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  • Writer's pictureGreg Thompson

My Tampa Theater Journey, Part 1

To begin this I should let you know, I've lived in the Tampa Bay Area for two distinct periods of time the first was 1986 - 1998 and the second was 2012 - currently. Beginning in 1993 I didn't do any theater work in the area, or stay in touch with folks, until I came back in 2012. Since that time I have always thought I've had a much different perspective on the theater scene in the area.

I first moved to the Tampa area in 1986. I was struggling with college in my home town of Chicago (more on that in another post), my parents had moved to Tarpon Springs and I decided to follow them down to the Sunshine State. Influencing my decision was that Universal Studios was just beginning to build in Orlando, and I thought I'd be able to get in on the ground-floor of a growing film studio path in Florida (more on that in another post, too). I had no idea what the theater offerings were, though being from Chicago I did not have high theater expectations.

So in July of 1986 I found myself living in Tarpon Springs, Florida. Most of those first several months were spent trying to figure out what I really wanted to do, career wise, and with ever-mounting pressure from my father about completing college. I really think, had I been brave enough, I should have just left college for a time to go full time into theater or film; either to stay in Chicago or go back to Los Angeles. (once again, more on that subject in another post.)

So here I was living in Tarpon Springs, when, sometime, in the fall of 1986, I discovered theater opportunities in St. Petersburg. I can't remember how I heard about this audition opportunity. My first was a small, storefront space, the name of which has long since left my memory, located on Central Ave just across the street from Haslam's Bookstore. (not the Golden Apple, a block or so west of that). It was a production of "The Dining Room".

Not long after that I was able to work with Steve Mountain and Jim Wicker and Karen and Vern Troutner (and many others) in that same space.

It was about this time I first met Ana Brennan. Stageworks had begun but I really wasn't savvy enough to understand what starting a theater meant, so it was probably mentioned to me but it didn't stick. I was invited to her home on Davis Island to read for a production of Suddenly Last Summer. This production was in the Central Avenue theater space I first encountered. Steve Mountain directed (I'd already worked with Steve on a production of Artist Descending a Staircase). At any rate during my meeting with Ana, she needed something from the store se we went to the store. On the way she asked what my nationality was. I responded "Scots" (many people think I'm Mediterranean of some type, but as a recent 23 and me test attests I am about as Great Britain and northern European as one can be). Ana responded "Scots? Oh, yes, like Ivanhoe. The dark Scot!" I tell you this story because, when I ran into her at Stageworks in 2014 or 2015, I said hello, and as she took my hand she said "Oh, yes! The Dark Scot!"

What I came to learn about theater in Tampa Bay in the mid 1980s was that there was quite a bit of work (as long as you didn't expect to be paid). I also learned that there was American Stage and the Tampa Players, and that was about it as far as paying gigs went.

About this time (mid-80s) the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center was completed, and I worked in the box office in some of its very earliest days. I'm sure there were computers but I don't remember them and I know I didn't work on a computer. I answered phones and scribbled ticket orders on a form that were then turned over to people who actually assigned and distributed the tickets. At the time there were the two larger spaces (l can't remember if the names Morsani and Ferguson were already assigned, but probably they were) and all the way at the far end was the Jaeb (I do remember the Jaeb being the Jaeb from the beginning). In between was the box office, and a long no-man's land of empty theater space not yet assigned a purpose, just empty, uninviting, darkened glass.

I enrolled at USF in the Theater program (back when the upstairs area of the theater building was mostly open space, and Paul Massey, Christopher Steel and Dennis Calandra were teaching and Nancy Cole). I did The Hostage at USF and worked on building costumes for the ill-fated production of the Tempest (when Paul played Prospero and was injured opening night).

Mostly though, I spent my acting time outside USF. Crimes of the Heart with the Carrollwood Players, back when they were in a store front around Dale Mabry and Fletcher (I think), Arsenic and Old Lace (where I first worked with James Demetrius) at the theater that has since become the Capitol Theater in Clearwater, and a couple of shows in a small space at Ruth Eckerd Hall, that I think is now offices. A production of Teahouse of the August Moon at the VFW Hall in St Pete. Mostly though, I did shows at the Boatyard Village with Nan Colton directing.

The Boatyard Village Theater was just off the St Pete Airport (this was before the Bayside Bridge was there). I think the plan for this location had been to build a recreation of an authentic old rustic Florida fishing village (I don't think it was original, though it sure looked like the developers had found this old complex and just installed a parking lot) old weather worn wood siding and tin roofs covered several buildings in this complex. One of these rustic "old" buildings was a theater space (may be a hundred seats). The village itself was, during my time, never really a thriving spot, though, as I recall we got good houses out to see the shows and I was part of what I still think is some pretty good work. I was part of the Elephant Man (with Keven Renken and Kevin Corrigan), Sweet Bird of Youth, Dracula, The Nerd (with TJ and Susan Gil, Keven, and Paul and (now) Roz Potenza (that was the show where they met). A production of Six Characters in Search of an Author. Also my first formal, foray into Shakespeare in a production of Hamlet (the one with Patrick Wilson as one of the players in the play within the play). We took the productions of the Elephant Man and The Nerd to the Jaeb.

When I left performing in 1993 (because, as they say, "life got in the way") there were opportunities and a thriving community-theater community, but the idea of making one's living in theater in the Bay area was, I think, unheard of or at best just beginning to be something local practitioners began to tale seriously.

By the time I returned in 2012 nearly twenty years after my last Bay area theater gig, the theater scene had completely transformed.

To be Continued...

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