Looking back, here are a few notable moments to get you started
Happy holidays, everyone. It’s that in-between week — 2019 is a lame duck and most of us are happy to have a few days to breathe easy before 2020 gets into town. It’s a good time to reflect on the past year. But where do you begin? How do you boil down a year into a "Top 10"?
We didn't. Think of the following as a collage, a mural, a medley — whatever does it for you — of a few of the significant stories within the A&E purview. It isn’t a list of the best or the biggest things to happen. It’s more of an abstract splash of a reminder of 2019. You may think of some other topics that define the year for you. Please, use this as a springboard to self-guided reminiscing.
‘The Lion King’ reigns supreme at the Van Wezel
Some people complain about how the Walt Disney Corporation is “taking over the world,” what with all the movie franchises it owns. You won’t likely hear anyone over at the Van Wezel Performance Hall complaining any time soon, not after that three-week run of Disney’s The Lion King” back in March.
Landing the long-running hit had been something of a coup for the 1,700-seat venue. “The Lion King” is the third-highest grossing show in Broadway history, and touring companies have been filling larger arenas around the world for years, including not that long ago in Tampa.
Any concern about possible Simba fatigue was unwarranted. Audiences flocked to the Van Wezel like wildebeests to a watering hole. “The Lion King” broke nearly every box office and attendance record in the near-50-year history of the theater.
When the dust cleared, more than 37,000 theatergoers packed 23 performances that grossed $3.5 million. It is estimated that “The Lion King” brought in more than $11.4 million to the Sarasota economy from travel, hotels, restaurants, parking and other businesses patronized by theatergoers and production staff.
It was a very good year for anniversaries
Someone ought to do a study, only it isn’t clear who that someone should be: psychologists, statisticians — an astrologer, maybe? — to figure out what it is about Sarasota and years that end in “9.” Whatever the phenomenon is, it’s existed for a long time, and it became noticeable this year with so many performing arts organizations celebrating milestone birthdays.
The Players Centre has been sporting a logo all year proclaiming its 90th anniversary. That makes it the senior member of the “Niners Club,” but it’s had company for a long time. The pattern becomes apparent when it is noted that the Sarasota Opera and the the Asolo Repertory Theatre both marked their 60th anniversaries in 2019, while the Sarasota Orchestra turned 70.
The Sarasota Fine Arts Society is now AARP-eligible, as it celebratie its golden anniversary. And even though it isn’t technically a member of the club, it should be noted the Van Wezel will mark its 50th anniversary right after the New Year, on Jan. 5.
Oh, and if you missed all the other birthdays, Sarasota Jungle Gardens turns 80 on New Year’s Eve.
Whatever it is about years the end in “9,” it's been going on for decades. In November, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe celebrated 20 years, and The Harvey Milk Festival marked its 10th birthday in back in May.
Let’s see, did any arts organizations open this year? Come to think of it ...
Sarasota Art Museum Opens
The Sarasota Art Museum opened to the public Dec. 14., and holds the distinction of being the first museum in town dedicated exclusively to contemporary art.
After 16 years in the works, they probably could have opened the place empty and still have drawn a crowd to inspect the brilliantly repurposed 94-year-old former Sarasota High School. The design smartly divides 15,000 square feet of exhibition space into galleries of various sizes and configurations, with nooks and crannies for installations that add to the fun-loving quality of contemporary art. There’s also a photo wall that pays permanent tribute to the people who did the renovation.
The museum is designed to be of the “kunsthalle” type, meaning that rather than housing a permanent collection, new exhibitions come and go, meaning patrons will get to relive that feeling of newness every four to six months.
Miss Susie’s and nourishing a community
This story made the list not for what happened but for what didn’t happen this year. Back in February 2018, there was a groundbreaking ceremony in the Newtown district for a new restaurant. Miss Susie’s Newtown Kitchen was conceived by restaurateur Steve Sedensticker, whose TableSeide Restaurant Group currently operates Libby’s Neighborhood Brasserie, Lemon Tree Kitchen and Muse at The Ringling, among others. The project grew into a partnership with the city, the Sarasota Chamber of Commerce, donors and nonprofit groups, and the residents of Newtown to build a nonprofit eatery in that underserved community on the site of the former Miss Susie’s Social Club. The property would remain in the hands of Newtown resident Thelma Upshaw. Sisters Joan and Valarie Williams, also of Newtown, would manage, and the restaurant would provide jobs and hospitality-industry training to local residents.
In August 2018, Sedensticker died of cancer. Some of the focus went off the project, A year after the groundbreaking the project was stalled and said to have gone over budget. Sedensticker’s son Joe Sedensticker has said the project is still on once the required funding is secured. Let’s hope this goes back to being a feel-good story in 2020.
Uncertain times for Sarasota Orchestra
The venerable old orchestra has been enjoying this season, but it’s been under an air of uncertainty. Back in 2018, the orchestra announced its intention to leave the Beatrice Friedman Symphony Center, citing the size of the venue along with concerns about rising sea levels and the approaching Bay Project.
In February, the orchestra presented the City Commission with a proposal to build a concert hall in Payne Park. In May, the Commission rejected the proposal, and a lot of frustration followed, with the commission taking the position that there must be a better alternative and the orchestra saying the’d already studied and rejected several locations and will leave the city limits if need be.
Meanwhile, the orchestra has been without a music director since Anu Tali took her final bow in April after six years with the orchestra. In a sense it’s making for an exciting season, with a gifted lineup of conductors coming in for each installment of the season’s Masterworks series. But as exciting as it is to play the field, it’s assumed the goal is to settle down and find a home.
Ringling takes art appreciation to performance level
The Ringling has always operated on the premise that performing arts and visual art shouldn’t be thought of as separate worlds. It’s all art. Performances are fleeting things, but the effects they can have on their viewers are not.
This year, the museum introduced a new series called Art of Performance, and a new Currie-Kohlmann Curator of Performance, Elizabeth Doud, who describes the series as “performances that embody intensity, cultural specificity and unique contemporary narratives.”
When considered as a package, the Art of Performance lineup is diligently diverse — not just offering cultural diversity but diversity in terms of the types of performance. The list leans heavy on dance, but that serves to demonstrate dance’s role in defining identity.
Other performances in the series captivate in their own way.The overall lineup of multidisciplinary performances makes a cumulative statement of the limitless potential of performance as an art form. For a community that defines itself by its voracious yet refined appetite for culture, The Ringling’s new series is wonderfully exotic fare.
The curtain rises on women playwrights
There was a time — most of history, actually — when women weren’t even allowed to be in plays, let alone write them. The playing field hasn’t completely evened, but it’s getting there, and a couple of local events this past year did their part to raise women’s theatrical voices.
In late April and early May, Florida Studio Theatre hosted the National New Play Network’s Women in Playwriting Festival.
Four experienced playwrights: Sarah Bierstock, Minita Gandhi, Jacqueline Goldfinger and Lia Romeo brought new plays for an intensive regimen of workshops, rehearsals and finally staged readings, followed by audience feedback sessions.
Then in October, Urbanite Theatre conducted its second Modern Works Festival. As the name suggests, the five-day event highlights new works. What the name doesn’t mention is that the event is specifically for women playwrights.
The festival chooses three plays that are written by women and revolve around female characters.The plays are presented as readings, with each play getting multiple reading. The writers get feedback and make adjustments between readings.
Urbanite Theatre intends to make its festival an annual thing. Meanwhile, FST has teamed with the National Endowment for the Arts to commission four playwrights, three of them women, to write plays to be performed at the Danger Ladies Festival, the penultimate event of the Suffragist Project, in August.