Bradenton's new theater means expanded artistic horizons

The Manatee Performing Arts center to open this week

mclear@bradenton.comMarch 24, 2013 

"This is only the beginning."

Those five words have been Janene Witham's mantra for the past few weeks. She's the executive director of Manatee Players, and everyone wants to talk with her about the Manatee Performing Arts Center. It's set to open this week, after years of fundraising and construction.

To the general public, it seems like a culmination. But to Witham and other Manatee Players officials, it's just a step into the future. It's the beginning of today, not the end of yesterday.

"It expands our horizons -- vastly," says Denny Miller, the marketing manager for Manatee Players.

It does that in a lot of ways. The most obvious: The much larger stage and the much-improved technical capabilities allow the company to produce shows that would have been impossible in its predecessor's space.

"We never would have been able to do 'Miss Saigon' in the old theater," Miller said.

In the new theater, they can, and will.

"Miss Saigon," the spectacular 1989 musical by the writing team behind "Les Miserables," is set to inaugurate the new facility starting March 28.

"Miss Saigon" was a technical marvel when it came Broadway in the early 1990s. It takes the essence of the story of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" and moves it to wartime Vietnam. In the middle of the show, a helicopter lands on the stage. No one would have thought to attempt that at Players' old Riverfront Theatre.

The Riverfront Theatre had trouble even accommodating old-fashioned musicals that didn't demand a lot of modern technology. At the curtain call for the final show, "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum," the old stage was barely big enough to hold all the cast mem

bers when they lined up for their curtain call.

The Manatee Performing Arts Center will be a lot more pleasant for actors.

"Backstage it's a huge upgrade," Miller said. "We even have a shower. We barely had hot water in the old theater."

The new space won't just make for bigger shows, but better ones as well.

Joseph Oshry, a lighting designer who worked on 63 shows at the old theater and will also work on "Miss Saigon," says the improved lighting system at the Manatee Performing Arts Center will give productions a more professional look that audiences will notice immediately.

"I think it will be a great leap forward in production values," Oshry said.

Oshry also works at American Stage in St. Petersburg, one of the most prestigious professional theaters in the Tampa Bay area. He says that with the lighting system at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, it will be "comparable to, or maybe even a step up from American Stage."

It will take about a year, though, before the entire system is in place; an LED system that will allow much greater flexibility in lighting design is set to be installed next season.

The actual location of the new theater -- it's at 502 Third Ave. W. -- also opens new possibilities, Witham notes.

With the Riverwalk and the 400-seat Mosaic Amphitheatre virtually in the new center's backyard, the Manatee Players have visions of doing outdoor plays and site-specific work. There are no concrete plans for that kind of theater yet, Witham says, but it's definitely part of the company's plans for the future.

"We're not in a hurry," Witham said. "We're just starting. We want to make sure that when we do something, we do it right."

The size and the technical capabilities of the new space also allow for a wider range of offerings, including arts and artists that have never really had a venue in Bradenton before. It's not an accident that the new building is called the "Manatee Performing Arts Center" instead of the "Manatee Players Theater."

"At the old theater, due to space limitations, we were unable to bring in small dance companies and touring shows," Miller said. "Now we can do that."

The theater, with excellent sightlines and lighting possibilities, could be ideal even for major national dance companies, which often require high-tech theaters, but have trouble attracting huge audiences. Some large performing arts centers around the country have given up on presenting dance, because even the big-name companies only attract a few hundred people.

Witham has already talked to jazz musicians who are interested in staging concerts at the center because of its excellent sound and atmosphere.

And there's no reason, Miller says, why the performing arts center couldn't become a Manatee County venue for the Sarasota Film Festival.

And, of course, bringing in outside shows along with a much larger seating capacity, should mean higher revenue for Manatee Players, and that should lead to even higher-quality productions.

For the actors and technical artists of Manatee Players, the new space is a lot more pleasant than the old Riverfront Theatre, which was long past its prime, with a leaky roof and inadequate facilities. The up-to-date technical capabilities in the Manatee Performing Arts Center will improve artists' performance.

"These are people who give 110 percent," Witham said. "And now they have a building that will give 100 percent back to them."

And because Manatee Players will be able to stage bigger shows with larger choruses, they can extend opportunities to more people who want to start working in theater. Someone who dreams of being on stage, but doesn't have the confidence or experience for a featured role, will now have a lot more opportunities.

In a more philosophical sense, the Manatee Performing Arts Center is a symbol of what Bradenton is becoming and what it can do.

Johnette Isham, the executive director of Realize Bradenton, is as impressed with the spirit behind the center as she is with the center itself.

"It shows," she said, "that people in Bradenton are thinking big and working together."

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-748-0411. ext. 7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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