Buzz Worthy: Avant-garde theater is a tough sell, but more is coming to the Bradenton area

October 20, 2013 

I might be getting a security person at the Ringling Museum in trouble here, but when I was down there the other day and said I was writing some stories about the Ringling International Arts Festival for the Herald, she said "Oh, good, we need help on that one."

The festival had done well in its first year, she said, but attendance had tapered off.

And the opening night performance by Rocio Molina, made me think she might be right. It was one of the most exhilarating dance performances I've seen in a long time, but the Mertz Theatre at the FSU Conservatory for the Arts was less than half-full. (It was the high-priced opening night gala and she had two more performances coming up, but Molina's a big deal and deserves full houses.)

Toward the end of the festival, I saw a gorgeous performance from Tere O'Connor Dance. O'Connor is one of the preeminent choreographers in America, the recipient of one of those Guggenheim "genius" grants and the creator of unusual -- some people have said "difficult" -- dances. But one of the two pieces on the program was so beautiful that it very nearly made me cry. The Mertz Theatre was more than half-empty.

Even in an area like this one that embraces the arts so fully and overtly, non-mainstream performances can be a tough sell.

It's struggle for the people who put together seasons schedules. They're artists and they want to challenge themselves, their casts and crews and their audiences. But …

"The bottom line is we have to sell tickets," said Rick Kerby, the producing artistic director for the Manatee Players.

The word that keeps coming up when Kerby and his counterparts at other theaters talk about presenting non-mainstream work is "balance."

"For me it's all about balance," said Jeffery Kin, the artistic director

of the Players Theatre in Sarasota.

"Balance for the audience and balance for the theater. But on the other hand, we're artists, and we need to be challenged."

Artistic directors look to keep their actors excited too, so they want to stage works that are out of the ordinary.

"There's only so many times you can ask them to come back and audition for 'Oklahoma!'," Kerby said.

Of course there's nothing wrong with long-established hits, the "Steel Magnolias" and other shows that are sure to draw crowds. But not too many mid-sized metropolitan areas have a higher concentration of regular theater-goers, or of more discerning theater-goers, than Bradenton-Sarasota. And regular theater-goers often yearn for something more daring.

The Ringling International Arts Festival, and the growing number of performances at the Ringling throughout the year, are addressing that need. But area theaters are addressing it, too.

Kerby said he's planning on introducing more non-mainstream fare at the Bradenton Kiwanis Studio Theatre at the Manatee Performing Arts Center in upcoming seasons. That's the small, 100-seat theater that recently hosted "Always … Patsy Cline."

Stone Hall, the bigger theater in the center, will probably keep offering the big-name shows, but Kerby said he wants to take more risks in the studio space.

"It's a lot easier to fill 100 seats than 400 seats," he said.

He intentionally played it safe in the first season for the studio theater, he said, because he wanted to introduce people to the space, and he wanted to draw people who are used to larger, proscenium spaces and had never experienced intimate theater.

A few years back, Kin adapted the rehearsal space at the Players Theatre so it could double as a studio theater, and he tries to stage edgier works there.

Of course, there's some challenging theater in larger spaces too, from theaters such as Asolo Rep that have a large following of their own that can support more difficult show at least on occasion.

It looks as though there's going to be more non-mainstream performance in this area's future, and that meanwhile the mainstream stuff won't be diminished. That's great news for area audiences, whether they go to the theater for diversion or for inspiration, because a better balance can only enhance the arts for everyone.

But the trend won't continue, and that balance won't be achieved if audiences don't respond and show that they want art that's emotionally stimulating and intellectually challenging alongside their theatrical entertainment.

Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.

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