Stageworks has the ’wright stuff 

Actor Jim Wicker helps showcase local playwrights through TampaWorks and the Radio Theatre Project.

If you’ve been attending Bay area theaters anytime over the last couple of decades, you’ve probably seen Jim Wicker act. He’s the tall, courtly guy who’s played various parts in three different versions of Hamlet and who’s delighted area audiences as Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Duke in Measure for Measure, and Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Wicker’s been acting in the area since the ’70s, and once you’ve seen him, you don’t forget him. Few other performers have lasted as long here, or been so dependable.

But Wicker has another role that’s not quite as visible as his acting: Through two separate ventures, he’s helping to provide local playwrights with production opportunities. More specifically, he’s a central figure behind TampaWorks (running at Stageworks June 6-9) and he’s the literary manager of the Radio Theatre Project, which just finished its 2012-13 season for WMNF and the Studio@620. If not for these two projects, there’d be next to no opportunities for local scribes to get pro productions. So what Wicker is doing really matters.

To begin with TampaWorks: This is an evening of eight 10-minute plays set in and around the Bay area and written by local authors. The plays this June take place variously in Hyde Park, at Tampa’s Hyatt Regency, in the Palma Ceia neighborhood, and at a St. Pete park, and they’re receiving full productions in Stageworks’ theater space, with local actors and directors contributing their efforts.

Wicker for years has been leading the Stagewrights playwrights’ group at Stageworks, and in 2011 he and the writers agreed that they would produce (in 2012) an evening of locally based plays as a fundraiser for Anna Brennen’s company.

“We set up auditions, we found directors, we found rehearsal spaces,” says Wicker. “We did the sets, we did the costumes, many of us directed and acted in pieces, and it was a huge success.”

For the second TampaWorks, Stageworks called for submissions by area writers. Wicker and playwright Ed Stevens read 13 submitted plays (without authors’ names on them) and chose Matt Cowley, Jack Gilhooley, Martin Tucker, Joie Marsh, Dewey Davis Thompson, Philip Hall, Lloyd Wilson, and Janet Scaglione. Only three of the selected plays are by Stagewrights members, and Wicker insists that all the scripts are high quality. He also thinks that this year’s audiences will have at least as good an experience in 2013 as they did last year.

“The thing that I think we accomplished was, we let a lot of people know, who certainly wouldn’t have otherwise, that there are writers in Tampa doing work worthy of production. Many of the people who came to the plays were not necessarily regularly theatergoers; they came because this was something new and different. And I think we opened a lot of eyes.” Information about Stagewrights — and about TampaWorks — can be found on the Stageworks website, stageworkstheatre.org.

The other local writing series in which Wicker plays an important part is the Radio Theatre Project, which just finished its season at the Studio@620 a couple of Mondays ago with plays by James Armstrong, Paul Wilborn, Matt Cowley, and James Rayfield. Plays recorded at the Studio (before a live audience) are later broadcast on WMNF’s Soundstage program, after which they are archived as podcasts. Wicker is literary manager for the series (led by Mimi and Rich Rice) and says he has good reason to look for local work: “When we got a grant from the Florida Humanities Council to underwrite producing radio plays written by Florida authors and with Florida themes, we started seeking scripts that met those criteria,” he says. “We don’t limit ourselves to those, but a lot of the work we do is written by Florida writers.”

Wicker is currently reading scripts (100 were submitted before the deadline) for the new season beginning in October, and is likely to act in a few of the pieces that he chooses. There’s not much of a fee if your work is chosen — writers only get $50 and a CD of the broadcast — but the exposure can still be validating. Information about the Radio Theatre Project can be found on the website at radiotheatreproject.org.

I’ve often heard playwrights complain that Bay area theaters aren’t interested in their work, and I think there’s some truth to it. But thanks to Jim Wicker and company, there’s some light seeping into this tunnel. TampaWorks and the Radio Theatre Project are successes. They’re likely to continue for years.

We’ve got to be grateful.

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