People are anthropomorphizing 2016 in a way they’ve never done with any other year. A lot of celebrities have died this year, many of them before their time seemed to be due, from David Bowie and Prince early in the year to George Michael and Carrie Fisher and her mother, Debbie Reynolds, in recent days. In most cases, their deaths were publicly unexpected, and people reacted by blaming the calendar. “2016 has claimed another victim,” people wrote on social media. A lot of them have directed expletives toward 2016 itself, as if its feelings could be hurt.
Looking back at 2016 in the context of performing arts in the Bradenton area is much more agreeable. The news, and the shows, have been positive, and largely free of tragedy.
There were a couple of sad notes, as there are in every year. Paul Wolfe, who was widely regarded as the father of the Sarasota Orchestra, passed away. He was one of the most universally loved figures in the local performing arts scene, and it’s safe to say that Sarasota wouldn’t be the same kind of arts mecca without him.
Another piece of unhappy news was the death of Jerry Finn in March. Finn was the founder of Banyan Theater in Sarasota. In fact, he pretty much WAS the Banyan Theater, so the company died with him. His legacy is obvious, though. There was virtually no summer theater in the Sarasota area when Finn started Banyan. His company staged plays only in the summer and for area audiences, and now there’s plenty of summer theater every year, even after the demise of Banyan.
One company that stages summer shows is Urbanite Theatre in downtown Sarasota. The still-new company bucked conventional thinking, which was that Sarasota audiences wanted big shows in proscenium theaters. Urbanite started last year, announcing little bursts of three shows at a time. It’s daring stuff in a black box theater, and it was full almost every night right from the start. In 2016, way ahead of schedule, Urbanite announced it was moving toward a full, year-’round season.
Urbanite’s success may have influenced nearby Florida Studio Theatre to recently resurrect its Stage III series, which concentrates on edgier plays. The first of the three shows opens in January, and it looks to be work that will excite people who look to theater for more than just diversion.
Just around the corner, the Sarasota Opera in 2016 completed a marathon project, finishing up its Verdi Cycle that began in 1989. It became the only company in the world that has performed every note that Giuseppe Verdi wrote, or at least every note that he wanted people to perform.
The Sarasota Ballet was granted the rights to perform George Balanchine’s “Jewels” in its entirety, which is an accomplishment in itself. The Balanchine Trust is especially protective of the piece, and checks out a company carefully before allowing it to perform one of Balanchine’s masterpieces. More importantly, though, The Sarasota Ballet with the Sarasota Orchestra in the pit did a beautiful job with it, packing the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall and giving thousands of people an evening they’ll likely never forget.
The most significant news for the performing arts in this area came from the company formerly known officially as the Players Theatre, and unofficially as Sarasota Players. The company announced a spectacular plan to build a new campus in Lakewood Ranch. It has changed its name to the Players Centre for Performing Arts to signal its fresh start. The company has always staged quality productions, and its location was ideal. But parking was cramped and the old building had become creaky and unpleasant.
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe also announced a capital campaign aimed at building a new theater on its existing property. The company’s shows are phenomenal and usually sell out, so more seats will be welcome.
The Players Centre was obviously influenced by the success the Manatee Players had in generating community support for its performing arts center. It’s been less than four years, but it’s already difficult to imagine Bradenton without the Manatee PAC. This year, Manatee Players put on one of its strongest mainstage seasons in the center, with shows as diverse as “42nd Street” and “Assassins.” The Bradenton Kiwanis Theater has been slowly building an audience, and this year reached a point where it almost sells out. In its first season, the black-box theater often drew less than a dozen people.
Some patrons have grumbled about the parking situation, which has meant either using valet parking, walking a block or two, or taking a shuttle. The past few months of this year have seen the acquisition of the property directly across the street, and the construction of a parking lot that should easily accommodate two theaters full of patrons.
So despite the deaths of beloved international stars, and those of Jerry Finn and Paul Wolfe, there were a lot of good things about 2016. Maybe we should say a few nice things to 2016 instead of just cursing it.