Variety in Sarasota's performing arts

Most venues within walking distance downtown

Entrance to the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall
Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall - Top celebrities perform here in over 100 events each year.

The opportunities for attending a play, musical or concert downtown is pleasantly astonishing. That is one reason why voters of American Style Magazine ranked Sarasota as the top arts destinations in the nation for populations of 100,000 or less. The histories of the venues are as intriguing as the performances themselves, starting with one of the most notable in the area, the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall.

Performances at the Van Wezel are scheduled year round and are mostly one-day shows from well-known stars that are on a route that includes The Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater. With over 100 performances scheduled this year, more than half are of cultural significance with ballet, Sarasota orchestra and town hall lectures. More than 25,000 students in the neighboring four counties are introduced to the arts each year here.

Attending a show at the Van Wezel is an experience in itself. Arrive early to stroll the banks of Sarasota Bay or socialize with others with fine dining at Mattison's Bayside. Even the color of hall is a sample of royalty, a purple and violet combination suggested by Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, the widow of famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Although there are 1,736 seats in the hall, the more popular artists do sell out their shows. The future of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall is in question as community leaders discuss the acres of property on the bayfront, either to replace the building constructed in 1969 or to design a downtown community that includes this historic structure.

Long tradition of opera at the Sarasota Opera House

Sarasota Opera House
The Sarasota Opera House, open since 1926.

You can walk among the theaters in downtown Sarasota, some that are close to the Van Wezel. The Sarasota Opera House is host to operas, a venue for the annual Sarasota Film Venue each April or the upcoming Sarasota Music Festival, June 8-24. Opened originally in 1926, the building that seats 1,119 patrons was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. Currently the opera house is owned by the Sarasota Opera Association, it was once used as a performance hall that included stars such as Will Rogers and Elvis Presley. The Greatest Show on Earth movie had its world premiere at the opera house in 1952 with its stars Charlton Heston and Dorothy Lamour in attendance. The summer HD at the Opera House series begins its run May 21 with high definition operas, ballets and plays including The Marriage of Figaro, Tristan and Isolde, Madama Butterfly, Faust, Swan Lake and Macbeth.

The Players Centre for the Performing Arts seeks a new beginning

Across Tamiami Trail near the Van Wezel is the Players Centre for the Performing Arts with more than 86 years of performances in downtown Sarasota. Actors bring some of the best Broadway plays of the day to the stage with daily performances. Their Summer Sizzler Series begins June 14 and includes such plays as Beau Jest, The Marvelous Wonderettes and Arsenic and Old Lace. The series concludes with the premiere of the New Play Festival winner, Mammoth Bones, August 22-27. The organization may lose its downtown location, having put the building up for sale this month. Its plans are for a three-theatre complex in Lakewood Ranch to be built within three years.

Social gatherings for the arts with the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe

REALTALK interview with Nate Jacobs of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe
Interview with Nate Jacobs of the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe in REALTALK™ #101.

Nearby is the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe on 10th Way downtown, entertaining audiences with plays and musical performances by talented local actors. It was founded in 1999 by its current artistic director, Nate Jacobs. The WBTT is expanding also with its current Heart & Soul Campaign that is raising funds for a new performance hall that will accommodate more guests and continue to sell out their shows. A popular show each December is the Black Nativity which has become a tradition of the troupe. Nate Jacobs adapted this show from the poetry of Langston Hughes. Currently running is the play, Dearly Departed, a comedy about a funeral for the family’s departed father. I proudly sit on the board of directors for the WBTT.

A village of theaters within a city at Florida Studio Theatre

A number of theaters in one block comprise the Florida Studio Theatre complex of Keating, Gompertz, Goldstein and John C. Court Cabarets, and Bowne's Lab Theatre. Since 1973 the theaters provide the heart for a series of mainstage productions, cabarets, education and new play development in contemporary settings. Every Saturday the FST Improv Troupe delight audiences with their improvisational comedy shows. Now in its ninth year, FST invites improv troupes from around the globe to the Sarasota Improv Festival for three days. This year, July 13-15, there are 22 troupes competing in the festival.

Historic Asolo, Cook and Mertz at the FSU Center for the Performing Arts

On the grounds of the Ringling Museum is the home of the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, a series of three theaters. Originally constructed in 1798 in the Italian town that bears its name, for 132 years the Historic Asolo Theater was the home of famed Italian actors and actresses when it was dismantled in 1930 and placed in storage. Following World War II the Ringling purchased the theater and its four tiers of seats to be placed on the grounds of the museum. There it remained in a gallery until the late 50s when it was reconstructed as a home for modern theatre. It was moved once again to its current location on Bay Shore Road on the museum grounds and renamed the Historic Asolo Theater. The building will be closed to tours and performances through June 1, as the new Kotler-Coville Glass Pavilion is in construction next to it. The first performance is scheduled June 13 through July 29 with Bello Nock, a comedic acrobat in IncrediBello!

Asolo Repertory Theatre
The world premiere of Beatsville is the current repertory production in the Mertz Theatre.

Across the street are the Mertz and Cook theatres, home of the Asolo Repertory Theatre and the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. The Mertz Theatre has a similar history as the Historic Asolo Theater, first constructed as an opera house in Dunfermline, Scotland where it stood for 86 years before it was purchased for the Ringling and moved here in 1903. The 500-seat theatre is in use primarily for plays by the Asolo Repertory company, a group of professional actors. The smaller 161-seat Cook Theatre in the same building is used as a theater for small-cast repertory shows and for the Florida State University MFA Acting program. No more than 12 students are admitted to this storied College of Fine Arts program that has been training actors for 40 years. The Theatre is named after Jane Bancroft Cook, a philanthropist and heir to the family owned Dow Jones & Company, where she served on its board for 36 years before her death in 2002.

There are other theaters and cinemas in the area and many more from Bradenton to Venice, the heritage this city has for arts and entertainment date back to John Ringling and his circus. It is one of the many reasons that many people take up residence here in this part of sunny Florida. Please contact me at (941) 387-1840 if you have a property to sell or buy.

References to other entertainment venues in Sarasota