A Unique Musical Style Meets 1959 Greenwich Village

By Steven J. Smith  |  Photos by John Revisky

Asolo Repertory Theatre’s much-anticipated world premiere of the musical “Beatsville” features a distinctive jazz form called “vocalise,” according to book writer Glenn Slater, who developed the project with his wife, composer and lyricist Wendy Leigh Wilf.

“Wendy and I met at a musical theater writing workshop,” Slater said. “Soon after that, though, she decided to leave the world of theater and go back to her first love, which is jazz. But she quickly realized she missed the theater and told me she wanted to find a way that combines the two in a way that hadn’t been done before.”

Musical savants

Slater, 49, is a three-time Tony nominee for the international hit musicals “The Little Mermaid,” “Sister Act” and “School of Rock” and is a co-creator of Disney’s worldwide smash “Tangled.” Wilf holds a Masters in Jazz Piano from the Manhattan School of Music, and Slater said she had discovered a certain style in jazz language called “vocalise,” which was popular in the late 1950s and served as their way into “Beatsville.”

“Musicians would take an existing jazz track, such as a saxophone solo,” Slater said. “Then they’d set lyrics to it, so it would have the freshness, inventiveness and the extemporaneous feel of actual jazz, but have words and carry meaning.”

That style, he added, runs through the couple’s new musical, which is set in Greenwich Village, circa 1959 — a world of subterranean coffee shops, goateed artists, turtle-necked poets and bongo-playing jazzbos. Tragically square busboy Walter Paisley wants nothing more than to be one of the beatniks, but he has no artistic talent whatsoever. When he accidentally kills a cat and hides it in a lump of clay, “Dead Cat” is declared a masterpiece and Walter a genius. More “sculptures” bring more acclaim — but will the world discover Walter’s secret?

Slater said “Beatsville” is based on the 1959 Roger Corman film “A Bucket of Blood.” It satirizes the hipster lifestyle and resonates with our own time.

“It was a lot of fun to draw those parallels,” he said. “We realized we had the perfect ingredients for a musical — a musical style that’s fun and fresh, a historical era that’s so ripe for dance, movement and drama and a story that says so much about our own times.”

Slater added it is “an unbelievably joyful” experience collaborating on this musical with his wife.

“We share a very similar sensibility, so there is almost no friction whatsoever between us,” he said. “We finish each other’s thoughts.”

Ongoing projects

“Beatsville” has been a work in progress for several years now and is directed by Bill Berry, producing artistic director of Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre, which is co-producing the show with Asolo Rep. Berry said the goal is to eventually polish the show to the point that it can make the move to Broadway.

“I think the hardest part of a film to stage musical adaptation is having room for the story to sing,” Berry said. “Glenn and Wendy found a vehicle that allows for that. Working on it here at Asolo Rep has given us an opportunity to find out what’s working and not working and I anticipate we’ll be making changes on it right up through opening night, depending on what we get in audience reaction.”

Berry added there is a maxim in the musical theater world that musicals are not written so much as they’re rewritten. Slater agreed.

“It was a lot of fun to draw those parallels.”

“You never finish writing a musical,” Slater said. “You just abandon it. But you’re never really done. There’s always more work to be done.”

Slater added at this moment in time “Beatsville” has the right cast and creative team around it, including Asolo Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards, who continues to help shape the show in a positive way.

“Michael has such a worldly and smart theatrical mind,” he said. “He found the show’s weaknesses very quickly and asked all the right questions. He invited us to Asolo Rep as a place to work the piece, do rewrites, find the flaws and make the fixes. It was an invitation we felt we couldn’t turn down. And it’s turned out to be exactly what we hoped it would be.”

“Beatsville” plays from April 28-May 28 in Asolo’s Mertz Theatre, located in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts at 5555 North Tamiami Trail in Sarasota. Ticket prices range from $16-$91 depending on date, time and seat location.

For more information or to purchase tickets, call 941-351-8000 or visit

The Repertoire of a Répétiteur

Philip Neal stages Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free”

by Steven J. Smith

Philip Neal has danced himself into a unique and very interesting job. Following a 23-year tenure with the New York City Ballet, 17 years as a principal dancer, Neal reinvented himself as a répétiteur for the Jerome Robbins Rights Trust. Now he stages the late choreographer’s ballets all around the world — including Sarasota where, under his direction, Robbins’ “Fancy Free” will close the Sarasota Ballet’s current season as part of an evening entitled “De Valois, Balanchine & Robbins.”

“This will be the fourth time I’ve staged ‘Fancy Free,’” Neal said. “It’s nice, because I’m treated as a special guest who comes in for a couple of weeks to distill the absolute best of the ballet to the dancers.”

