Great expectations as Manatee Players' performing arts center opens

March 28, 2013 

This week marks a major milestone for the City of Bradenton, one years in the making and worthy of a major celebration. The Manatee Performing Arts Center debuts tonight with a blockbuster complete with special effects that will show off the city's new downtown gem.

Figuratively and literally, "Miss Saigon" will light up the spacious new main stage, Stone Hall, as the award-winning Manatee Players finally inhabit a theater worthy of their artistic skills. The aging and cramped but beloved Riverfront Theatre in the heart of downtown Bradenton will now be a fond memory for the troupe and thousands of theater-goers.

Progress came painfully slow but the past is the past. The $15 million state-of-the-art theater is truly a communitywide achievement thanks to donations large and small over more than eight years of fund-raising.

After some six years of pay-as-you-go construction, the Manatee Players and all of its many supporters have given Bradenton a new landmark that builds on the city's strategy of cultural place-making. The value of the arts to a community's quality of life and economic prosperity has been proven time and time again in various cities across the country.

As we've opined in the past, this one civic asset can be a preeminent economic development driver, drawing visitors and new residents who desire a city that nurtures the arts and succeeds. With Village of the Arts, the South Florida Museum and ArtCenter Manatee all nearby, the city should gain additional cache with art aficionados. The growing prominence of Riverwalk as a cultural venue adds a scenic outdoor element to the mix.

While theater will be the performing arts center's focus, the venue will also be a place for films, lectures, classes, civic group meetings, private events and more. The educational wing, located on the second floor, will be home to both traditional classroom instruction and performance-based classes.

The main auditorium, Stone Hall, seats 380 while the Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theater will accommodate 100 people. The lobby is available for receptions and fund-raisers for up to 300 people, complete with banquet facilities equipped with a catering kitchen.

These various spaces will allow the Manatee Players to boost two aspects of the organization's mission -- education and community outreach.

"Miss Saigon" leads the 2013-2014 season of seven other major musicals in the main hall and six shows slated for the studio theater. Rick Kerby, the Manatee Players' producing artistic director, recently described the lineup to the Herald: "For our first season in the new building, we want it to be big and splashy. We want people to be excited, not only to see the building but the shows inside."

With Kerby at the artistic helm, top quality productions are assured. During his tenure, the Manatee Players has earned numerous state, regional and national honors in directing, acting, costumes, set designs and more.

As the Manatee Players' executive director, Janene Witham handles the business side of the operation. She has shepherded the lengthy fund-raising and construction project through to success alongside Capital Campaign Chair Emeritus Marlene Woodson-Howard and Capital Campaign General Chair George Najmy.

With Kerby, the troupe gained a sterling reputation. With Witham, the Players gained an indefatigable advocate.

Congratulations to the entire troupe, board of directors, volunteers, donors and others who kept this dream alive during good and bad times, even when doubts circulated around the community that their passion could not keep the project afloat. They persevered and won the day.

Bradenton now boasts another cultural masterpiece because of their dedication.

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