Shakespeare had the Globe Theater in London to test his ideas. Since 2015, Tampa has had the Lab Theater Project, a place where budding playwrights can see if their work can transition from print to live performance.
It’s the brainchild of Owen Robertson, a theater enthusiast dedicated to directing new plays.
“It’s not an easy path to new work,” says Robertson. “There is no one like us in the state of Florida.”
While most people are aware of the difficult career path for aspiring actors, few remember that playwrights don’t have it easy seeing their new work unfold on stage with live actors. The Lab Theater gives them this opportunity.
“We want to grow new artists in our community,” says Robertson.
Robertson grew up in the Washington, DC area and landed in Tampa in 2003 when his day job in the warehousing and rental industry brought him here. Since then, he has seen Tampa’s theater scene blossom.
“Between 2003 and now, it has increased significantly,” he says.
Robertson, 54, caught the theater bug in college when a classmate in an astronomy class at George Mason University in Virginia challenged him to audition for a play.
“She loved my voice,” he recalls. “I said to him, ‘If I audition, are you going to stop bothering me?'”
He’s been addicted ever since. He portrayed the Duke in “Two Gentlemen of Verona” and earned an MFA in writing for stage and screen at the New Hampshire Institute of Art. He has worked as an actor, designer, producer, director and stage manager.
“I was a theater generalist,” he says.
After spending time with the New Jersey Playwrights Theater he moved to Tampa where in 2015 he founded the LAB Theater, literally a lab where new playwrights can see if their ideas work on stage.
“I started it personally for five years and had good attendance,” Robertson says.
In late 2019, he formed a board of directors and established the theater as a 501 c3 nonprofit institution. In January 2020, he rented space at 812 East Henderson Ave., just west of Ybor City.
“It was a former barbershop and office space and it was a mess,” Robertson says. “I, my wife, seven board members and volunteers spent two months cleaning up.”
The space, with a stage and 45 seats, was ready to go. But then the wayward finger of fate intervened. The COVID pandemic is closing all cinemas. The business survives through personal donations, the Hillsborough County Arts Council, the Gobioff Foundation and the Federal Disaster Emergency Fund. In July 2020, they are able to get back to staging new plays.
They are also starting to broadcast their performances live.
“It was tough at first, but now we average around 180 people per performance,” says Robertson. “One of the benefits of the live broadcast is that we have an international audience with viewers from Ireland, Germany, France, South Africa, Mexico and India.”
Their first live-streamed show only had 10 people in the theater due to social distancing, but drew 72 virtual viewers.
“People were hungry to see theater,” Robertson says. “They had burned through all Netflix offerings and they were looking for alternatives.”
He says the pandemic has had a silver lining.
“COVID has been really good for me,” Robertson says. “It forced us to be very innovative in what we do,” he said.
Now they are preparing to stage their first original musical, a country and western show, “It Started With a Kiss”, written by James Rayfield with music and lyrics by Mike Deeson, a Channel investigative journalist 10. In-person shows are July 7-24. On-demand shows run July 21 through August 4.
“You will never have heard of our playwrights,” Robertson says jubilantly. “However, you might be able to say you first heard about it here in Tampa.
For more information, visit Lab Theater Project or call (813) 586-4272.
This is the fifth in a series about the talented people shaping the local theater scene. To learn more, follow these links:
Avery Anderson at American Stadium.
Emilia Sargent at Tampa Repertoire.
David Jenkins at the shipyard.
Karla Hartley at Stageworks.