A répétiteur, Neal explained, is authorized to teach and rehearse choreography in the absence of the original choreographer. The répétiteur teaches or rehearses a work at a dance company on behalf or in place of the choreographer if the choreographer is not available or is no longer alive. He or she is considered an expert on the work of that choreographer and many 20th century choreographers, such as Jerome Robbins or George Balanchine for example, have established trusts and appointed conservators such as Neal to serve as répétiteurs of their works.

“I teach the steps as I remember them and I assist in casting,” he said. “Sometimes I get involved in production by advising the creative team what the ballet should look like in terms of sets and costumes. That way it represents the vision of what Mr. Robbins would have wanted it to look like.”

Neal, 49, currently directs Next Generation Ballet at the Straz Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa, a pre-professional training division where students come from all over the U.S. to work with him before taking on ballet roles there. On a recent visit to Sarasota Ballet, he discussed the possibility of staging a ballet for director Iain Webb and his wife and assistant director, Margaret Barbieri.

“I hold Iain and Maggie in the highest regard,” Neal said. “I really admire Sarasota Ballet and how it’s grown. During my visit, we discussed my staging a work from the Jerome Robbins library that would suit their company well. I worked with Mr. Robbins in the last years of his life and I have a deep understanding of his aesthetic. He was a wonderful blend of analytics and yet was comfortable in giving dancers breathing room to bring their own personality to his choreography. As I’m a répétiteur of his works, we all simultaneously came up with the idea of doing ‘Fancy Free.’”

Neal added that although it is his job as répétiteur to see that Robbins’ choreography is accurately represented, it is also important that the dancers are free to express themselves.

“I’m very dedicated to helping the dancers find a way to make the role their own within the confines of Mr. Robbins’ instructions,” he said. “And that’s sort of a delicate balance.”

“Fancy Free,” first performed by the American Ballet Theatre in 1944, features music by Leonard Bernstein and was a precursor to Robbins’ seminal work, the hit Broadway musical “On The Town.” The ballet follows the story of sailors on leave in New York City on a summer night, where they spawn romantic mischief competing over the attentions of a girl. The musical was made into a movie in 1949, starring Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra and is considered a landmark in cinematic history. The Sarasota Orchestra will accompany the Sarasota Ballet’s version of “Fancy Free.”

“What makes Robbins’ ballet different from others at that time is the dancers are playing characters relating to one another on stage rather than projecting out to the audience,” Neal said. “At the time he choreographed ‘Fancy Free,’ Robbins was very active with the Actors Studio in New York, surrounding himself with ‘Method’ actors. This made his approach to dance more natural and realistic.”

Neal likened his work as a répétiteur to that of one who restores paintings in a museum.

“Paintings need to be touched up from time to time,” he said. “With ballet, it’s a living, breathing thing. To maintain the integrity of the piece is why trusts like the Jerome Robbins Trust were established and why répétiteur were assigned to maintain the integrity of a piece after his death.”

“De Valois, Balanchine & Robbins” will perform April 28-30 at the  Sarasota Opera House, 61 N. Pineapple Ave. in Sarasota.  Ticket prices range from $30-$110. For show times or to order tickets,  call 941-359-0099 or visit

A Place to Play

A Place to Play

by Steven J. Smith


After playing musical chairs at numerous venues for years, Sarasota Orchestra President & CEO Joseph McKenna seeks a lasting performance space  it can call home.

“The orchestra uses multiple venues for our Masterworks and Pops programs,” McKenna said. “These primarily take place at the Van Wezel. We also use the Neel Performing Arts Center at the State College of Florida campus. Then we have Holley Hall, which is at the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, where we do virtually all of our chamber music activity and our Great Escapes music series. We also perform at Riverview High School with our youth program and the Sarasota Opera House for our music festival in June.”

Two additional venues, he added, are Ed Smith Stadium for the orchestra’s spring concert and the North Port Performing Arts Center for youth concerts in the early fall.

“In order for the orchestra to deliver its mission to the greater Sarasota-Manatee County region, we need the collection of all of those venues in order for us to deliver all of our programs,” McKenna said. “We’ve been working for more than a decade to address having a long-term facility.”

According to its website, the Sarasota Orchestra’s mission is “to engage, educate, and enrich our community through high-quality, live musical experiences.” Now celebrating its 68th season, the orchestra has become the longest continuous performing ensemble in the state of Florida, playing more than 125 classical, pops, chamber, education and community engagement concerts per season. The orchestra also manages the internationally renowned Sarasota Music Festival under the artistic leadership of Robert Levin and is one of the world’s finest teaching festivals for pre-professional classical musicians.

McKenna said the orchestra’s educational activities include a youth program featuring seven ensembles, Young Person’s Concerts for all area fourth and fifth graders and a summer music camp — and that program is growing, further pressing the need for a permanent home.

