Sarasota – A Theatre Destination

by DICK KEREKES
The American Theatre Critics Association held its annual conference/convention the last week of April, on the cultural coast of Florida in Sarasota.
We kicked off the five day conference with a cocktail and dinner party at the home of Ron Greenbaum, President of the Asolo Repertory Board, and hosted by the Sarasota Magazine (www.sarasotamagazine.com).
We enjoyed six shows in three of the many theatres that Sarasota offers to its very art conscious full time population and the several thousand winter visitors.
We saw George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil Disciple, Jeffery Hatcher’s Murderers and William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. All were excellent productions with The Winter’s Tale being my favorite due to the unique staging and interpretation. The second act had a space ship landing on the moon, and an appropriately dressed ensemble singing and dancing to the songs from Hair.
The Asolo is one of only two remaining professional repertory theatres in the country, and between September and May you can usually see three different plays on the same weekend. Check out them out at www.asolo.org.
We did not see a play at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall but toured this unique facility and enjoyed a dinner hosted by the Sarasota Herald Tribune who was the sponsor of our conference which was organized by their theatre critic Jay Handleman. This art center was built and belongs to the City of Sarasota and sits on an imposing property on the beautiful bay. It brings in shows similar to the FCCJ Artist Series and is probably the tallest arts center that is painted totally purple. In fact, I would guess it is the only purple arts center in the world. There is more information at www.vanwezel.org.
I have always been a big dinner theatre fan and so I was excited about seeing Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Golden Apple Dinner Theatre. (www.thegoldenapple.com). We saw the 301st performance of this theatre that started 38 years ago in what was an old closed downtown Morrison’s cafeteria. Two of the interesting facts about this local landmark that exists without any government or grant assistance: One, Golden Apple has used live music for every performance since the day it opened. Two, there is a review on the wall for a young Betty Buckley playing the leading role in a l971 musical at this theatre!
Florida Studio Theatre founded in l974, has in 34 years grown to be a major cultural resource for West Florida. They are housed in three theatres in downtown Sarasota. The Keating Theatre is their mainstage, Stage III (the Gompertz Theatre) is the home of cutting edge contemporary plays, The Goldstein Cabaret Theatre features comedy satire on our culture and politics in an improv setting.
Laughing Matters….2009, is the current offering in the Cabaret, and it looks like a long run as it packs them in for eight shows a week. The improv by the group was some of the best I have ever experienced. Stage III presented David Harrower’s Oliver Award Winning play Blackbird, a very powerful play dealing with secrets and shame. The main stage did the “Florida premier of Frank Higgins’s Black Pearl Sings. A truly marvelous two person show about the search by the US government for undiscovered folk music that was never recorded but existed in the minds and hearts of simple folk that included an African-American prisoner in a Texas jail.
Florida Studio Theatre also has an innovative and acclaimed education program for children 5-18 and we saw a sample of its Write A Play program with works from emerging playwrights as young as six! Want to know more? Visit www.floridastudiotheatre.org.
Sarasota’s reputation as the cultural center of Florida is not based solely on all the theatre that is produced. There is a beautiful 1100 seat Sarasota Opera House downtown that presents four full operas each season and has for the past 50 years. (www.sarasotaarts.org)
The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art has a most impressive collection of art masterpieces including Rubens, El Greco and Gainsborough. Located on 66 acres on the bay front, it includes the Ringling family’s historic mansion, the Circus Museum, the Tibbals’ miniature circus (the largest in the World!), the Historic Asolo theatre, court yards and gardens. Adjacent to this fabulous estate are the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, a nine acre tropical oasis featuring rare tropical plants including 6,000 orchids. Explore both at www.ringling.org and www.selby.org .
Theaters, theaters, they are everywhere in the area. Here are some I only know the name of but if you plan a theatre trip to Sarasota, a quick internet visit could give you their schedules. They are: Banyan Theater Company, Eclectic Theatre Company, Lemon Bay Playhouse, McCurdy’s Comedy Theatre and Laughter Institute, The Player’s Theatre, Powel Corsley Estate Theatre, Sarasota Senior Theatre, Inc, Theatre Odyssey Inc, Venice Theatre and West coast Black Theatre Troupe.
The Sarasota Arts Council provided me with a plethora of pamphlets on the many facets of the arts in the area, not that I needed to be convinced of the support for the arts generated by the government, residents and visitors, I saw this first hand. I learned two facts that impressed me. First, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall started a foundation just to raise money to pay for the buses needed to bring children to events and then they offer deeply discounted tickets to the shows. The Asolo Repertory Theatre spent $46,000 last year just to rent buses to bring children to see and participate in the theatre’s shows and activities. The future of theatre belongs to the next generations and these two groups obviously believe that wholeheartedly.
I know a number of Jacksonville Theatergoers who like to venture out of the city to see theatre, and New York has been a favorite destination for obvious reasons. Well, in case you don’t know it, it is not fun to fly anymore. Sarasota is about a five hour drive, all on the interstate. The quality of the productions I saw was exceptionally good, and the ticket prices are reasonable, starting at less than $20.00. Sarasota also has so much to see besides the productions, and everything is close with less than 15 minutes between venues. There is a lot of summer activity and since it is not in season, hotel and motel prices is a bargain. Make Sarasota you next theatre destination.
Thanks Jay Handleman and the Sarasota Herald Tribune for a fantastic theatre critic’s conference.

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