Arts & Culture

The New Players Centre for Performing Arts

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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.

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