“About five to seven years ago, our youth orchestra enrollment was 168 students,” he said. “Today, it’s at 347. We’ve had robust development in our education program.”

McKenna added several years ago the orchestra engaged the Arts Consulting Group, a culture and planning firm, on a five-phase planning process to address its growing pains.

“We’ve completed two phases to date,” he said. “We’ve done a needs assessment and then a market analysis and a scientific look at the demography of the Sarasota-Manatee region — the nature of the population and how many people attend performances. The purpose of these phases is to see if the community can sustain and support a new facility. There have been very positive insights gained from that, confirming we’re on the right track; that Sarasota is an iconic arts destination.”

Phase three, McKenna added, is currently underway and helping to affirm what the orchestra will look like and how it will operate in a new facility.

“Today the orchestra’s budget is about $10 million a year and we employ roughly 250 people,” he said. “Musicians, staff, educators, festival staff and faculty. Phase three will help us establish what kind of space is needed for us to deliver our mission along with a pro forma business plan that would be able to sustain that operation.”

Phase four will focus on community engagement in the process and phase five will launch fundraising efforts to make the project happen and continue on into the future, he added.

“We believe the general size of a concert hall for the orchestra will require 1,600-1,800 seats,” McKenna said. “We’re still in the early stages of planning that, as we are for the spaces we need for education-related activities to support the youth orchestra program and the Sarasota Music Festival, along with rehearsal space, offices and storage. We also have no hard number for what it will cost. That will come about in the work that’s ahead.”

As for location, McKenna said he believes the orchestra’s new home could be a part of the Sarasota Bayfront 20:20 initiative — a 2007 cultural district master plan encompassing the 42 acres from Boulevard of the Arts to Payne Terminal, surrounding the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall. Also, parcels of land on the east side of Tamiami Trail are also under consideration, bringing the entire area to almost 75 acres.

“The orchestra really championed the Bayfront 20:20 initiative, which has transitioned into the Sarasota Bayfront Planning Organization,” he said. “They are right now charged with a master plan for the bayfront and they will play a critical role in moving that vision forward.”

For more information about the Sarasota Orchestra, visit

Boynton Beach Club: A Manatee Performing Arts Center World Premiere


Boynton Beach Club, a 2006 movie about widowed seniors finding love again, is receiving a makeover as a brand new stage musical that opens at the Manatee Performing Arts Center on March 16 for a limited run.

Rick Kerby, the Manatee Players’ producing artistic director, said the musical will resonate with a lot of residents in the Sarasota-Manatee County vicinity.

“It fits our demographic,” Kerby said. “We’re in an area where there are lots of retirees. And retiring does not mean your life is over. This musical celebrates these people and communicates that life gets better as you get older.”

Kerby added his organization got attached to the project through contacts he maintains in New York City.

“I worked and performed in New York for many years,” he said. “Ned Ginsburg, the composer, and I have a mutual friend who was involved in an earlier staged reading of the script. He loved the piece and brought it to me.”

Negotiations ensued with Ginsburg and playwright Susan Seidelman, who also co-wrote and directed the film, which featured Len Cariou, Dyan Cannon, Joseph Bologna, Sally Kellerman, Michael Nouri and Renee Taylor. The Manatee Players’ production will star local actors Meg Newsom, Rod Dyarr and Al Jackson.

“It’s really exciting to work on a new musical,” Kerby said. “It’s a fun process, because every day we’re inserting new dialogue, new lyrics and new music. It’s wonderful to be on the cutting edge of a new show and I want our audience to feel that, too.”

Seidelman, whose directing, writing and producing credits also include Desperately Seeking Susan, She-Devil and Sex and the City, said the genesis for Boynton Beach Club came from her mother’s experience of living in a gated community on Florida’s east coast.

“Her best friend passed away and that friend’s husband went to a bereavement group,” she said. “After a while, he began to notice a lot of widows in that group were romantically hitting on him and he found himself back in the dating game again. After 40 years of married life, this was all new to him. I saw a really interesting story there. This musical says at 50, 60 or 70, people can still have another chapter in their lives to look forward to.”

Kerby added he would like to see the musical have a life beyond its upcoming run. “It’s our ultimate goal to see this show go on to a professional venue or even up to New York,” he said. “I’m hoping that the Manatee Performing Arts Center will be a small part of that.”

Boynton Beach Club plays from March 16-April 2 at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, located at 502 Third Ave. West in Bradenton. Ticket prices range from $26-$36. Show times are 7:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. For more information or to purchase tickets, call 941-748-5875 or visit

Ringling College Graduates Win Big at 2017 Oscars

Ringling College of Art and Design conveyed congratulations to Walt Disney Animation Studios and the 23 Ringling College graduates who worked on ‘Zootopia’ on their Oscar® win for best animated feature film at the 89th Academy Awards®.

