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Silhouettes profiles Owen Robertson

Owen Robertson


This article originally appeared in the March. 2, 2018 edition of La Gaceta

By: Tiffany Razzano

Most people are surprised to learn this about Owen Robertson – after all, he’s a college educator, in addition to theater producer, actor, director and playwright – but as a teenager he was “a very poor student.”
He said, “I’m an absolute advocate for students doing well in school. I’m an educator, but I also know all the tricks to get out of it.”
Growing up just outside Washington, D.C., he graduated from high school with a 1.9 GPA, ranking 512 in a class of 516. Though he tested well and scored high on his SAT, with his GPA, he wasn’t accepted into any colleges. The only option Robertson had was to enlist in the U.S. Army. “There was a lack of choices in my life,” he said.
This was the start of his “eclectic background” that eventually led him to pursuing theater life as a full-time occupation later in life.
First, though, he served in the Army. Stationed in Fort Bragg, he was part of the 16th Military Police Brigade. He was sent to Honduras, was part of the Panama invasion and assisted with relief efforts after Hurricane Hugo hit St. Croix. He went on to become a criminal investigator for the military, specializing in homicide investigation.
After his time in the military, Robertson enrolled at George Mason University as a criminal justice major. Eventually, he changed this to history. Then, a friend at his university who knew he had done theater in high school badgered him into auditioning for an upcoming show, The Two Gentlemen of Verona. “I remember, I was in astronomy class with 300 other students and a friend of mine in the theater program kept bugging me about auditioning and wouldn’t stop until I agreed,” he said. “So I did, and I was cast in a fairly sizable role.” After the show, he changed his major to theater.
But when his son was born, he left the program to focus on providing for his family. He took a job in retail banking and later bank security. Then he took a job with a third-party logistics company that eventually moved him to Tampa in 2003. He went on to start his own company in the same field. “But the timing on that was poor,” he said. “We opened up the doors in 2007, right before the market crashed. So that didn’t last long.”
This was a wake-up call for him. When his company shut down in 2010, he decided to turn his passion for theater into his profession. “I really wanted to follow my heart and my calling and figure out how to be a full-time theater artist,” Robertson said.
He’d been involved with theater since that first college performance in 1992, but never thought he could turn it into his career. “I had figured out how to do the day job business and my nights were spent in theater,” he said.
He began auditioning for more professional theater companies and did his first professional show at Tampa’s Jobsite Theater in a production of Quills.
Since then, he’s been involved with more than 100 shows in various roles – actor, designer and even director around 50 productions. “It’s kind of been my calling card to be able to fit into any aspect of theater,” he said. “The only thing I don’t do is sew. So I’m not a costumer. But I was smart enough to marry one.”
In 2010, Robertson also decided to finish his undergraduate degree at St. Leo’s University. He completed a bachelor’s degree in English with a specialization in dramaturgy in 2013. The following year, he was accepted into the New Hampshire Institute of Art’s Master of Fine Arts Writing for Stage and Screen program.
Writing and storytelling are nothing new for him. In fact, much like his love of theater, his writing roots go back to high school. “I’m one of the original Dungeons & Dragons kids,” he said. “I speak to the box set, which sadly speaks to my age. I remember the original box set, playing it on the back of the school bus, hunkered down so nobody could see us. As a game master, storytelling came naturally to me. But structured writing didn’t happen until St. Leo.”
In the fall, he’ll begin a doctorate program in literacy studies at the University of South Florida. An adjunct English instructor for Schiller International University and the Ultimate Medical Academy, so this “kind of ties my life together,” he said.
All of these experiences led to him creating the Lab Theater Project, based at Ybor City’s Silver Meteor Gallery, in 2015. Each season focuses on emerging playwrights. “It’s strictly new work,” Robertson said. “That’s all we do.”
Having written only five plays himself, he considers himself an emerging playwright as well. “That’s probably part of why Lab works so well, because I understand where [these new playwrights are] at and I’m able to speak to them as a playwright,” he said. “As a playwright, you’re very protective of your work, which is absolutely right and they should be. But most emerging playwrights haven’t been through the production process. It’s actually a really difficult path for new playwrights to get their stories told. Most [theater companies] won’t take a risk and give them a chance.”
His relationship with Silver Meteor founder Michael Murphy has been another key to Lab Theater’s success, Robertson said. “Mike Murphy is a giant supporter of the arts. Silver Meteor has been around as a performance venue for 26, 27 years, Jobsite [Theater] started there. Hat Trick [Theatre Productions] started there. I’m just the next company in line.” Eventually, as Lab Theater grows, he hopes to find a long-term home for the company, most likely in Seminole Heights.
The theater’s next production, Bibo and Bertie by Sarah Lawrence, about the final year of Albert Einstein’s life and his relationship with his African gray parrot, Bibo, runs March 1 through March 11. Its 2017-2018 season closes in July with the production of a play by Robertson – So Long Life, which he first wrote while at St. Leo and then completed as his master’s thesis project.
He’s proud that Lab Theater has found a home in the Tampa Bay area’s thriving theater community. “In terms of regional theater, this is one of the most exciting areas to be around in terms of diversity and the work that’s being done,” he said.
In addition to Jobsite and Hat Trick, there are a bevy of other theater companies producing inspiring work, he said – Stageworks Theatre, the Tampa Repertory Theatre, American Stage Theatre Company, freeFall Theatre. “All these companies, they continually strive to improve and to improve the theater scene,” Robertson said. “They find voices and work relevant to our community, relevant to who we are as people in terms of being residents of Tampa. They also find work that just speaks to us as human beings.”
In this mix of talented companies, Lab Theater fills a much-needed niche with its focus on emerging artists. “I really want to find new adult [writers] who want to be involved in theater,” he said.
He hopes his own story and his own meandering road to a theater career inspires other. “One of the biggest things looking at my background and who I am as an artist, it’s a very big deal to me to see people get an opportunity to follow their passion and follow their dream,” he said. “Nothing can stop you if you really want it and if you really want to try, and if you’re willing to try, you can make it happen. I’m proof of that.”

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