With a new buyer for its Sarasota theater, The Players is one step closer to taking its leap into Lakewood Ranch.
In case you’re wondering what’s happening with the Players Centre for Performing Arts, the organization — slated to anchor Lakewood Ranch’s new Waterside development — is keeping its drama on stage and out of the board room.
The 89-year-old community theater has been in the news frequently over the past couple years. In 2016, it changed its name from the Players Theatre to the Players Centre and announced plans to vacate its aging building on North Tamiami Trail to help fund a $30 million theater complex in Waterside. The timing for the move, according to officials in Lakewood Ranch and at the Players, would be dictated by the sale of the theater, which sits on a prime lot near the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota’s arts district.
In January, the organization accepted its first offer from a buyer, who according to Board Chairwoman Donna DeFant, exceeded the $9.5 million asking price. To keep the buyer happy, the Players jumped through multiple hoops, including granting the buyer — identified as an East Coast businessman — $3 million more in liability insurance and a 24-hour extension on the day of the closing. It ended the deal on July 10 after the buyer defaulted, immediately accepting an identical offer from a backup buyer.
“We’re actually in a better place now,” DeFant says. “We’re not in limbo. We’re not falling apart. We’re still on track to sell this theater, and we’re moving full steam ahead with the design of our new theater.”
Players Artistic Director Jeffery Kin echoes the sentiment. Last April, when CEO and Managing Director Michelle Bianchi resigned citing differences in the direction of the theater, Kin worried that longtime patrons might think instability had befallen Sarasota’s oldest performing arts institution. Bianchi, who joined the Players 17 years ago as a volunteer, had worked alongside Kin for 10 years.
“There’s nothing to be nervous about,” Kin says. “We’re like ‘The Little Engine That Could.’ Our architects are working on a plan, and we’re moving forward. Even though we’re an arts organization, we’re still a business that has to make sound business decisions. The people who are nearest and dearest to us are still carrying the right torches.”
As planned, Kin says the theater still plans to break ground in the spring on its Lakewood Ranch “dream theater,” a 70,000-square-foot venue that will include a 488-seat main theater, a 125-seat black box theater and a 100-seat cabaret. The only thing that’s changed since the Players announced its plan to move out east is the timeline for construction on the main stage — the most expensive portion of the project. After touring theaters across the country, Kin couldn’t shake one resounding piece of advice from other theater companies: Don’t wait to build something because all the funding isn’t in place.
Originally, the Players planned to build the theater in three chunks over the course of five years, starting with the cabaret, the cost of which would be covered by the sale of the Sarasota property. The other phases would be finished as money came in from a capital campaign.
“Every single theater we talked to said they made bad decisions during the planning process because they were reacting out of fear,” Kin says. “They were scared about money. There’s logic behind trusting the fact that once we start building, the funding will come through. We feel the smartest way to do it is to jump in with both feet. The community will support us. Individuals are already approaching us about naming opportunities.”
Located south of University Parkway, Waterside is Lakewood Ranch’s first Sarasota County community. All of the development’s 5,000 homes will be within walking distance of the Players Centre, which DeFant hails as the project’s “crown jewel.” As time has passed, some of the theater’s most change-averse patrons have warmed to the idea of driving east to see a Players production. One patron from Venice was thrilled when he found out the theater would be a short distance from Interstate 75.
“A lot of people are still under the impression that we’re going to be on Main Street,” DeFant says. “I keep saying, ‘No, it’s right off Fruitville Road. It’ll be easy to get there.’ I’ll be pleased when we break ground so people can see how close it actually is.”
The Players spent the past year introducing itself to residents in East County. Last summer, it rolled out its Storytelling Theatre at the Ranch program at the Sarasota Polo Club. A Saturday morning series for children based on the Magic Tree House books, it was designed to engage Lakewood Ranch families that are unfamiliar with the Players. Kin says he plans to revive and reimagine it in the fall.
The organization’s theater-in-the-field concept, which kicked off last Halloween with “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” at the Sarasota Polo Club, will return for a second run Oct. 17-20 at the Sarasota Polo Club.
“We really are trying to keep all our plates spinning at the same time,” Kin says. “We put them into motion, and sometimes we don’t have control over whether they stay spinning. So far I’d say it seems to be working.”