Ringling also congratulated graduate Patrick Osborne for his Oscar nomination for best animated short for ‘Pearl’ – the first virtual reality film to ever be nominated for an Academy Award. Patrick won an Oscar in 2014 for his animated short “Feast’.

“We want to thank the Academy for honoring the hard work and passion that each and every artist put into ‘Zootopia’ – the film, and its message of unity in a complex world, has been recognized in ways we couldn’t have possibly imagined,” Zootopia directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore and producer Clark Spencer commented upon Zootopia’s nomination.

The roster of Ringling College of Art and Design graduates who worked on ‘Zootopia’ include:

  • Lauren (Leffingwell) Albers ’09, Illustration
  • Ramya Chidanand ’11, Computer Animation
  • Christopher Cordingley ’03, Computer Animation
  • Ryan DeYoung ’09, Computer Animation
  • Ryan Duncan ’02, Computer Animation
  • Jason Figliozzi ’08, Computer Animation
  • Alex Garcia ’06, Computer Animation
  • Jorge Garcia ’09, Computer Animation
  • Kim Hazel ’08, Computer Animation
  • Bobby Huth ’07, Computer Animation
  • Sarah Kambara ’14, Business of Art & Design
  • Mike Klim ’10, Computer Animation
  • David Lisbe ’09, Computer Animation
  • Chris Nabholz ’07, Computer Animation
  • Katie Reihman ’08, Computer Animation
  • Brian Scott ’04, Computer Animation
  • Justin Sklar ’11, Computer Animation
  • Lindsey St. Pierre ’13, Computer Animation
  • Emily Tse ’09, Computer Animation
  • Kendra Vander Vliet ’09, Computer Animation
  • Dylan VanWormer ’11, Computer Animation
  • Yezi Xue ’10, Computer Animation
  • Nara Youn ’06, Computer Animation

“We are consistently amazed with the creativity and achievements of our graduates,” Ringling College President Dr. Larry R. Thompson said. “We applaud their recognition by the Academy last night and congratulate them and all of our graduates who have been honored through the nomination process by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences for their mastery in telling powerful and moving visual stories.”

Dr. Larry R. Thompson, André Holland, Joseph Restaino, Wey Lin and Tony Stopperan

“We are consistently amazed with the creativity and achievements of our graduates” – Dr. Larry R. Thompson, President, Ringling College

Ringling graduates were credited in two of the other Oscar-nominated animated feature films this year including, on ‘Kubo’: Michael Berger, Brett Carville, Katie Knudson, Tarun Lak, Onyee Lo, Jarred Love and Carolyn Vale, and on ‘Moana’: Jason Figliozzzi, Jorge Garcia, Michael Stieber, Kendra Vander Vliet, Nara Youn, Ryan DeYoung, Bryan Locantore, Brian Scott, Chris Nabholz, Lauren Albers, Dylan VanWormer and Reece Porter.

At the 2016 Academy Awards 13 Ringling College graduates worked on Pixar Studios Oscar®-winning animated feature film ‘Inside Out’ and in 2015 29 Ringling Graduates worked on Disney’s Oscar-winning animated feature film ‘Big Hero 6’.

The Oscar winning best picture ‘Moonlight’ also has Sarasota ties, with film producer Adele Romanski, a Pine View High School graduate, accepting the Oscar for best picture. Moonlight actor André Holland recently toured the construction site for Ringling College’s new soundstage and post-production complex, which is slated to begin operations this spring.

Sarasota Opera’s Winter Season

The 2017 Winter Opera Festival marks Sarasota Opera’s 57th season and Maestro Victor DeRenzi, who serves as its artistic director and principal conductor, promises a unique blend of rarely-performed works with some old favorites.

“This is the first time in 28 years that we have not done an opera by Verdi,” DeRenzi said. “So we wanted to open up the repertoire a little and do some operas we haven’t been able to do for a very long time.”

The festival will rotate Puccini’s Madama Butterfly with Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites and Montemezzi’s The Love of Three Kings. DeRenzi said the process of choosing these operas was a thoughtful one, mixing styles and language with familiar and not-so-familiar works.

“Let’s start with The Italian Girl,” he said. “It was a very popular opera for a while in the 1800s and then fell out of favor. Now it is performed constantly throughout the world, so it has a very interesting performance history.”

The opera’s protagonist, Lindoro, has attempted several times to escape Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, in vain. Next, he is faced with a hand-me-down bride instead of his missing beloved, Isabella. But a unique turn of events puts her in position to save her lost fiancé and extricate them from this bind.

“We’ve never done The Italian Girl, so that’s the reason we’re doing it now,” DeRenzi said. “We believe our audience will love it.”

The Love of Three Kings, he added, has a completely different history to it.

