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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Brennen helped turn ‘wasteland’ into thriving arts community

I spent most of a 45-minute interview the other day with Anna Brennen furiously scribbling notes as she told the tale of her life. I didn’t really get to say much beyond, “Hi Anna, so tell me about ...”

And she was off, telling, between bites of a coconut yogurt popsicle, how she was born on a Native American reservation in Nevada, although no one can prove that because she has no birth certificate.

“It’s what I was told,” she said.

What we can say for sure is that live theater is in her blood, and Tampa is better for that.

Brennen has been a vital, raspy-voiced, four-letter-word-using, one-woman tour de force for the last 30 years to help change a place that once, she said, left her “thunderstruck by the absence of culture.”

In 1983, she founded Stageworks Theatre in Tampa and nurtured it through a nomadic life of several venues until it settled into its permanent Channel District home in 2011.

Did I say nurture?

She writes. She directs. There was no doubt who was in charge. “She pushes people to their limits,” said friend and local actor Dennis Duggan. “We call her Drama Mama. She has ticked people off, but she pulled stuff out of them they didn’t know they had. She is not politically correct at all, but she worked for her art.

“Anyone can put together a show, and a big cast, and music and bring out big crowds. What Anna does is connect people to theater.”

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Three decades after coming here, Drama Mama stepped down a few months ago from Stageworks. Don’t ask her age because she won’t tell, except, “I’m older than 65.”

That’s a lot of years of raising money, sweating the bills, pushing performers, and making sure her love of this art had the widest exposure she could give. She plans to travel, visit family and friends, and finish a play she has been writing. She has more than earned that.

Her route to our city was a little convoluted.

When she was 7 years old and still in Nevada, she would organize neighborhood kids into plays wrapped around Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July and Halloween. She was in charge, of course.

She migrated to Berkeley, Calif., where a friend suggested she study theater at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Then it was off to London, where she hung out with Sir Laurence Olivier, and to New York. That’s where she said, “I sort of combed the halls of theaters.”

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She settled on a life in Tampa because it reminded her of San Francisco, minus a certain cultural ambiance.

“It was a veritable Mojave Desert,” she said.

It is a desert no longer. On Tuesday, Anna will receive the Tampa Rotary Club’s Unsung Hero Award. Full disclosure: Although I am not a club member, I was on the committee that chose her, and I might have pushed hard on her behalf.

She has been tireless in taking live theater to the masses. Stageworks routinely features minority actors and playwrights. Its mission statement speaks to celebrating “the human spirit while challenging the thresholds of intolerance and insensitivity.”

“Theater is life to life,” she said. “There is real energy being shown.”

She has helped take shows to prison inmates so they can feel that real energy. She started an outreach program called the Rainbow Tribe, which gives at-risk youth exposure to all aspects of theater. It has grown phenomenally.

“Out of everything, I’m proudest of that,” she said.

Communities need people like Anna Brennen, who have a passion and won’t let it go until everyone gets it right, but it’s up to others to move it forward now.

Thanks to Brennen, at least they won’t be wandering in a desert.

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