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Tampa Bay Theatre Festival starts Friday

Bill DeYoung



Rory Lawrence founded the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival in 2014. Photos: Rory Lawrence Productions

When Rory Lawrence and his hand-picked team inaugurated the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival in 2014, there was no real game plan.

“We were just runnin’ and gunnin,’ see what would work,” Lawrence laughs, “and what people liked.”

From the start, the three-day event included workshops, classes, performances and competitions, “for people who want to see theater, and for people who want to come and learn and grow, as actors and as writers.” Lawrence, an actor and playwright himself, also made sure to include networking events, as a way of bringing the theater community – from both sides of the bay – together to get acquainted.

“At the end of the first festival, we sent out a survey. We’d heard the good, but we really wanted to hear the bad, to hear people say what could have been done better. And we still do that each year, and we change it up. We learn from that.”

The sixth annual festival takes place Friday through Saturday (Aug. 30-Sept. 1) at the Straz Center complex in Tampa. Lawrence wrote the opening night show, Fighting God, which is exempt from competition (“the opening show is just there as entertainment,” he explains).

Lawrence caught the theater bug in high school, in Polk County. “I was a thespian and all that stuff, but once you get out into the real world, you gotta work,” he recalls. “And theater don’t really pay! I moved to Tampa about 18 years ago, and I still kept going to the theater when I could.”

Eventually, he began taking acting classes with St. Pete theater legend Corinne Broskette. He and his friends started putting on plays – including some he’d written himself (the first of these, Between Calls, was based on his experience working at a bay area call center. Today, he’s in the world of finance, helping people manage their retirement funds).

“I started doing my research about theater festivals,” Lawrence says. “And listening to all my friends in Tampa Bay theater groups who told me there wasn’t one here. Someone had tried to do a short play festival, but it didn’t work.”

Lawrence submitted his plays to festivals in Washington, D.C., Atlanta and other cities. When they were accepted, he and his crew attended, performed the work and watched. And learned.

“We just took from each one what we thought might work,” he says. “And the members of my team convinced me we should make it a three-day thing. I said ‘We know how to put on a play, but we don’t know how to get a whole bunch of people to come to workshops and classes … and we have no money. And we have no venues.’”

That was six years ago. Now, the Tampa Bay Theatre Festival sells out, or comes very close to it, every time around. “I was just telling my team last night, ‘I think we’re an accepted part of the theater community in Tampa Bay now,’” says Lawrence.

Young playwright Gabby Cabrera has two shows in competition, the short Where’s the Bread? and the full-length play (Re)Union. “An event like this is so important because it gives young artists a chance to put their name out there and give their work more exposure,” she says. “It’s also an excellent opportunity to meet more people with similar goals and learn from one another. I’m really looking forward to getting another chance to have more people see my work and learn from other talented artists.”

A native of Parkland, Florida, Cabrera is an alumna of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where 17 students were killed in a 2018 mass shooting. “Of course I had a lot of different feelings after this tragedy struck my hometown. This play allowed me to purge all of them out,” Cabrera explains.

(Re)Union, which was previously presented as part of the Tampa International Fringe Festival, is “a dark comedy that focuses on societal reactions to tragedy on both the micro and macro scale, as a small town reaches its boiling point.”



All performances at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, unless indicated.

Friday, Aug. 30

3:30 p.m. Playwriting workshop with Andre Minkins

5:30 p.m. Monologue Competition

7:30 p.m. Performance: Fighting God

9:30 p.m. Networking event


Saturday, Aug. 31

9 a.m. Directing for the Stage Workshop with Greg Thomas

11:30 a.m. Improv Workshop with Patrick McInnis

1:30 p.m. Auditioning Workshop with Karla Hartley

2 p.m. Performance: The Consciousness.

2 p.m. Performance: Filtered (a musical at the Carollwood Players)

2 p.m. Performance: Paper Walls (a musical at Stageworks Theatre)

6 p.m. Performance: Bobby is Dead (Carrollwood Players)

6 p.m. Performance: Filthy Gentlemen at Hillsborough Community College Visual Arts Bldg.

7 p.m. Performance: Black Woman Walking at Stageworks Theatre


Sunday, Sept. 1

10 a.m.: Short Play Competition 1

12:30 p.m.: Short Play Competition 2

3 p.m. Performance: (Re) Union at Hillsborough Community College Visual Arts Bldg.

3 p.m. Performance: CLAVICO! A Most Peculiar Musical Comedy at Carrollwood Players

7:30 p.m. Awards Party at Maestro’s Restaurant, Straz Center


Tampa Bay Theatre Festival website











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