Tampa lost a theater champion when Anna Brennen, founder of Stageworks Theatre, died after a battle with lung cancer Friday. She was 82.
Known as “Drama Mama,” Ms. Brennen was an actor, director and playwright.
She founded Stageworks, Tampa’s longest-running professional theater company, in 1983. Before stepping down as producing artistic director in 2013, she produced or directed more than 90 mainstage productions in Tampa.
Karla Hartley replaced Ms. Brennen as producing artistic director, which she called a “blessing,” as she was chosen by Ms. Brennen to fill the role.
“She was absolutely passionate about the work and she demanded 100 percent dedication to anything you were doing with her,” Hartley said.
Ms. Brennen grew up on a ranch near Elko, Nev., but her passion for theater led her away.
She studied theatre at Carnegie Mellon University and the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s. She also trained with Sanford “Sandy” Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre in New York, Mira Rostova at Moscow Art Theatre, Wynn Handman at The American Place Theatre and Lloyd Richards at the Yale School of Drama.
In New York, she understudied Colleen Dewhurst as Gertrude in the New York Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet in Central Park in 1972. She also understudied the three leads in the festival’s production of Much Ado About Nothing while theater heavy hitter Joseph Papp was running the company.
She came to the Tampa Bay area after 11 years as an actor in New York. As a single mom, she’d gotten a job as a sales representative for Xerox to provide for her daughter, Lisa Stearns Deal. She transferred to Tampa with the copier company in 1978 and worked there until her daughter graduated from college.
Stearns Deal called her mother a “force of nature with unbelievable energy and focus.”
“She moved to Tampa and made theater happen there,” she said. “The theater industry in Tampa was indelibly changed.”
Ms. Brennen founded Stageworks with a mission “to provide the highest quality professional theater which respects, ignites and celebrates the human spirit while challenging the thresholds of intolerance and insensitivity.”
In other words, to showcase plays by, about and for women and people of color.
“She was a trailblazer,” said Andrea Graham, who served as Stageworks’ board president for 15 years. “What she did back then, all of the theater companies are doing now by presenting diversity.”
Stearns Deal said that Ms. Brennen’s focus on excellence ruffled some feathers along the way, but that she “reveled in controversy” and was a “spitfire.”
She said her mother believed that theater could change the world and fought to prove that.
Ms. Brennen created outreach programs that brought theater into Hillsborough County middle schools. One series addressed the AIDS crisis and provided information about how it could be transmitted.
In the early decades, Stageworks was a “gypsy” theater, renting spaces at the Shimberg Playhouse at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center (now the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts) and the University of Tampa’s Falk Theatre. In 2012, the company moved into its permanent home in the Channel District.
As a playwright, Ms. Brennen’s first play, Sleepless Dancer (Victims 3) had an Equity showcase production at N.E.T.W.O.R.K. in New York City in 1980. She received an emerging artist grant from the Hillsborough County Arts Council for her play, Echo, Nevada. That play has recently been picked up by other theater companies for staged readings.
In 2006, Ms. Brennen was given the Artist of the Year Award by then-Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio. She was honored with the Rotary Club of Tampa’s 2014 Unsung Hero Award and Theatre Tampa Bay’s 2014 Visionary Award.
Graham called Ms. Brennen one of the most brilliant people she’d ever met, not just in the theater. She agreed with Stearns Deal that Ms. Brennen is to thank for the growth of the local theater scene because she realized “Tampa was a land of opportunity.”
She also described Ms. Brennen as a “nurturer of raw talent” who would find students coming out of theater school and cast them in plays.
“Her spirit is always present in the theater,” Graham said.
Anna Brennen is survived by her daughter Lisa Steans Deal, granddaughter Victoria Deal and grandson Chip Deal. No service has been planned, but Stearns Deal said there may be one in the fall, at Stageworks.