Seek out this Venue 

Pinellas Park’s Venue Theatre may be the Bay area’s best-kept secret.

Venue Theatre may be the best-kept secret in the Bay area theatre community. Small — it only seats about 50 — and hidden away in a nondescript shopping center in Pinellas Park, Venue often produces plays by little-known authors and staffs them with actors who, with a few exceptions, are equally unknown. Nevertheless, this stubborn pipsqueak has been around for 20 years (seven at its current location), and manages, from time to time, to offer a drama of real importance.

That’s what the the theater was hoping to do with its production of Tina Howe’s Painting Churches, about a woman’s attempt to make peace with her faltering Bostonian parents. However, a press release issued Tuesday brought sad news: “When a cast member in a three-person ensemble piece has to have an emergency appendectomy just a few days prior to opening, unfortunately the show can not go on,” wrote Venue Executive Director Corinne Broskette. “Additionally, prior commitments and scheduling conflicts at this time don’t allow us to delay the opening until later this season.”

Ron Zietz, the cast member in question, was doing a remarkable job in the role of Gardner Church, says Broskette, and it’s a shame his health prevented him from continuing. But as she said at the top of her email, “Life Happens.” It’s that never-say-die spirit that has kept Venue going for so long, which I learned more about during a visit to Broskette a few days before the cancellation of Painting Churches was announced.

“Venue Theatre was built for the purpose of giving opportunities to actors locally,” Broskette, who just turned 66, told me. “One of our first premises is that we don’t hire from out of town.” She added that Venue seeks out performers who have been mostly working in community theater, “but they’re of such a quality that they really deserve to be seen in a more professional setting.”

Operating with a small yearly budget of $54,000, Venue sends out “tons of press releases,” but doesn’t otherwise advertise, meaning that most productions are only seen by about 35 persons a night. There are some exceptions — local writer Gil Perlroth’s oft-reprised musical Ain’t Retirement Grand typically sells out the house, for example — but for the most part a typical Venue production is of a play no one else in the area has offered, featuring actors Broskette and her directors believe in but who may not be familiar to regular theatergoers.

Broskette’s own story helps explain Venue’s mission. She moved from Los Angeles to the Bay area in 1981, in order to look after her ailing mother. Prior to settling in L.A. she’d been a stage actress and singer (trained originally for opera), and had played a hippie in various touring companies of the musical Hair. Then she became a student/employee of legendary acting teacher Lee Strasberg at the Strasberg Theatre Institute in Hollywood, and took on roles in film and TV. Once in St. Petersburg, though, she found that her job as her mother’s caregiver allowed her little time for acting.

She did, however, find time to direct and to teach — at a now-defunct theater school near Haslam’s Book Store and later at the St. Petersburg Little Theatre (now the St. Petersburg City Theatre). It occurred to her that something was lacking from Bay area stages: “I saw everybody doing the same thing over and over again, and I felt like there had to be a quality of theater that was somewhere between what was going on in community theater — very amateur — and the professional stuff that was coming in town from Broadway or touring companies and even American Stage. There was a niche in there somewhere that I felt that we fit into.”

So together with actor/director Dan Khoury, Broskette started the Venue Theatre Collective: first production, the musical Kiss Me Kate. Thirteen years and several area stages later (including a stint at what is now Studio@620), the Venue moved into its present home in a shopping center best known for its Hudson’s Furniture Store.

I’ve seen some interesting, if not always impeccable, shows there over the years — shows that, as Broskette reminded me, no one else was doing. I saw William Mastrosimone’s Extremities there, A.R. Gurney’s Later Life, and an original play about Florida politician Claude Pepper, called Red Pepper. I’ve recognized a few of the better-known actors: Steve and Michael DuMouchel, for example, and the former WTVT newscaster Frank Robertson. Occasionally I’ve discovered an actor there — Dana Kovar comes to mind — who then starts turning up on more publicized area stages. And though I’ve never seen a designer solve the chronic problem of the Venue stage, I’m still grateful to Broskette for theater experiences I would have otherwise missed.

Audiences won’t get the chance to see Painting Churches, but the rest of Venue’s season will continue as planned, beginning with Lloyd Wilson’s Fragile Fate (Jan. 11-27). Put it on your calendar — and if you’re a performer trying to make the transition from amateur to pro, consider auditioning or signing up for an acting class to develop your talent and your pluck.

Because if the delightful and resilient Broskette knows about anything, it’s pluck. Venue Theatre lives. And it doesn’t deserve to be such a secret.

Venue Theatre, 9125 U.S. 19, Pinellas Park, 727-822-6194, venueactorstudio.org.

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