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Tampa’s Karla Hartley braves ‘the boundaries of the bridges’ to direct at American Stage

Bill DeYoung



As a panelist at Tampa mayor Jane Castor’s Forum on the Arts last month, Stageworks Theatre producing artistic director Karla Hartley discussed the unassailable importance of the arts in making “this city, our city, my city, a vibrant place in which to live.”

Tampa born and bred, Hartley has been a leading player in the bay area’s theatrical community for 25 years. She was handed the reins to Stageworks in 2013, and today is widely respected for not only her directorial and design talents, but her bold, innovative programming choices.

The cast of American Stage’s “Fun Home,” opening with previews July 17 and 18. Joey Clay Photography.

She’s in St. Pete – itself no stranger to envelope-pushing theater – directing the five-time Tony-winning Fun Home at American Stage (tickets and info here). Alison Bechdel’s play, with Grammy-nominated songs by Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori, is a reflective look back on a young girl’s relationship with her father. As a college student, she reveals to her parents that she’s a lesbian. Soon after, she discovers that her father had spent much of his life as a closeted homosexual.

“I really love the play,” says Hartley. “I think it says something very, very important, and I wanted to be a part of it. Secondly, I think it’s good for me, and I think it’s good for Stageworks, if I’m out and about. And the name of the company, and my name in particular, spreads past the boundaries of the bridges.”

Artistically, too, Hartley and board agree that it’s a good idea to change up her environment and see how other theaters do things. After Fun Home opens July 19, she’ll jet up to Greene, N.Y. to direct The Immigrant at Chenango River Theatre.

Then it’s back to Stageworks, where the 2019-2020 season begins Sept. 27.

Hartley’s relationship with American Stage goes back a decade. As an Equity stage manager, and production manager, she worked behind the scenes for three years, and directed numerous outdoor “park” shows for the company, along with Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England by Madeleine George (“the other lesbian play in recent memory at American Stage”) and other non-park productions.

A longtime theater obsessive who acted and directed all across Tampa, she’d earned a BFA in Theater Studies from Boston University before coming back home for good.

Hartley spent 15 years as technical director at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, starting in the days before it was renamed for David A. Straz. Although she did some directing at the Off-Centre Theatre (a.k.a. the Shimberg Theatre), she found herself increasingly unfulfilled, in the creative sense. By the end of her tenure there, she explains, her work was mostly administrative.

In 2009, a major “re-shuffling” dropped the ax on 25 Straz employees. Hartley was one of them. “As devastating as that was,” she says, “it was probably the right choice. For me. There’s a complacency that happens.

“Being thrust out of that was awful, but to get back to being an artist was just amazing. And it continues to be. I’m supposed to be making work and touching lives, and hopefully changing understandings. I’m not supposed to be sitting in a cubicle on the fourth floor, doing Excel spreadsheets with budgets.”

Those first post-layoff years were tough, as Hartley bounced between American stage and temporary gigs at Jobsite and Stageworks, Tampa’s top professional theater companies.

“It’s that artist thing,” she laughs, “where you’re convinced that eventually somebody’s going to tap you on the shoulder and go ‘You’ve fooled people long enough; get out of here.’ In anticipation of those famine times, you just take anything and everything. And I was just killing myself. It was a lot.”

When Stageworks founder Anna Brennen retired, after 30 years as artistic director, grant writer and overall grand poobah, she chose associate artistic director Karla Hartley as her successor.

The company’s first show, 1983’s A Couple of White Chicks Standing Around Talking, was produced in a Ybor City storefront (with Brennan directing). Over the years, there have been several home bases, and Stageworks moved into its current home, in the historic Channelside District, in 2011.

Stageworks is now the oldest continually-operating theater in Tampa (as for Bay Area professional theaters, only American Stage, at 42, has been around longer).

“I’m very happy with the way the theater has grown, both in terms of its production value and its outreach to the community,” Hartley says. “And I feel like we’re only poised to do bigger and better things.”

She is most proud of Stageworks’ Hispanic Initiative; each season includes at least one play that explores, in some fashion, Latino culture. “Inclusion” is an important concept for Karla Hartley; considering Tampa’s large Hispanic population, the initiative was a no-brainer – especially when her research uncovered the fact that decades had passed since a play, any play, in the Spanish language had been produced locally.

“In the Time of the Butterflies,” Stageworks, 2018. Photo provided

Half the performances of Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, in the spring of 2018, were in Spanish, the others in English. All performed by the same cast.

“I am a huge fan of her commitment to producing diverse shows that truly represent the community we live in,” enthuses Butterflies co-star Cornelio “Coky” Aguilera, “even when it’s not the easiest choice to make, or of a language or culture she can fully understand.”

Aguilera has appeared in numerous Stageworks shows; his relationship with the company goes back seven years.

“Her ability to bring together the right people for the job in order to not only serve this theatrical community, but those of the Tampa community that have still yet to be really invited into the world of the theater, is a testament to who she is as a person and the reason I am still up on that stage,” he explains.

The dialogue and song lyrics in Stageworks’ recent Four Guys Named Jose smartly combined Spanish and English; next season’s Anna in the Tropics will be produced in both languages.

Aguilera also praises Hartley’s talents as a director. “She is so willing,” he says, “to allow a collaborative, creative process, and not go the route of the menacing, manipulative, dictator type that many others are known for.”

That’s because Hartley sees the process as collaborative. “I think the greatest weapon that the artist has in their arsenal is curiosity,” she explains. “I always feel as though I’m learning. I don’t know everything. I tell actors all the time, in the first rehearsal, ‘I don’t have the best idea in this room, and I’m willing to hear from everybody.’

“At the end of the day I’m responsible for making the choices and making the decisions, but I believe in a highly collaborative process that engages actors in ways that allow them to take ownership of what it is they’re doing, and ownership of the play itself. Because that’s going to elicit a better performance.”

Hartley and her cast agree that Fun Home is “a play with music,” not traditional musical theater in the way that, say, Hello, Dolly is musical theater.

Despite its serious subject matter, she adds, “the show can be very, very funny. The music is great but also, it’ll break your heart. And that’s the best of both worlds, for me.”

Three actresses play Alison at various stages in her life. “The play at its base is a relationship play about a father and a daughter. We can all relate to that. The specific challenges between the father and the daughter may be specific to one community, but at its heart it’s about family.

“It’s a story that every gay person can come to and identify with, very specifically. It’s also universal in such a way that other people can come and look at it, and understand it for themselves, within whatever their familial challenges are. And also see it in a broader context.”

Hartley’s still got the acting bug, too: That’s her at far right in Stageworks’ 2017 production of “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.” Photo provided.





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