Manatee Performing Arts Center's remarkable first year

April 20, 2014 

VIPs and invited guests take their seats for the inaugural performance at the Manatee Performing Arts Center in Bradenton in 2013. Over 400 guests showed up to help christen the new center during the first performance of the Manatee Players production of Miss Saigon. PAUL VIDELA/Bradenton Herald FILE PHOTO

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It's only been a year -- actually, a year and a couple of weeks, if you want to quibble -- since the Manatee Performing Arts Center welcomed its first patrons for its spectacular production of "Miss Saigon."

That production, and the even more impressive staging of "Les Miserables" that followed, blew the proverbial socks off of local theater-goers, especially those among us who were used to the Manatee Players shows in the leaky, drafty Riverfront Theatre.

People saw the completion of the building as the culmination of year of community effort, which it was. But for the people associated with the Manatee Performing Arts Center and the Manatee Players, the center's resident theater company, it's just the beginning.

"Someone said to me, 'Oh Janene, you've done it, the building is open, you conquered the giant,' " said Janene Witham, the executive director of both the performing arts center and Manatee Players. "But to me, conquering the giant means becoming a giant in the Florida Gulf Coast region."

After a year, she said, the Manatee Performing Arts Center has taken major strides in that direction -- maybe even more than Witham and her staff and cadre of volunteers imagined.

The old theater was home to a respectable season of musicals, but nothing more.

In the past year, the Manatee Performing Arts Center has hosted plays, musicals, concerts, films, meetings and lectures, often with a couple of events going on at the same time in different spaces.

"If you look at the average, there's more than one thing happening here every day," Witham said. "Some of what we're doing already we thought we wouldn't be able to do for two or three years."

There had been some speculation, when the center opened, that it could someday become one of the venues for the Sarasota Film Festival. Not too many people figured the festival would be there in 2014. But a successful special presentation of a festival film a few weeks back has SFF officials talking about doing more at the performing arts center, maybe as early as next year.

And no one could have predicted that the Movieville Film Festival would announce that it would move from Sarasota to the Manatee Performing Arts Center starting this year. (It's set to open May 8.)

It's not just a matter of quantity, though.

Joe Oshry, a professional lighting designer who worked at the Riverfont Theatre and is working now on his fourth show at the Manatee Performing Arts Center ("My One and Only," which opens May 1) said the difference between the two theaters for technicians and designers is immeasurable.

Oshry has worked at professional theaters and opera houses around the South, and he ranks the Manatee Performing Arts Center's technical capabilities up with many of those. It's "on a par," he said, with American Stage in St. Petersburg, "and in some ways even better."

New LED lights that just arrived this week, will enhance those capabilities, he said allow him to spend more time with the artistic end and less time hanging lights.

"I'll have one light that does 22 things instead of 22 lights that do one thing," he said.

It's still just he beginning of the center's life, though, and as Witham and the center's staff learn more about running such a complex facility, including how to most efficiently schedule events so that there's plenty going on, and that shows don't interfere or conflict with each other, they'll come closer to conquering the giant.

For the rest of us, though, it's already hard to imagine what downtown Bradenton would be like without the Manatee Performing Arts Center and hard to remember a time when it wasn't here.

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

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