In recent months, challenges to the patriarchy have rocked the performing arts from Hollywood to Broadway. And while Orlando's entertainment community may be more diverse than many, we aren't immune to issues of gender inequity. For example, Central Florida is blessed with an abundance of talented actresses, as well as designers, producers, and even venue managers, but it's still relatively rare that I get to write about a female stage director. So I was honored to be able to interview Tara Kromer, a rising star in the local theater scene, on the eve of last Sunday's Women's March at Lake Eola.
This may be Kromer's first appearance in my column, but she's no newcomer; an MFA graduate from Theatre UCF, she directed Orlando Repertory's production of The Giver at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts and the Orlando Repertory's recent production of Polkadots: The Cool Kids Musical, along with a number of shows at DeLand's Athens Theatre. Kromer told me she has "a broad background as a theater artist with work in directing, sound design, props design and stage management," and has served as the Rep's resident props and puppetry designer, as well as working on a number of productions for Orlando Fringe, including John Ryan's 1969: Stonewall and Beware the Dark in Winter Park and David Lee's Rocketman and Kaleidoscope and O-Town: Voices From Orlando.
What drew my attention to Kromer was her sensitive, polished production of Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, starring local legend Elizabeth Murff in the role that won Jessica Tandy an Oscar. This version was originally mounted last year in DeLand, and was restaged last weekend at St. Luke's United Methodist Church. "When [Athens Theatre artistic director] Craig Uppercue invited me to direct this show last year," Kromer recalls, "my first thought was 'I would give my right arm to get Elizabeth Murff to do this project with me!'" At the time, Kromer was unaware of the Garden Theatre's 2010 production featuring Murff and Michael Mormon, which I gave a rave review.
"I'd known Murff for a number of years, dating back to the last seasons of Seaside Music Theatre in Daytona Beach," Kromer says, "and was thrilled when she accepted my invitation and gave me the number for the lovely Michael Mormon. It became a reunion of sorts for the two of them." Chad Lewis filled out the cast as Daisy's son, Boolie, and the quartet "shared some great discussion about the important historical context of the piece and how relevant its themes remain."
Kromer's show also brought me for the first time to St. Luke's, where director of theater ministry Steve MacKinnon will present Peter and the Star Catcher in April. Even this agnostic Jew acknowledges that churches possess some of our area's most impressive theatrical facilities, and I felt very welcome inside St. Luke's recently completed Founder's Hall, thanks to the congregation's explicit ethos of acceptance and inclusion. Remounting the show for St. Luke's handsome proscenium stage was "like riding a bicycle," according to Kromer, who says that "we were able to spend our rehearsal time making new discoveries and finding new moments, which was a real joy." Murff (who appears next in A Tennessee Walk at Garden Theatre) concurs, telling me that the show is "such a comfort, there's so much trust there and friendship that I wish it was running longer" and praising Kromer for "truly respecting the period and the time."
While the cast came from Athens intact, the St. Luke's run sported a new design featuring Paul Bedford's reimagined set, Vandy Wood's lighting and AJ Garcia's costumes. Kromer commends St. Luke's for being "very accommodating," and praises the venue's audio system for showcasing her sound design, which thoughtfully incorporated excerpts from MLK's oratory.
"I am a director who loves to use music and sound in my rehearsal process, and early in my graduate school career I made a regular exercise of taking on a dual role as director/sound designer for many of my projects," Kromer says. "I wanted to establish the historical context of the scenes, and found some great music and audio recordings from the news and radio from the time that are peppered into the scoring and transitions."
Now that Driving Miss Daisy has closed, Kromer heads into rehearsals as director of Lisa VillaMil's new play Wilds, playing on March 3 and 4 as part of Beth Marshall Presents' New Works Series. She's also directing Tammy Kopko's return as Bette Davis in John Ryan's My Pal Bette for Fringe 2018, and promises the campy comedy will be "fiercer than ever after its 2007 Fringe premiere." Wherever she goes after that, Kromer is a director worth keeping an eye (and ear) out for.