I went to see the Manatee Players' excellent production of the beautiful play "The Boys Next Door" a few weeks ago. Just before I walked in the door of the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, a company official came up to me. He wanted to let me know that a seat had been reserved for me. They had put a sign that said "Press" on one of the seats, just in case the show sold out.
The show didn't sell out that night, but the suggestion that it might was unprecedented. I've seen shows in that theater with only 10 people in the audience.
Now, it seems shows in the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater are starting to find their audience.
"There's been a steady uptick this season," said Rick Kerby, the producing artistic director for Manatee Players. "It's been a slow growth for us."
Season tickets sales for the smaller of the two spaces at the performing arts center are up noticeably this year, he said, and single-ticket sales are climbing, too.
Meanwhile, though, just 20 minutes away in Sarasota, the new Urbanite Theatre, which is just about the same size, has been packed regularly, right from the start. It's staging shows that are more obscure and much edgier, but it has been drawing crowds.
"Over the years we've kind of trained our audiences to like big musicals," Kerby said.
In Sarasota, audiences are used to a wide variety of performing arts, and a lot of people support everything, whether it's musical theater, serious drama, ballet, opera or classical music. In Bradenton, Manatee Players has been the dominant performing arts organization for a very long time, so people have gotten more specific in their tastes.
And, of course, Manatee Players do the big musicals very, very well. The two they've done so far this season -- "Cats" and "The Secret Garden" -- have been exquisite.
That's what people have come to expect from the company.
Indeed, when I wrote some time back about the lack of audience support for shows in the studio theater at MPAC, someone wrote me a letter -- an actual old-fashioned letter on paper -- saying that Manatee Players audiences wanted fun, escapist musicals. The writer sounded almost indignant that
Manatee Players would attempt to stage things like psychological dramas in a small space. Not everyone agrees. "You can't just do 'South Pacific' over and over," said Terry Romine, a long-time area theater supporter and a regular frequent MPAC audience member. "We don't get to see dramas around here very often, and the black box gives us a chance to see those. It's something this community needs."
Manatee Players will never abandon musicals. Kerby indicated the company never really intended to abandon straight plays either. But the audience didn't respond as well to those, so they fell by the wayside in the old single-space theater.
The smaller space at MPAC gives them the opportunity to do those plays again.
"It's about giving an opportunity to our audiences," he said, "and it's about giving opportunities to our actors, too."
There are lots of fine actors in this area who aren't singers and dancers. The black box theater gives them a chance to perform, which is one of the functions of any community theater.
Besides, there's a kind of joy to intimate theater that's different than the kind that productions in big proscenium theater offer. There's a different kind of connection between the audience and the actors, and the technical and spatial limitations force directors and designers to be more imaginative.
It's a different kind of theater experience, and it seems that more and more people in Bradenton are discovering its joys. Because more people have started to come along for the ride, Kerby said, Manatee Players are getting cautiously more adventurous in the kind of shows they're offering in the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater. This season's shows are all substantial (with the possible exception of "Bark! The Musical," in which all the characters are dogs) and some are challenging. One -- "Yank! A WWII Love Story" -- could really "stretch the envelope," Kerby said. It's a dramatic musical, with comic elements, about two men who fall in love during World War II.
Besides, the studio theater gives smaller local companies that operate on a shoestring budget a place to perform works that appeal to niche audiences. Little Grey Hat Productions recent staging of "Copenhagen" was an edifying and entertaining evening of theater, but it wouldn't have been appropriate for Stone Hall, even if such a small company could have afforded that space.
Dylan Jones has been in the audience and on the stage of the Bradenton Kiwanis Theater, and he was one of the three actors in "Copenhagen" -- and he agrees that intimate theater serves a vital role. "I'm a fan of the different, the unique, the rarely seen," he said. "This gives you a chance to see plays that are off the beaten path."
And without the trappings of extravagant sets and effects, he said, black box theater focuses the attention of the director and the audience on the actors' movement and the playwrights' words.
Manatee Players seems to be taking the right approach, enticing its audience, and newcomers, to the small theater with popular and familiar shows, and gradually leading them into edgier and more substantial works, without getting too far ahead.
It will be exciting to see what the company will do in that space in the years ahead. It's already, this season, offering a kind of theater that's rare in Bradenton.
It's a great complement to the Manatee Players' trademark musicals.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.