A life in the theater, it is said, is a life well-lived.
This was certainly true for Anna Brennen, founder of Stageworks, the longest-lived professional theater company in Tampa. Brennan died Feb. 12 at 82.
Brennen received formal theater training at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California, Berkley. She trained with acting legend Sanford Meisner in New York, and with other educational luminaries. She was also a published playwright and successful director.
A single mother raising a young daughter, Brennen relocated to Tampa from New York in the late 1970s, and founded Stageworks in 1983. “She was a force of nature,” said Andrea Graham, a longtime friend and supporter who served as Stageworks’ board president for 15 years. “Sometimes very difficult. But I have to say, she had a touch of the poet, and was one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. Borderline genius.”
Brennen was a pioneer – particularly in the Tampa Bay area – in the introduction to diversity in theater. “She was dedicated to doing plays of and about women – and plays that you had to cast women in,” Graham said. “Nowadays, of course, everybody does shows about women. I’m talking 40 years ago.
“And she was the first director to do plays about the African American situation in the United States and elsewhere. Again, today it’s accepted – if you’re not doing plays about diversity, you’re not considered a serious theater.”
She received a Florida Arts Council Playwriting Fellowship in 1981 and an Emerging Artists grant from the Hillsborough County Arts Council in 1989.
Brennen’s play Inner Circle, a brutally honest drama about the AIDS crisis, toured Hillsborough high schools for over a decade. Produced in conjunction with the Tampa AIDS Network, it led to Stageworks’ outreach program for at-risk youth – believed to be the first such theater program in the bay area.
“Theater is a way of saving the children who are neglected, abandoned, lost,” Brennen once said. “It’s a powerful tool for helping anybody find their way, because it connects humanity.”
In its first decades, Stageworks was a “gypsy” theater, putting on shows in different venues, such as the University of Tampa Falk Theatre, or on the smaller stages at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the David A. Straz Center).
In 2011, with Graham leading the fundraising effort, the nonprofit company moved into a permanent home on Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa’s Channel District. It’s still there today, and returned to live performances (for small, socially-distanced audiences) Feb. 12 after nearly a year of closure necessitated by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Upon her retirement at the end of 2013, Brennen hand-picked Karla Hartley, who’d worked closely with Stageworks for several years, as her successor.
“She kept that theater company going on a wing and a prayer for 30 years,” Hartley said. “I think everybody in town respected her for that. And she was the only woman artistic director here for years. I can’t even think of another one.”
Brennen, Hartley said, “was very specific about the way she wanted things; she was very old school. Her directorial style and mine were polar opposites. She really did learn the old school way – she worked with Stella Adler, Joe Papp, and lot of big people in the business.
“And so she could rub people the wrong way, but it was in the earnest exploration of making sure that the finest work was onstage. She always wanted the best out of people. She was very passionate about the work, and wanted to get the best out of any production that was on her stage, under her moniker.”
Andrea Graham echoed Hartley’s sentiment. “Anna was always able to see talent in actors before they could see it themselves,” she said.
“She loved developing talent, and among her numerous contributions to the theater scene in Tampa, I think that was the greatest.”