"I love being an actor."
People who know Katherine Michelle Tanner hear her utter that sentence often, usually apropos of nothing. If there's a lull in a conversation about something unrelated to theater, Tanner will suddenly express her love for her profession. She loves acting so much she can't stop herself from saying so.
For more than a decade, Tanner, who lives in Sarasota, has been one of the most visible actors on area stages. She most recently appeared at American Stage in St. Petersburg in "The Amish Project," in which she portrayed seven characters -- men, women and children -- who were involved in one way or another with the shooting of 10 Amish schoolgirls in 2006. A St. Petersburg critic pronounced her performance "awesome." A university theater professor called it "a gift."
"Working with Katherine is a wonderful experience," said Todd Olson, her director in "The Amish Project" and the producing artistic director of American Stage. "She has such a generous spirit. When you set your season and you start to think about actors, she's always one of the first who comes to mind."
That happened in the 2012-13 American Stage season, Olson said. The season included two parts for women that were challenging in divergent ways -- the seven characters in "The Amish Project" and the intensely complex lead role of Nora in Ibsen's "A Doll's House."
"She was the first one I called," Olson said. "I said to myself, 'Who is it that can carry a show like this on her back? Katherine.' "
Audiences probably think Tanner makes acting look easy. She says it's anything but.
"It's hard for me, because I'm shy," she said. "I didn't choose acting because it's easy. I chose it because it's important."
One of the things that appeals the her about the art of acting, she said, is that she doesn't have pass judgment on the characters she inhabits.
"I don't have to take sides," she said. "I love that I can tell a story through a character, and you can walk away and draw your own conclusions."
Acting is almost literally in Tanner's blood. Her father first saw her mother when she was acting in a college production of "The Glass Menagerie." He im
mediately fell in love with her, and created a painting of blue roses (a key symbol in that play) for her.
"It wasn't until weeks later, he realized he was in her history class," Tanner said.
Tanner got her first real taste of performance in middle school in Hastings, Minn., but never studied acting until she attended St. Olaf College.
In 2001, she attended the University Resident Theatre Association auditions in Chicago, in which student actors perform for college recruiters, and received offers from several graduate programs. She opted for the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory and has lived in Sarasota ever since.
She got to work a lot during her student years in the program, including roles in "The Blue Room," "The Road to Ruin," "The Crucible" and "The Diary of Anne Frank."
One of her first roles after she graduated was the lead in an acclaimed production of "Proof" at American Stage. It has become something of a signature role for Tanner, and she has performed it in several theaters around the country.
Next up is a role in Banyan Theatre's "Time Stands Still," opening Aug. 8.
"It's a really, really interesting play by Donald Margulies about an embedded photographer," she said. "It's about the cost of art, and about the when the cost of art, the cost to your own psyche, becomes too great."
Even though Tanner is one of the busiest professional actors in the area, work can be sporadic. But she's always busy.
She has a television production company with her longtime boyfriend Gus Mollasis and their partner David Reese (the son of former baseball great Pee Wee Reese). Their show, "Diamonds Along the Highway," tells stories of little-known Floridians, including a man who was a childhood playmate of Anne Frank.
"His family had to decide whether to go into hiding," she said. "But they didn't because he was too young. He was only 6 years old. They thought he'd be too rambunctious and wouldn't keep quiet."
The irony, of course, is that he lived and the Franks did not.
"Diamonds Along the Highway" has recently been renewed for a second season on WEDU, the largest public television station in Florida. Discussions are under way with other stations around the country; the show might be tailored for each individual state rather than focusing on Florida.
Tanner also teaches dance -- everything from tap and modern to ballet -- and musical theater in several locations around Sarasota County.
In college she majored in theater, dance and secondary education, so she seemed to be aiming for exactly the kind of life she leads and the kind of work she does.
As much as she loves it, though, she said she doesn't know quite why she was drawn to it.
"I don't think I picked it," she said. "It picked me."
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411, ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.