The long path to Stageworks' new theater in the Channel District 

Stageworks' new space in the Channel District of Tampa held its groundbreaking last week, and celebrating the moment were Mayor Pam Iorio, City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena, Arts Council Executive Director Art Keeble, writer/philanthropist Elaine Shimberg, developer Ken Stoltenberg and a host of other luminaries and well-wishers. Anna Brennen, long the producing director of Stageworks, gave a welcoming speech in which she announced that the new location "will be a sanctuary for artists where they will congregate, create and perform... We will be a home for diverse youth... to learn and 'do' theater... [and] lastly, I wish us to stake our claim, without irony or arrogance, to becoming a world class theater community."

But wait a minute -- wasn't this new space supposed to be finished a few years ago? I have in my files a blue Stageworks flyer that says the theater "will have a home [in the Channel District] by fall 2007." Now Brennen says that "we're hoping that that whole thing gets finished by January 2011." What's holding up the show?

The economy, says Brennen. "Well, yeah, hello, we've been through a depression! People weren't too happy to give up any money because they've lost too much," she explains. But even if the theater's completion has been delayed, "You know, I don't worry about it. My philosophy is always one foot in front of the other, and you just keep going... Because I think [with] something like this in a) Tampa and b) this economic environment, you have to be patient."

And nearly enough money's been raised to get the theater half constructed. "The first phase we hope to have completed by July," says Brennen. "Phase one means that we will have the concrete in, all the plugs for electrical and mechanical, and, you know, things like plumbing and a/c and water. And all of the studs for drywall, and all the frames for the doors. And the second floor, even the catwalk. Then it becomes the issue of building it out."

By "building out," Brennen means the completion of the theater's interior, from its stage and seating to the lobby, dressing rooms, rehearsal room and bathrooms. It's a lot, but on the other hand, Stageworks is getting the space from Stoltenberg for "$10 a year, for 30 years, renewable for another 30." A remarkable deal.

How much will it cost to complete the new theater? According to Andrea Graham, chair of the Stageworks board, the figure is about $500,000. Wasn't that the same figure Graham mentioned when I talked to her a year ago?

"This year, other than our gala, has been a very slow year in terms of raising money for the capital campaign," Graham says. "And as we have refined the numbers, there are things that we realize we, Stageworks, are going to have to basically buy and contribute to the project. So the total cost -- well, gosh, the total cost originally three and a half years ago, was $500,000. If that were it, we'd be very close. Then it jumped up to $750,000. We are now at just under a million dollars... about $980,000. But we're still working on value engineering, and I'm still working on getting items donated -- in fact, I think I just got the drywall donated, so that will help us in phase two."

Graham says that "the problem is I don't have enough people out there asking for money... There is money out there; it's just a very slow process."

Of course, Stageworks isn't the only theater in the Bay area that's leaving an old house for a new one. American Stage in St. Petersburg officially moved only eight months ago, and their new theater is a comfortable, state-of-the-art joy in which to witness live drama. I asked American Stage producing artistic director Todd Olson what advice he had for Brennen as she comes nearer to Stageworks' transition. He e-mailed the following answer:

"Budget extra for unexpected things. Plan on extra time for the stuff you didn't anticipate. Ease into the technically difficult productions the way you wait to drive 90 mph in a new car. Expect 10% of things to go wrong. Make sure the audience-going experience will be significantly upgraded... and trumpet that story as much as you can. People will follow that. Get everything you ever feared and/or hoped in writing."

As to delays in his own experience, "We had no delays and no fundraising shortfalls. We were lucky. And we planned well. And it was terrifically hard. I have a remarkable staff."

As anyone who knows them can attest, Brennen and Graham are remarkable people, too, and it seems inevitable that they will get their new theater. The groundbreaking last week sent that message to the whole community.

It's just taking more time than anyone imagined.

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