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Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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‘Plant City girl’ exits stage left, leaves her heart with community theater

PLANT CITY Apparently, you can take Jennifer Fenner out of Plant City but you won’t be able to take Plant City out Fenner, as she made very clear to her friends and theater colleagues who met to say goodbye this month.

Fenner, 54, has accepted a job with Verizon Wireless in New Jersey, which means the 34-year-old Plant City Entertainment community theater troupe is losing one of its very first members.

“Even though we’re all so happy for her it just won’t be the same without her presence here,” said Marsha Passmore, president of theater’s board of directors. “Jennifer has been the breath of PCE for so many years.”

Plant City Entertainment members gathered to say goodbye Aug. 9 at the group’s theater, 101 N. Thomas St. They spent a good deal of time remembering the early days.

“We started with people sitting on the steps of the 1914 (Plant City) high school saying, ‘Do we want to do a play?’ ” Fenner said. “And now we have 34 years of this.”

For Fenner, “this” has amounted to roles in more than 50 of the community theater’s shows. She has served on the board of directors and has directed 14 shows, including this summer’s, “Legally Blonde: The Musical.”

Wearing a pink vest and pink polka-dotted shoes, Fenner stood demurely before her colleagues and issued a litany of life lessons learned in the theater. But first she listened to the unscripted tributes of actors and actresses and backstage talents who took center stage to pay tribute to their fellow thespian.

Tyler Hollis sported the hat he wore in “Come Blow Your Horn,” when he played Jackson’s husband.

Dodie White recounted how Fenner swears by the thespian code, that there is no small role in the theater. “It takes all these parts to make a whole and Jennifer has always drilled that into people,” White said.

Betty Roney credited Fenner for “drawing out the best in people,” telling Fenner that she would “be in our hearts forever.”

Kim Mitchell, in attendance with her husband, Tom, daughter, Olivia, and mother, Shirley Outen, recalled her decades of friendship with Fenner, who has stood by Mitchell as “forever sisters” in Mitchell’s ongoing battle with cancer.

Derrick Abbott recalled his station in Fenner’s theater life as her “handle-it guy,” which started years ago and weeks before his then-impending divorce. “I was not in a good place and Jennifer dragged me into ‘Bye, Bye Birdie’ to play a 30-year-old teenager,” Abbott said.

“He could dance,” Fenner quipped. “You do what you’ve got to do.”

That Fenner has a way with words, and direction, is not lost upon her community theater family, who heard from the guest of honor a compelling mouthful at her send-off, starting with a heartfelt posthumous tribute to her mentor, Barbara Kent.

“Barbara Kent got me into theater, badgering me ever since she first saw me,” Fenner said. “Always the voice in my head has been Barbara Kent, because she instilled in me as a 19-year-old newlywed that I could be more than I thought I could be.”

Kent, a former editor and freelance writer for the Plant City Courier, was active in the community theater for many years before her 2012 death. Early in her directorial duties, Fenner complained to Kent about an actress who had a reputation for being difficult to work with. Fenner said she did not want to cast her in the show.

“But Barbara Kent told me you have to realize that what makes people so good at their craft also can make them very difficult to be around, or to understand, and you have to learn to take the whole package and see the good in that person,” Fenner said. “That doesn’t mean you get walked on. You just say, ‘I want to cast you in this role, but never think for one second I can’t step in and do that role.’ You let them know that they’re replaceable, but that ultimately that’s their choice, not yours.”

In the director’s chair, Fenner would make sure her cast and crew started on the right foot together.

“We’re all volunteers and I get paid twice as much as you do,” Fenner said she would tell them at their first meeting together. “The importance of this isn’t the play that we put on but the lives that we change through the arts.”

Acting affords a unique opportunity “to be on the stage the people we never could be monetarily or stature-wise,” she added, “and to entertain people and remove them from the humdrum of life that weighs us down every day.”

While Fenner will continue to put together the programs for each show, her absence will be deeply felt.

“For Plant City Entertainment, it’s a huge loss,” Hollis said. “We’re losing a creative force. We’re losing one of our go-to directors. We’re losing one of our go-to people. I can’t get through my head what PCE is going to be like with Jennifer not here.”

Fenner is certain of one thing.

“My heart and soul are here but it was worth nothing if PCE doesn’t go on,” she said. “And it will. Plant City Entertainment is strong and it’s got some great people, who are brilliant and talented, who will see to it that it does.”

As for leaving Plant City itself, the town that has been Fenner’s home since age 5, the prospect was both “weird and scary,” Fenner admitted. But home is where the heart is and in that respect Fenner has no final goodbye in mind.

“This is my home, absolutely,” she said. “I’m a Plant City girl.”

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