 13, 2014 at 1:17 PM

THE FUTURE JUST KIND OF STRUCK: Brennen (left) and Hartley at Brennen’s  home in Davis Islands.
  • KEVIN TIGHE
  • "THE FUTURE JUST KIND OF STRUCK": Brennen (left) and Hartley at Brennen’s home in Davis Islands.

You’ve probably heard by now that Anna Brennen retired on Dec. 31 after 30 years of running Tampa’s Stageworks, and that she’s been succeeded by Karla Hartley, formerly the theater’s associate artistic director. But you might have some questions — as I did, when I sat down with Brennen and Hartley at Brennen’s Davis Islands house (headquarters for Stageworks until now) on a late afternoon a few days ago.
The first question went to Brennen: Why are you retiring?

“Why not?” she answered, and laughed. Then she got to the point: “I need a rest. I’m tired. The art I’ll never tire of. But the admin — I mean, 30 years, 25 of which I wrote grants… I mean, the stress of that plus a space to run…” Her voice trailed off: surely it was clear that such work was exhausting.

How long had she been thinking of making this move? Hartley answered: “We’ve been talking about a relative transition for years.”

“Absolutely,” said Brennen. “And I had in mind, it would be in the near future, and then that future kind of just struck.”

In fact, Brennen had told Hartley years ago that she’d like her to be her successor at Stageworks, but Hartley’s other employments — especially at the Straz Center — had always kept her at a distance. Then in 2009, as part of a major reshuffling, the Straz let Hartley go, and Brennen made her Stageworks’ associate artistic director. The two have been preparing for this moment ever since.

What about the theater that she’s leaving makes Brennen most proud?

“That’s a really tough question,” she said. “But the easiest answer, which is probably the truest: it’s miraculous we survived. As a minority theater, run by a minority, Northern female, with a big mouth — and I don’t mince my words, and I’m proud of it… Just the fact that it’s there. And was able to do the outreach and serve the people: the children, and the seniors who were indigent, and the playwrights.”

She added that it was easier to leave Stageworks feeling that it’s finally succeeding at its mission of attracting a multi-ethnic audience beyond the Jewish and gay spectators who have perennially attended.

“This last year, for my money, was a banner year,” she said. “Because we increased, I’m sure doubled, the number of African-Americans who attend, and for the first time had a huge Hispanic population, which is what we needed.”

As for regrets, she was mainly disturbed that Stageworks hadn’t been able to hire some of the union actors whose fees she couldn’t afford. Even one very skilled actor can stimulate a whole cast to higher achievements, she noted.

Now it was Hartley’s turn to hear an inevitable question: What’s her vision for Stageworks?

“I have a commitment to the mission of Stageworks, which is multi-racial, multi-cultural,” she said. But “I think we need to — and we’ve talked about this over the last several years — to really find a way to gather a younger audience base that will respond to more edgy work, for lack of a better term… So we’re going to actively engage a small marketing subcommittee of people who are of college age or younger to really talk about what those folks want to see.”

What if she were to find out that the audience wanted less art and more fluff?

“I think that you have to maintain a balance,” said Hartley. “In the same way you cannot art your way into bankruptcy, you cannot sort of fluff your way into success… I do think that people want to be engaged on a deeper level. Maybe not all of the time, and I totally get that… But I would rather do really important work that I think is valuable on an intellectual, on an emotional, on a cultural basis, and have it maybe not blow the box office out, but know that we did it, and know that it was important and that it needed to be done. And then I’m happy to do something else that will knock the box office out of the park.” As examples of favorites from Stageworks’ recent past, she cited The Colored Museum, Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, and ’Night, Mother.

Finally, I asked Brennen whether she’ll be hands-off now that she’s no longer Stageworks’ A.D., or can Hartley expect to be getting a lot of phone calls? “No, I’ll send her an email,” she laughed. “I’ll send her an email and say, ‘I just found a great play, take a look.’ No, I wouldn’t not tell her. That would be stupid!”

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