Asolo celebrates 50 years worth of plays and memories

The Asolo Repertory Theatre’s 50th anniversary has already brought a wealth of memories to Carolyn Michel’s mind.

Though the actress been a part of Asolo Repertory productions for 18 seasons, her roots with the professional theater go much deeper.

As a youth, Michel spent many a summer visiting Sarasota with her parents, passing the time watching shows presented by the professional theater. Each one she saw only confirmed what she hoped would be her future career.

“That’s what I wanted to do when I grew up,” said Michel. “I caught the acting bug before the Asolo, but there was something about watching all of those wonderful actors doing all those different roles and rotating repertory, and I felt like I wanted to be good enough to one day be on that stage playing all those different roles.”

Michel’s wish came true when she joined the Asolo company during the 1984-85 season. Her first show, which also was one of her favorites, was “You Can’t Take it with You.” She has so many memorable shows that her mind can’t contain them all. There’s “Morning Star” and “Hobsen’s Choice” name a two.

This season, Michel is featured in the “Imaginary Invalid,” and will be seen in the upcoming “Devil’s Disciple.”

It’s just part of the assortment of quality plays the Asolo Repertory has become known for producing. Before there were hit collaborations such as “Tale of Two Cities” and the new musical version of “Working,” before there was a Mertz stage or a seasoned group of actors, the theater company began as a quiet force.

A seed was planted in the summer of 1959, through a community’s love of the arts and a college’s love of theater after a production of “The Country Wife.” It didn’t take long to drum up support to keep theater a permanent fixture. In fact, Michel’s parents would later initiate the co-producing of shows, financially backing several productions.

A year after that first play, the Florida State University staff established a summer acting company that produced shows for what would be called the Asolo Theatre Festival, held in the Historic Asolo Theater at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Little did anyone know it would be history in the making.

A ticket to an Asolo show could be called one of the hottest tickets in town when five years later the festival was dubbed the first State Theater of Florida.

With that feat, big changes followed, including a name change in 1966 to the Asolo Theatre Company and the establishment of year-round performances on a professional level when it became a member of the League of Resident Theatres. The company also appointed its first managing director, Howard J. Millman, who first appeared in “The Country Wife.”

Even after all these years, Millman, who is now married to Michel and was also former artistic director at the Asolo, is still connected to the repertory theater. He’s back this season to direct “Visiting Mr. Green,” featuring David Howard, another Asolo Repertory alumnus.

When 1968 rolled in, the Tallahassee-based Florida State University School of Theatre thought it best to send its acting students to Sarasota for internships at the Asolo. By 1973, the entire acting program was moved here, creating the one of the nation’s leading graduate actor-training programs, according to Asolo history.

What makes the theater company unique in stature is that it is one of few places in the country that performs professional shows in a rotating format with a team of highly versatile actors playing a variety of roles.

“So, it’s quite extraordinary to be able to come here for a weekend and see three or four different plays,” Michel said.

Though actors, directors, artists and support staff make up the rich history of the theater through each play that’s ever graced Asolo’s stages, residents from all walks of life have made their mark, too. It is as much of an anniversary celebration for the community, who have crossed paths at one time or another with theater volunteers, staff and the many educational outreach programs offered that include the noteworthy Kaleidoscope. The Kaleidoscope program has offered those with the area’s Community Haven for Adults and Children with Disabilities a chance to learn the ins and outs of theater by presenting their own show, equipping them with self-confidence.

Its 50 years of history has intertwined with the lives of residents in Bradenton, Sarasota and beyond.

“Locally, (the theater) has been a focal point for drawing the community together,” said Asolo artistic director Michael Donald Edwards. “As we move forward into the next half-century, Asolo Rep will continue to shine a spotlight on issues that are at the heart of the human experience, framing these ideas in ways that are arresting and exciting. We aim to remind people why theater is vital and necessary in their daily lives — it goes directly to the core of what it means to be human, as well as what it means to truly be part of a larger community.”

The Asolo has not only inspired its fan base, but the student population as well, which will carry on the legacy thanks to educational outreach programs and the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.

“We’re providing a true training center for young actors,” said managing director Linda DiGabriele, who has been with the theater for 35 years.

She began her time there working in marketing and with the theater’s touring company, watching the Asolo flourish into what it is today. Though it has grown by leaps and bounds, she said the essence of the theater remains the same.

DiGabriele, who lives in Bradenton, said working at such an institution is an amazing gift for her.

“This is a wonderful place to be a theater professional,” she said.

Where else can one experience world class-theater in their back yard, Michel said.

“The region tends to think of the Asolo theater as a lovely jewel, but I think what they don’t get is that it’s a national treasure as well,” she said. “We’ve been here 50 years, through thick and thin.”

Though the theater still produces shows in the Historic Asolo, its home for quite some time has been in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts. But whatever stage Michel performs on, she is flooded with memories of those who she’s worked with over the years — talented actors, challenging directors, gracious volunteers and many more. While many have come and gone, they remain with her in spirit, their memories poignant each time she walks on stage.

“I don’t ever take it for granted when I stand in the wings ready to go on for a show,” she said. “I’m always excited, I’m always grateful to be in that spot right before entering.”

Related stories from Bradenton Herald