“When it was premiered in 1913 or so, it was an extremely popular opera in America, performed constantly until about 1950,” he said. “Then for some reason I can’t explain, it fell out of favor.”

Princess Fiora’s heart belongs to Avito, but she is forced to marry Manfredo, the son of King Archibaldo, the man who conquered her country. As the two lovers meet in secret, they realize they are playing a dangerous game — arousing the suspicions of the king.

“This opera went from being performed all the time to being rarely performed,” DeRenzi said. “The last performance by a professional company in America was in 2003, when we did it here. It was such a success that I decided I wanted to bring it back.”

Dialogues of the Carmelites is the last work that has risen to the ranks of the standard opera canon, he added.

“It was composed in 1957, but it is a very tonal piece,” DeRenzi said. “It is not atonal at all. For the first 30 years of its life it wasn’t performed very much.”

The opera’s heroine, Blanche de la Force, dedicates her life to God’s service by joining a Carmelite order during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror. As the revolution threatens to destroy all that’s most sacred to the nuns, Blanche’s journey leads her to the true meaning of faith.

“This opera has now become a standard piece in the international repertoire,” DeRenzi said. “No opera written after 1957 has been performed as much as Dialogues of the Carmelites and we’re proud to produce it this season.”

Madama Butterfly, the festival’s most recognizable opera, is tried and true — having been produced by Sarasota Opera four times before.

“It’s a great work and should be seen,” DeRenzi said. “You can’t see enough of this opera. It’s also a classic that’s very good for getting people interested in going to operas.”

Butterfly awaits the return of U.S. Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton in her little house on a hill overlooking the port of Nagasaki. A little boy is at her side. Three years earlier, at the tender age of fifteen, she had married Pinkerton and now he has come back — to break her heart.

“People who have been to the opera many times — or never — want to see operas like Butterfly,” DeRenzi said. “It’s a resplendent jewel in the crown of opera.”

He added what will make this season’s production of Butterfly different from those that preceded it will be a new stage director, John Basil, and a completely different cast — Joanna Parisi as Cio-Cio-San, Laurel Semerdjian as Suzuki and Antonil Coriano as Pinkerton.

“I’ll completely reset this piece,” DeRenzi said. “I’ve done a lot of operas since the last time I did Butterfly and it’s going to be very different this time.”

Madama Butterfly will play Feb. 11 at 7 p.m., Feb. 16, 22, 25, 28, March 10, 17, 21 and 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 19 and March 5 at 1:30 p.m. The Italian Girl in Algiers will run Feb. 18, 21, 23, March 3 and 18 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 26, March 25 at 1:30 p.m. Dialogues of the Carmelites is scheduled for March 4, 7, 15 and 24 at 7:30 p.m. and March 12 and 18 at 1:30 p.m. and The Love of Three Kings will perform March 11, 14, 16 and 22 at 7:30 p.m. and March 19 and 26 at 1:30 p.m.

Sarasota Opera is located at 61 North Pineapple Avenue in Sarasota. Ticket prices range from $19-$135. For more information about the opera’s winter season or to order tickets, call the box office at (941) 328-1300 or log on to

Nation’s #1 Beach Only US Beach on International List

Clean, fine, white sand. Miles and miles of it.

Siesta Key Beach’s trademark has again landed a spot on a best beaches list, this time as #5 on TripAdvisor’s Top 25 Beaches in the World.

Sarasota’s most popular beach has previously been named number one in the US by Dr. Beach and TripAdvisor, and it’s a point of pride for year-round residents, as well as a major draw for tourists.

Besides the soft, powdery sand, other noteworthy qualities are the beach’s proximity to restaurants, shopping, and lodging, as well as its warm, clear waters and the newly-completed $21M improvement project, which has been drawing in locals and tourists alike since last year.

Each evening, crowds flock to the beach to catch the sunset – which is always breathtaking.

For us locals, it’s a year-round delight; for tourists, it’s a darn good reason to vacation in Sarasota!

Source: TripAdvisor

Asolo Repertory Theatre’s The Tragedy of Hamlet

While Asolo Repertory Theatre has a host of outreach and education programs, perhaps the most exciting is the fall tour that brings exciting 45-minute modern adaptations of classic literature to schools and community venues throughout the Sunshine State. And for this year’s tour — which started September 27 and ends November 22 — it’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, an all-new adaptation of Shakespeare’s classic. It’s the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, after all, so there’s no better time to explore one of his literary and theatrical masterpieces.

The tour’s company features the entire third-year class of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. Before each performance, company members load up a van with minimal set pieces, props, and costumes, as well as a sound system, then the 11-person cast heads to a school or community venue and brings in all of the equipment, sets it up, does warm ups and a quick fight call to ensure stage combat goes well, gets into costume and is ready to perform. All of this happens within 90 minutes of arrival.

