Summer theater suddenly thrives

Until the late 1990s, the Bradenton-Sarasota area was pretty much devoid of theater in the summer. The population shrank because the seasonal visitors returned to cooler climes, and the conventional wisdom held that the smaller population wouldn’t be enough to support theater.

But then a guy named Jerry Finn moved to Sarasota. He noted the absence of theater around here in the summer. And he noticed something else, too.

“I looked around,” he told me once a couple of years back, “and I saw that there were still a lot of people here. Some of them must like theater.”

So he started a professional company called Banyan Theater, which for many years was essentially the only summer theater in Sarasota. Banyan produced shows only in the summer, and attracted healthy crowds to its productions in the Cook Theatre in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts.

Finn died suddenly in March, just before his theater was going to announce its summer season and Banyan died with him. A few years ago, that would have meant no summer theater around here at all. But this summer is packed with promising theater. New companies have started up in the past couple of seasons, and other companies have beefed up summer offerings.

Urbanite Theatre took the unorthodox step of announcing a 2016-17 season that actually begins in June. (Around the country, theater seasons tend to start in September and run until late spring and or early summer.)

It was kind of by accident that Urbanite discovered it could attract an audience in the summer. Brendan Ragan, one of the theater’s two artistic directors, said Urbanite had planned to start producing plays in January 2015. Construction delays forced the company to delay opening until April.

“We figured, well, this is far from ideal,” Ragan said. “But it actually worked to our advantage.”

Urbanite’s style of contemporary, challenging theater immediately attracted crowds, and by starting in the spring and performing through the summer the company built a solid base of followers among year-’round residents.

Urbanite is opening its season this weekend with a show called “Dry Land” that’s already selling out, in spite of the number of performances being greatly increased compared to previous shows.

But there’s plenty of other summer theater. Two Chairs is a company that devotes itself to classic American dramas, staging one play a year at the Players Centre in Sarasota. This year it’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” in early September. The previous shows from Two Chairs, “The Glass Menagerie” and “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (both, like “Streetcar,” Tennessee Williams plays) were very good.

The Players Centre has its own Summer Sizzler series, which this summer includes “Cosi,” closing this weekend. “Cyrnao de Burgershack” in July and “Bell, Book and Candle” in August.

Florida Studio Theatre is maybe a little slower this summer than in the the cooler months, but not by much. One Mark St. Gemain play, “Relativity,” opens this weekend while another, “The Fabulous Lipitones,” which St. Germain co-wrote with John Markus, is closing. A Sammy Cahn review is running for a few more weeks. A new comedy called “The Roommate” opens in July and a phenomenal play titled “The God of Isaac” opens in August.

There’s plenty of other stuff going on. The Manatee Performing Arts Center has some shows aimed at kids and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe has a Mahalia Jackson tribute opening in July.

There are lots of factors for the explosion of summer theater, including growth of the permanent population. But many local theater pros credit Jerry Finn for trailblazing the summer theater scene.

“When Jerry started Banyan, at that point there was not much of anything going on here in the summer,” said actor-directer Don Walker. “There was nothing. Now, of course, there’s summer theater everywhere.”