It’s pretty easy to stay on Myllanna McKinnon’s good side. Just arrive on time and don’t spill your wine.
Oh, and try not to rearrange her chairs. Just because they’re not bolted to the floor doesn’t mean you should move them to your liking.
“It’s not safe,” says McKinnon. “They’re too tightly packed in for that.”
The 24-year-old house manager at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe has noticed several things since the company moved into its new theater space off Orange Avenue.
To start: Gillespie Park residents sometimes amble into the lobby in the middle of a production. McKinnon understands their curiosity. Where there was once a vacant warehouse with an empty parking lot, there’s now a lively theater that sells out almost every show.
If you heard live covers of Aretha Franklin pouring out of a nondescript building in your neighborhood, you’d want to poke your head in, too.
Here’s something else McKinnon has noticed in the last two seasons: Audience members have started bringing pillows to shows, not because they’re planning to fall asleep, but because the seats aren’t padded enough.
“It’s a good sign when people still come to your shows even though your chairs are uncomfortable,” she says. “We hope to get better chairs someday.”
Like many WBTT performers and crew members, McKinnon started with the company as a teenager, having grown up performing for founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs when he was a theater teacher at Sarasota’s Westcoast School for Human Development.
She notched her first WBTT production when she was 13 years old. Cast as a lead dancer in Langston Hughes’ gospel musical/play, “Black Nativity,” McKinnon went on to dance in several more WBTT productions before deciding she was better suited for backstage work.
“Once I was on stage and I saw all the people at work behind the scenes, I found out I liked helping out,” McKinnon says. “Plus, I know what dancers have to go through to succeed. I love to dance. I’m just not the person who drops everything to move to New York and live in a shoebox.”
Resourceful and accommodating, McKinnon is the kind of person who loves to take care of people and solve problems.
She’s the middle child in a family of three sisters, all who have gravitated toward careers in the arts. Her older sister is a stagehand and wardrobe supervisor for the troupe, and her younger sister is a violinist.
After McKinnon bowed out of performing, she began picking up the slack backstage, working as a prop master, stagehand and dresser at a time when the company was still struggling to stay on its feet.
At one point, she even stepped in as stage manager for “Jar the Floor,” which played for two weeks to a packed house at Art Center Sarasota during the troupe’s 10th anniversary season.
“I’ve seen the troupe though times of struggle,” McKinnon says. “Sometimes you have to go through hardship before you can appreciate coming out the other side.”
In July 2010, the company finally found its home and McKinnon her niche.
As WBTT’s house manager, she’s tasked with stocking concessions, cleaning the theater, arranging for volunteer ushers, setting up and breaking down chairs and, most important of all: keeping audiences happy.
If that means running out to buy caffeine-free beverages to keep patrons from getting too jittery late at night, then McKinnon makes a drink run.
“You do what you can to keep the patrons comfortable,” McKinnon says. “They’re the ones keeping you in business.”
As much as she’d like to replace the chairs with cushioned theater seats and add a few more stalls to the restrooms, she says she’d also like to see one thing stay the same: the intimacy of the company’s 160-seat theater.
“Almost every seat is the best seat in the house,” McKinnon says. “Anywhere you sit, you can see everything.”
IF YOU GO
“Sammy Tonight! A Tribute to Sammy Davis, Jr.” runs March 9 through March 31, at the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe building at 1646 10th Way, Sarasota. For tickets, call 366-1505 or visit wbttroupe.org.
The top-five sellers at the WBTT concession booth:
• Peanut M&Ms
• Hershey’s chocolate with almonds
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