And just as often as not, they pack it all up and repeat the process at another school or venue the same day. “As of right now,” reports Education & Outreach Director Kathryn Moroney, “there are 62 performances on the calendar in about 42 different places. So it’s a pretty busy nine weeks!” She points out that it requires quite a bit of flexibility to go into an unfamiliar location — which could be a cafeteria, multi-purpose room, or a theater space — and be ready to do a show.

When asked why they went with Shakespeare for the touring project versus, say, Arthur Miller, Noel Coward, or Lillian Hellman, Moroney explains that Shakespeare hits a sweet spot. The performers — who just finished the second year curriculum that focuses on Shakespeare and a rigorous London theater summer training session — are eager to share some of what they’ve learned. And while schools have different needs throughout different years of the curriculum, Shakespeare is often on the docket. “We can bring something beyond what the teachers do,” says Moroney. “We can take the classic works of literature and bring them to life for young audiences. Yes, Shakespeare is writing about themes like truth and loyalty, but those aren’t just vague ideas when performed by actors. At our shows, audiences can witness how poetry transforms into behavior.” Audiences quickly understand that what they’re watching is real, or at least deeply echoes the behaviors and challenges of real people. The truth and relevance speak across the ages to students of today.

What if the students haven’t yet read Hamlet? No problem. While some schools adjust their class readings to match what the tour brings them, others aren’t able to do so. Some students won’t be reading Shakespeare until spring, so the tour becomes a springboard that sparks their curiosity and helps them explore its possibilities even before opening the text. A performance can also serve as a comparison with another Shakespeare work that they read. Or it can simply be an introduction to Shakespeare in general, a literary giant whose work they will read at some point in their school careers.

Part of the fun and educational value is the informal Q&A period with the cast after the performance. Moroney says, “There’s a bit of time immediately afterwards for the cast to introduce themselves and answer questions from the audience. Kids are often more vocal than adults, so these discussions can be quite memorable.” The cast hears honest reactions to the work — and many feel challenged and inspired by the students. Audiences also share written reflections after the performance. It’s interesting how readily students make connections and draw comparisons between stories of today and Shakespeare’s stories. This is exactly how people in love behave, they often point out, or this is what jealousy is like in middle school. Their writing demonstrates that watching a play is not a passive experience, but that the audience can make a personal connection with these texts centuries after it was written.

Last year, the fall tour reached over 14,000 students and adults, and the calendar this year seems comparable, reports Moroney. The Tragedy of Hamlet is especially important because it has such a prominent place in the curriculum, so the demand has been high from day one. “The truth is that our calendar is so full that we don’t have as many performance days as we’d like,” says Moroney. “We’re nearly at capacity now.” This makes sense since their fall tour program — now in its 7th year — has been particularly successful and well-received.

“It’s my fourth season here,” explains Moroney, “and this program existed before I arrived. Yet it was one of the things I was most excited about in terms of Asolo Rep’s offerings. It’s really a great match between a serious need that schools have and what we have to share.”

For more information on Asolo Repertory Theatre’s education programs in general or The Tragedy of Hamlet tour in specific, please visit or call (941) 351-9010 ext. 3307.

Ring Masters

Shari and Steve Ashman and the Circus Arts Conservatory

Shari and Steve Ashman never really appreciated the circus at all until they moved to Sarasota, a town known throughout the world for its association with the Big Top. But when they attended a gala at the Circus Arts Conservatory a couple of years ago, that perception dramatically changed.
“The first thing I noticed was the young people and how confident they looked as they walked around,” Shari said. “We attended some performances the kids put on at the Sailor Circus and Circus Sarasota and we knew the Circus Arts Conservatory was an organization we could get behind.”

Shari saw how the circus is inextricably tied to the history of the city. “There are references to it everywhere you look, which cannot be said of any other place in America,” she said. “And because the Circus Arts Conservatory is committed to preserving the history of this very special art form through performances, youth education and legacy activities, it is worthy of our support. We encourage others to support it as well.”
Shari and Steve grew up in Miami, but worked nearly 30 years in the Washington, D.C. area. Steve was in the banking business and Shari owned a successful direct marketing company. When they retired in 2014 they chose Sarasota because of the many exceptional arts organizations that call this area home. In addition to the Circus Arts Conservatory, they actively support Asolo Repertory Theatre, the Sarasota Ballet and the Sarasota Orchestra.

