Before Jerry and Terri Finn “bred” Banyan Theater Company in 2002, they bred champion Doberman Pinschers — including a Canadian Kennel Club champion and three American Kennel Club champions. In 2000, the Finns and three Dobermans moved into a nice waterfront home in Indian Beach.
These days, they no longer breed show dogs, but have one as a pet, Spree. She’s an attention hog who nudges your side with her muzzle if you stop petting her.
Spree is doing just this, as the Finns talk about their history and what led them to found the three-production, summer theater company 11 years ago:
“Or was it 11 years ago?” Jerry Finn ponders to himself. “No, it was 12 years ago.”
“Grab the scrapbook!” his wife, Terri Finn, tells him.
He heads to the living room’s attached library where he pulls a scrapbook his wife of 59 years has been updating since the inception of the theater. Contents, such as old newspaper clippings of successful reviews, programs of previous seasons and photos from galas and Banyan’s 10-year anniversary, confirm this summer is season 12. Aside from being co-founders of the theater company, Jerry Finn is the executive director and Terri Finn is the director of operations.
Before moving to Sarasota, Jerry Finn explains they lived in New Jersey, where he was a partner at a law firm for 40 years. The trained actor had gone into law because he didn’t think working as an actor would support his wife and three children. But his more than 100-play performance experience came in handy in the courtroom.
“Many lawyers were very good in the office, but when it came up to getting in front of an audience, or jury, couldn’t do it,” Finn says with a laugh. Finn could charm an audience.
Terri Finn was equally involved in the arts as a concert-pianist-turned-arts-writer for the New Jersey section of The New York Times. For more than a decade, she wrote about every artist coming to New Jersey.
“I never sent out an article without Jerry reading it first,” she says looking toward her husband with a smile.
“I was her in-house editor,” he says, grinning at her.
But when they moved to Sarasota, Finn decided there was no financial need for him to continue working as a lawyer. Instead, he went back to doing what he loved and performed in a production at the Lemon Bay Playhouse in Englewood and another at the Anna Maria Island Players. He had one complaint about the performing arts scene: the summer was dead.
“We just fell in love with the cultural environment of Sarasota,” Jerry Finn says. “But there was virtually nothing going on in the summer.”
“As you said back then,” Terri Finn says in response, “‘They rolled up the sidewalks!’”
One night, Jerry Finn went out to dinner with some of his actor friends with the Asolo Rep’s company at the time and shared his frustration. He found out the feeling was mutual.
“They worked really hard at the Asolo (in season), but when the contract was over, their careers were on hold,” Jerry Finn says. “So, we founded Banyan Theater Company.”
He flips through a few pages in the scrapbook to show a black-and-white photograph of the five friends together and smiles.
“I worked like hell to find an appropriate name for the theater company,” Jerry Finn says. He thought the Banyan would be perfect because it starts out as a seed and can grow into an enormous trunk reaching up to three-quarters of a mile.
“We were going to start out as a bunch of actors, and create something that would grow into an important part of this community,” he says.
And he thinks they’ve grown into a big tree, and the roots of his Banyan are growing even stronger, at least — that’s what the patrons tell the Finns.
“Many of them tell us that they go to theater all the time,” Jerry says. “Not just in Sarasota, but in New York, Chicago and elsewhere, and this is the best theater they see all year.”
“‘I’ve been a subscriber since the beginning,’” Terri Finn mimics a patron saying what she most often hears.
Terri Finn says she has always been impressed with it herself: “I remember after it was going for a while, saying, ‘How do you know how to do this?’” She never fathomed that her husband could run a successful company when she knew of so many that had gone belly-up. Jerry Finn thinks it’s his background in law that gives him a business edge. And, the fact that he reads almost 75 plays a year to handpick the perfect selection.
Keeping parameters has been important to its success, too: Three significant yet versatile plays that run for two-and-a-half weeks and performing in an intimate space. The Cooka Theatre holds 161 seats. It’s been a good run so far, and the Finns plan for it to continue to be so.
Terri Finn falls into her old journalist ways without realizing it, and interviews her husband.
“So in the final analysis now, Jerry, Was it a good thing to retire to this?” she asks.
Jerry Finn looks pensive for a moment.
“Well was it?” she repeats. She knows the answer already.
“It’s better than playing golf!” he says with a laugh. “This is challenging and creative. It’s a life-support system.”
IF YOU GO
Banyan Theater Company’s summer 2013 season breakdown:
Poet Gardner Church and his wife, Fanny, are moving to a summer cottage on Cape Cod. Gardner is becoming senile, and they ask their daughter to help them move. Their daughter hopes to paint their portrait while she has the chance.
When: Opens 8 p.m. Thursday, June 27 and runs through July 14.
Three persnickety old World War I veterans reflect on their lives in the military hospital they are spending their days in. One looks for an escape plan.
When: Opens 8 p.m. July 18, and runs through Aug. 4.
‘Time Stands Still’
Photojournalist Sarah and foreign correspondent James try to find happiness in a crazy world. But their own story takes a turn forcing them to consider a more conventional life.
When: Opens 8 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 8 and runs through Aug. 25.
All performances take place at FSU Center for the Performing Arts, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. Single tickets are $28.50. Call 351-2808 or visit banyantheatercompany.com for more information.
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Members of the Sarasota Seminole Club worked with Habitat for Humanity of Sarasota as part of Florida State University’s Seminole Service Day.
Piero Rivolta and his wife, Rachele, opened their home to the Pines of Sarasota March 26.