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Sarasota performer launches her own theater company

As her theater company, Tree Fort Productions, becomes a nonprofit, actress Katherine Michelle Tanner emphasizes: "The best way to support a theater company is to buy a subscription."

Katherine Michelle Tanner
Katherine Michelle Tanner
Courtesy photo
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So far, 2023 has been a very good year for Katherine Michelle Tanner. 

In March, KT Curran's "Bridge to the Other Side," featuring Tanner as a distraught mother of a mentally ill son, screened at the 25th Sarasota Film Festival, where it won the local audience award.

In May, Michelle Pascua's "In Remembrance," which Tanner directed, won the best play award at Theatre Odyssey's Ten Minute Play Festival.

When they handed out the awards for the festival, Tanner couldn't be there. She was on stage at the Sarasota Opera House performing in the ballet "Cinderella." The ballet was presented by The Diane Partington Studio of Classical Ballet, formerly the Russian School of Ballet.

In June, Tanner's play, "Shakespeare's Lovers," appeared at the first Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival in Sarasota. The play, about a male poet and a female painter who meet in a river, incorporates 29 of Shakespeare’s sonnets and 19 of Tanner’s own. 

At the Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival, the revelation of the body of water on stage elicited a collective gasp from the audience, but it's impossible to steal the show from Tanner. 

KMT, as those close to her often call Tanner, has been performing in Sarasota for about 20 years, give or take a few. (You know how sensitive actors are about their age.) But suddenly she's everywhere all at once, to riff on this year's Oscar winner, "Everything Everywhere All At Once," or EEAAO, since we're talking acronyms here.

The latest place Tanner happens to be is at the head of her own theater company, Tree Fort Productions. Tree Fort has existed in some form for 10 years, but in April, Tanner completed the paperwork for a 501(c)(3). That made the theater company a nonprofit officially recognized by the IRS, easing the way for donations since they become tax-deductible, more or less.

Yes, Sarasota already has some well-established theater companies (Asolo Repertory, The Players, Florida Studio Theatre, Urbanite, to name just a few). Regional theater in other parts of the country is struggling due to smaller audiences and rising overhead, but Tanner isn't discouraged.

"Call me the salmon of Sarasota," she quips, as she is wont to do. "I'm swimming upstream."

As Tanner hypnotically details the upcoming season for Tree Fort Productions, which is housed right now in the The Crossings at Siesta Key, one is apt to fall under her spell. 

Told her powers of persuasion are so great that she could easily be marketing multimillion-dollar condos if she weren't artistically inclined, Tanner laughs and says, "I have a friend in real estate who says the same thing." 

But back to the business at hand: Tree Fort Productions. To make sure she gets her message across, Tanner says not once, not twice, but three times during a brief interview: "The best way to support a theater company is to buy a subscription."

Duly noted. The price of a Tree Fort 2023-24 season subscription is a modest $140 for four shows, or $20 less than if tickets for each show were purchased separately.

Tree Fort's season opens Oct. 13, with "Red," John Logan's play about the artist Mark Rothko, which made its debut in London in 2009. The play takes place in Rothko's New York studio in the late 1950s as he wrestles with the ethics of fulfilling a brashly commercial commission — murals for the elite Four Seasons restaurant. His misgivings are fueled by his assistant.

At Tree Fort, Lee Gundersheimer will star as Rothko, a role that garnered Alfred Molina a 2010 Tony nomination for best actor when he performed it on Broadway. Alex Teicheira will play Rothko's skeptical assistant. The play runs through Oct. 29.

The play "Red" holds a spot close to Tanner's heart because her father was an artist. In some households, parents might ask children what they did at school that day. When Tanner was growing up, her dad would ask her, "What are you working on?"

Tanner's father had a day job, but he was a painter, sculptor and jewelry maker. "There was always a project in the corner," she recalls. "We were told, 'Don't touch Dad's things.'"

Since Tanner's father was a bit of a juggler, it's not surprising to see she had a triple major (theater/dance/education) at St. Olaf's College in Minnesota. She earned an MFA from Asolo Theatre Conservatory-Florida State University and has been applying her talents in dance, theater, film and music at lightning speed ever since. 

Asked where she gets her energy from, Tanner replies without hesitation: "Starbucks."

The color red would appear to be the perfect theme for a black-tie event. Instead of telling guests to dress in black-and-white, as author and social butterfly Truman Capote did for his party of the century in 1966, KMT's event could be scarlet-themed. Not a bad idea, Tanner says, but she's keeping her fundraising finesse under wraps for now.

Besides the challenges of raising money and building an audience, Tree Fort also faces uncertainty about its home, The Crossings mall, which is in transition. 

Some arts-oriented tenants in the mall have been forced to vacate because of higher rents. For now, Tree Fort's theater is walking distance from CMX CinéBistro, a small, but popular destination for moviegoers.

Tanner isn't anchored to a space for her new venture. She recalls doing readings for "Shakespeare's Lovers" at Home Resource, Kathy and Michael Bush's upscale modern furniture store. In Tanner's book, the play's the thing, not the stage.

Katherine Michelle Tanner's "Shakespeare's Lovers" was one of the selections at the first Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival in June.
Courtesy photo

"No space is long term," she says. "If we did move, it would be our fifth move. No one really knows what's going to happen."

What is certain is the lineup for Tree Fort's 2023-24 season. In addition to "Red," the lineup includes a reprise of "Shakespeare's Lovers" starring Tanner from Dec. 1-17. 

Also on the bill is Jessica Dickey's "The Amish Project," in which Tanner performs all roles in the play about the 2006 shootings at the West Nickel Mines School for Amish girls in Pennsylvania. The massacre, which included a hostage situation, left six dead, including the gunman, and five injured.

Heavy stuff to be sure, but "The Amish Project" won favor with audiences off-Broadway and on tour in its previous incarnations. It will run in Sarasota from Jan. 12 to Feb. 11, 2024.

Tanner will also appear in "Lark Eden," a one-night reading on Nov. 10, along with Roxanne Fey and Lauren Wood.

Wherever it ends, Tree Fort's season will conclude on an upbeat note, with a cabaret devoted to the women of Broadway, not the performers, but the often overlooked female composers of the Great White Way. 

Other events are in the works. Tanner isn't waiting for Broadway or Hollywood to call, especially during a writers' and actors' strike. She's making things happen right here in Sarasota, one latte at a time.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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