“When residents support such organizations, they not only enhance the quality of life, they preserve the value of their property,” Steve said.
According to the CAC website, Sailor Circus started out in 1949 as a small high school gymnastics class and has grown into a top circus school in the country. Over the last six decades, thousands of students have completed the Sailor Circus training program. Each year, students train with coaches and volunteers to create performances that have evolved into a major tourist attraction in the Southwest Florida region. The Sailor Circus Academy also offers a summer camp for children ages 6-15, which takes place in one- and two-week sessions during June, July and August.
“At the Sailor Circus I saw an impressive relationship between the young performers, the faculty that coach them and the parents,” Steve said. “They were, and are, so actively involved with the performance. It’s an unusual and special collaboration.”
The Circus Arts Conservatory is much more than a circus. Approximately 80 percent of ticket revenues help support its community outreach programs that serve children, the elderly and those in care facilities. These include the Humor Therapy Program, the Education Program and the Sailor Circus Academy, which all help preserve Sarasota’s unique circus legacy through education, human service and the performing arts.
The Ashmans support the CAC through donations and their own unique brand of public relations.
“We do a lot of talking about it,” Shari said. “And, coming from D.C., we have talked up the CAC’s appearance next summer there, on the National Mall. We’re looking to get everyone we know to plan their vacations around that. We’re impressed with the conservatory and of course with co-founders Dolly Jacobs-Reis and Pedro Reis. We want our friends to understand that this isn’t a circus that walks animals around. People know what the ballet is and what the orchestra is, but I’m not sure they get the circus as something that brings so much to children in terms of self esteem and confidence.”
“We admire all of CAC’s programs that involve public school kids in Sarasota County,” Steve added. “And we want to do all we can to help Dolly and Pedro preserve and perpetuate the wonderful legacy they’ve built through this organization; that although circus arts are not a uniquely American art form, they are a different kind of American art form that is very important.”
Steve added there are a lot of arts organizations in Sarasota, making it “a crowded field,” but the CAC is one that must not get lost in the shuffle.
“I think the CAC and the Sailor Circus are truly unique,” he said. “I think people have to be exposed to it to really appreciate it. It’s in your own enlightened self-interest to support the arts, because they’re all that separate Sarasota from any other beautiful coastal town in Florida.”

The New Players Centre for Performing Arts

Sarasota’s oldest theater takes a new home and makes a bold move towards an exciting future.

Founded more than 86 years ago as the first performing arts organization in Sarasota, The Players Theatre paved the way for what has become Florida’s cultural coast. It seems fitting that Sarasota’s first theater now is leading the way for a new cultural center out East. Along with planning a bold move from the U.S. 41 corridor, the theater has created a new identity for itself as The Players Centre for Performing Arts to reflect the expansive opportunities a new facility creates. While efforts are being made to sell its current property, complete designs for a new facility and raise funds for the new endeavor, the show must – and will – go on with an imaginative and charming theme for The Players’ 87th Broadway Season, “Stories from Screen to Stage,” which starts this month.

A legacy of its long history – which has seen luminaries like Montgomery Clift, Charlton Heston and Jayne Meadows trod its boards – is a valuable piece of waterfront-view property and a 1970s-era building that is showing its age. Proceeds from the sale of the current property, which is listed with Ian Black Real Estate for $12.5 million, will serve as the lead gift for a $25 million fundraising campaign, titled “Where Passion Takes the Stage,” which The Players Centre launched this summer. The campaign is focusing on its major gifts program, which starts at $250 and ranges upward to include many naming opportunities. In addition to raising capital for the new facility, the campaign aims to raise funds to ensure The Players’ future.

“We can’t do this without the backing of the community, and we have a truly great need. The current facility doesn’t work anymore, and it would take millions to renovate. The A/C is going, and things are generally falling apart,” says Michelle Bianchi-Pingel, Managing Director and CEO. “We have a full performing arts series with black box theater productions, our Broadway musical series, education programs, and we really need a full kitchen. We’ve been operating as a hand-to-mouth organization, and these issues can’t be addressed by slapping more coats of paint on them.”

Even if the current building is renovated, The Players has been experiencing a serious parking problem due to continual development of the surrounding area. The only way to alleviate that would be to build a costly new parking structure on the existing parking lot. “What we really need is to be the new jewel in the community,” Bianchi-Pingel says. “The Players started the arts community here, and we may as well start the new arts community out East.” And a gem of a new performing arts center is exactly what is on the drawing board.

When complete in three to five years, The Players Centre will include a 480-seat main stage auditorium with balcony seating. The Mainstage hosts a wide range of productions included in The Players’ year-round programming, which includes the Broadway Theatre Series, SNAP (Something New at Players) Series, Summer Sizzler Series, concerts and other performances. A 125-seat black box theater for more intimate performances and cutting-edge contemporary plays also will be part of the new facility as well as a 100-seat cabaret-style theater with dining options.

