By Ryan G. Van Cleave
“Our goal is not just to entertain you… we want to inspire you.” theater
When The Manatee Players, Inc. was formed in late 1947, it was little more than a community theater group made up of members of the Bradenton Junior Women’s Club. These days, it’s governed by a Board of Directors and is a year-round, professionally-staffed corporation of 10 full-time employees, numerous part-timers, and well more than 75 contracted directors, musicians, and designers. Their website is clear about their ambitious mission: “We are committed to being the community’s premier theater and the region’s center for cultural, education, and artistic expression. Our team works tirelessly to ensure that we deliver engaging excellence for all ages, through the talent we present, the services we offer, and the experiences we create. Our goal is not just to entertain you…we want to inspire you.”
Dedication, education, artistic expression
Part of being a center for cultural and artistic expression means that they have a commitment to education through various programs. One of the most successful of these is DraMature, a senior acting troupe now in its sixth year of operation. About 30 seniors — snowbirds and locals alike — participate in the improv events and actual full performances that go on throughout the year. Next year, they’re planning to tackle a special senior edition of “Guys and Dolls,” which promises to be a can’t-miss affair.
Christine Marie Elan has been an active DraMature member since moving to Bradenton from New York in 2013. “After touring the construction site of the new theater in a hard hat, I was hooked on the vision. I immediately signed up to be a front-of-house volunteer, which I have been dedicated to ever since,” she says, which means she, among other things, sells a lot of raffle tickets to help generate funds for the theater. One of the things she likes most about being so involved is the unexpected friendships that form. She notes that she now has a 96-year-old friend who was a former Broadway actress who “has witnessed a historical age we can only read about.”
When asked to share a favorite experience, Elan has many possible answers. “The CEO and myself standing barefoot atop the credenza in the lobby, mounting a tapestry over the television monitor. Or a teen thanking me — well after midnight — for all I’d done for a celebration that evening.” But the one she latches onto most is this: “I’d been selling raffle tickets for a beautiful necklace donated by Jess Jewelers. A small boy came to me with a dollar for a ticket. I asked him what he wanted to do if he won the prize. His response was ‘I want to give it to my mommy as a s’prise.’ So adorable! So sweet! I was tempted to rig the drawing in his favor!” (She didn’t do so, though, she promises.)
Director of Marketing and Outreach Brian Craft has been with the organization for 2 ½ years after getting his BFA in musical theater and then working in the marketing department for a New York fashion firm. He says that he’s constantly re-invigorated by all the energy and excitement of the day-to-day operations. He notes how things that happen here — such as sharing costumes and props with other area theaters — simply doesn’t happen as often in New York. “It’s such a great community here,” Craft explains. “We’re so fortunate. People are willing to go above and beyond to support and sustain the arts in our community.”
…and an expansion
One of the most recent bits of great news is how they acquired land right across the street. It’s going to provide much-needed parking. It also came with eight housing units, which means that guest artists, touring professionals, and even students in their new intern program can live there. Craft says, “Having on-site accommodations like that is a huge plus.” He’s quick to circle back on the idea of interns — something new for The Manatee Performing Arts Center. It’s a fairly recent addition designed to bridge the gap between college and the professional world. The hope is to expand that program such that interns can participate in nearly every aspect of the theater to give them crucial hands-on experiences that will prepare them for their own careers.
Theater programs for all ages
But it’s not just seniors and interns who are enjoying the benefits of The Manatee Performing Arts Center’s education and outreach efforts. The Youth Conservatory Camps are a huge hit. What kid wouldn’t want to be a part of “High School Musical Jr.” or “Shrek: The Musical”? “Seeing them work with pro actors on stage,” Craft says, “is fun to watch. The kids really step up their game. They admire the professional actors and they can learn and grow from these experiences. To see the conservatory students go from being timid and shy on their first day of a summer camp to soaring in their final performance on a professional caliber stage with full lighting and production values? It’s truly incredible.”
The Manatee Performing Arts Center is hugely committed to educating young people. Craft explains that “if we want to build and grow our theater base of both audience members and performers, we need to provide effective education. We need to give them the platform to develop in this safe environment.”
Through all of their programming, they impact over 600 youth per year, and they hope to grow that number through new after-school events such as dance and drama classes.
At the moment, Craft is a one-person marketing department, so it’s admittedly a challenge for him to offer the same level of publicity and attention to all the various programs and events. But it’s a blessing, too, he says, to have so many things worth sharing. “We’ve become an artistic hub for the community, and to be part of it all is incredibly exciting.”