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Carrollwood Players may pass up invitation

When the chance comes to take center stage in the community, why would the group not grab it?

By TIM GRANT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 22, 2002

CARROLLWOOD -- The Carrollwood Players was a gamble from the start.

Two suburban women with no experience in theater created the performing group in 1981 with nothing more than a raw determination to provide live entertainment to people in Carrollwood.

"It's like giving birth to a child and watching it grow and succeed," said Nancy Stearns, one of the founders.

In the two decades since their first play was staged at Carrollwood Elementary School, the Players have become a community treasure, performing sold-out shows in the small makeshift auditorium they lease at 4331 Gunn Highway.

Their reputation earned the Players an invitation to be the theater group in residence at the Carrollwood Community Center when it opens in 2005. But as the center moves closer to reality, it is uncertain if the Players will be part of its future.

"They've said they are not interested," said Kate Davis, project coordinator for the Carrollwood Community Center. "They are happy where they are."

Davis said she has begun to consider other performing groups that might be interested. Members of the Carrollwood Players originally saw the invitation as a privilege. It was a reward for all those years of moving from one storefront to another, operating on shoestring budgets and changing costumes in cramped quarters.

This was their chance to perform their comedies, musicals and dramas on a grander stage with the best sound and lighting equipment. But more than anything, the Players would be the centerpiece of a long anticipated project that will help define the character of this community.

Some members of the Carrollwood Players are sorely disappointed that this opportunity could be lost.

"I worked 22 years to see this happen," said Stearns, who is still active with the theater group, but is no longer on its board of directors. "This is my baby and it breaks my heart to see my baby stumble. I'm very disappointed."

The community center will be housed in the building now occupied by St. Mark's Episcopal Church at Lowell and Casey roads. The county bought the church building and its 4.5 acres Tuesday for $1.9-million.

The county will spend another $2-million to renovate the sanctuary. Some improvements include a 250-seat auditorium on the second floor and an elevator to the second floor.

The church has about two years to relocate.

While the Hillsborough's Parks and Recreation Department will manage the county-owned center, a committee of Carrollwood homeowners is working on plans to redesign the building and decide what type of cultural programs to offer when it opens.

Although the Players have not formally voted to turn down the community center invitation, many of its 11 board members are not inclined to make the move.

"I'm not sure we have exactly the right situation, said board member Jim Brennan, a retired federal employee. "We would need 24/7 access to the community center to work on our sets, rehearse and hold auditions. In our current situation, we have unlimited access to our stage."

Board member Allen Levy said he shares those concerns and more.

"We would be very demanding as a tenant," Levy said.

He said that when the Players are using the stage, no one else could use it. He said the Players would tie up the stage for weeks and need space to build sets and rehearse for other shows while one is running.

"As a board member for Carrollwood Players, I do not know if I want to commit the community center to be locked into just the Carrollwood Players. The community center belongs to the community. Is it fair to the community for us to use the auditorium the way we would?"

Peter Fowler, a manager for Parks and Recreation, said it may be far too early for the Carrollwood Players to rule out the possibility of moving to the community center.

"We will be doing some remodeling of the church to accommodate whatever programs the organizing committee comes up with," Fowler said, adding that he would be willing to work with the Players on access issues. "We're still at the drawing board stage."

Assuming the Carrollwood Players do not sign on with the community center, there are other options.

Davis said she will consider the small theater and musical ensemble groups at the University of South Florida.

"We might appeal to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center to do some of their smaller productions in Carrollwood," Davis said.

A number of other community theater groups in Hillsborough County struggle at times, like the Carrollwood Players, to keep their heads above water.

Stearns said that some of the community theater groups she is aware of tend to focus their plays on themes to enlighten the audience about social issues such as homosexuality, racism and child abuse.

"They use the stage as a platform to make the public aware of these situations," Stearns said. "People go, but they don't draw the crowds like the Carrollwood Players."

Stearns said the Players are popular for their light-hearted shows, which seek primarily to entertain and allow viewers a few hours of fantasy and escape.

Tom Jones, president of the Carrollwood Area Association of Neighbors, said the door is not shut for the Carrollwood Players. He said the organizing committee is still willing to work with the theater group.

"There are other play groups that would welcome this opportunity," Jones said. "To me, it would be an ideal setting for the Carrollwood Players to have their plays in the Carrollwood Community Center."

But Jones added that the auditorium stage could not and would not be exclusive to the Players.

"They would have to make room for other people," Jones said. "We want recitals, choruses and other cultural events besides Carrollwood Players. We wouldn't want them to monopolize the auditorium. We would want them to work with us, and they would have to give up some control."

-- Tim Grant can be reached at (813) 269-5311 or at .

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