“The cabaret will offer a lot of musical performances like jazz trios and singing groups,” says Jeffery Kin, Artistic Director. “These will be paid professionals. That’s why we’re calling it a performing arts center – because we will have professional performers as well as community theater.” The new Centre will also be home to the main campus of The Players’ educational arm, The Arnold Simonsen Players Studio. The Players Centre is in the process of renovating a space downtown in the Rosemary district where it has secured a 15-year lease for a satellite school.

“Knowing the bigger picture of our move, we still wanted to have a downtown presence,” Bianchi-Pingel says. “The school will relocate there around the spring of 2017. When the new theater is finished, the main campus of the school will be in Lakewood Ranch, and the facility in Rosemary Square will be a satellite location for the school. We also will be hiring a school administrator to run the program.” In addition to hosting about 30 performing arts classes weekly – plans call for increasing that number to nearly 40 – The Players Centre is adding two new certificate programs, one in dramatic theatre and the other in musical theatre. The school also holds an eight-week summer camp program as well as three outreach groups serving a diverse range of people from children to seniors with The Players Kids, The Players Follies and The Players Flash Tappers.

The plan is to select an architect for the project this month, then design work on the facility will begin. Funding from the Community Foundation of Sarasota County allowed Bianchi-Pingel and Kin to travel nationwide to visit six new theaters and learn what worked and, just as importantly, what did not work for them in building a theater. “We probably saved ourselves at least $2 million by learning what we should not do,” Bianchi-Pingel says.

The Players Centre will be located in the new 3,100-acre Lakewood Ranch Waterside development just east of I-75, south of University Parkway and north of Fruitville Road. The new facility will be constructed in a 4.5-acre village center on one of Waterside’s many lakes. Since The Players touches more than 75,000 people annually, there has been a bit of angst among some patrons about what a move out East will mean. Results of a feasibility study conducted by The Players provide some reassurance.

Based on a zip code analysis of ticket sales for the past five years, only 2.6 percent of patrons come from the barrier islands and, presumably, would be most impacted by an additional 15 or 20 minute drive from the current location. More than 28 percent of ticket buyers are from the I-75 corridor spanning Lakewood Ranch to South Sarasota, and more than 45 percent come from Whitfield, central and east Sarasota. “Of those who have contacted us,” Bianchi-Pingel says, “about 98 percent have been ecstatic about the move and the opportunities it opens up for us.”

Those who are offering full-blown support for the move are Lou Marinaccio (known in some circles as the unofficial mayor of Lakewood Ranch), who hosted the Players Centre’s first fundraiser this summer, and Shroeder-Manatee Ranch CEO Rex Jensen. “Lou has jumped on board as an advisor and consultant,” she says, “and we immediately meshed with Rex, who has been very supportive.”

Despite all the needed fundraising and planning for the future move, The Players’ doors will stay open, and it will be business as usual even if the property sells. Should that happen, ideally it will be able to lease the facility from the next owner until the new facility is complete. If that is not possible, plans are in place to continue performances in rented facilities around town. “We still must steer the ship at home and need to pay the bills,” Bianchi-Pingel says.

That is where the unique split-management model that she and Kin pioneered shows its merits. While Bianchi-Pingel focuses more of her efforts on fundraising in addition to the business and operational side of the theater, Kin ensures the performances remain top-notch. “In a way we’ve spoiled our patrons because of the level of professional work we do. We have to remind them that the people on stage are volunteers. We cast our shows by who shows up at auditions, which doesn’t mean we aren’t doing great work,” Kin says. “A number of our actors are like me, professionals who have retired but still want to enjoy the stage. A lot of people tell us they like a play better here than when they saw it in New York. That’s because we attract some very interesting people for whom this is their dream, not their job, and they come to our state with a freshness and enthusiasm you don’t see other places. Where else can you spend $130 and see seven Broadway-style shows?”

This year’s Broadway Series features shows that made it to the big screen, rather than the stage, first – a reversal of the usual process. The season kicks off with Gypsy, the saucy tale of strip-tease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, followed by Mel Brooks’ brilliant and hysterically funny Young Frankenstein adaptation of the classic tale. Other shows include Legally Blonde, which has won the Laurence Olivier Award, Touring Broadway Award and Theatre Goers Choice Award, the Tony Award-winning Sweet Charity, and Big Fish, adapted from the novel and Tim Burton film. The season wraps up with two rollicking romps, the multiple Tony Award-winning Footloose and Boeing Boeing, a classic Tony Curtis and Jerry Louis comedic farce. This year’s pre-season show, which runs through September 11, is Tennessee Williams’ celebrated A Streetcar Named Desire.

“We’re excited about this season, along with all the opportunities that come along with our big move out East,” Kin says. “The move is our future and we can’t do it without community support, but we also need you to be part of our present as well, because we’re still committed to our artistry and producing quality work. This is an opportunity for you to come along with us.” If you’d like to help, call 941.365.2494.