The Players CEO William Skaggs shares the real-life drama of shepherding Sarasota’s longest-running theater company during COVID-19.
As 2021 begins, The Players Centre for Performing Arts is looking forward. Building on the success of the December production of “Dickens,” at temporary home The Bazaar at Apricot and Lime in Sarasota, the company plans for outdoor productions at multiple sites around Sarasota County. This “road show” approach will be the norm this year, as the company awaits construction on its new theater — a $30 million performing arts complex that will anchor the near-complete Waterside Place in Lakewood Ranch. We spoke with Williams Skaggs, the CEO of The Players, on relocating with his family to the area, moving forward with a new facility and what it’s like to helm a 90-year-old Sarasota arts institution during a global pandemic.
You joined The Players last September, after leaving the Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center in Bowling Green. Were you a lifelong Kentucky resident before this?
I was. I grew up in eastern Kentucky, went to Bowling Green (Kentucky) for college at Western Kentucky University, and then I stuck around.
Were you totally new to the Sarasota area and to Lakewood Ranch?
I would say I’d known a little about the area. I have a little bit of family that now lives in St. Petersburg, so I had some familiarity. I became very interested and impressed with the entire Sarasota-Manatee county region and what the arts and culture mean to this community and how it’s valued. That immediately caught my eye in a very big way.
You’re married with three children (wife Jenny, 13-year-old Ben, 11-year-old Madeline and 8-year-old Julianne). How are they adapting to the Florida lifestyle?
The Bowling Green area is what my children have known. When you do things like have dinner outside on Christmas Eve and go to the beach on New Year’s Day, then yeah, that’s a little different for a kid from Kentucky.
You have inherited a large fundraising campaign to pay for the construction of a new theater complex at Waterside Place. It has only been four months, but how is it going?
The most important piece of that, and really more broadly with The Players, has been to further get to know the organization. You have your donors, your sponsors, and you have others in the community that are looking forward to this new project. You have these many different lenses through which people know The Players. It’s been interesting, fun and important for me to get to know what all of those different lenses might look like.
How has COVID-19 affected your fundraising strategy? Has the pandemic caused you to pivot in your planning for 2021?
As a brand-new person not only to The Players but to the community, I would say it has in some ways slowed us down in that process. When you mentioned pivoting, it also means you find other ways to do it. Sometimes that’s a Zoom call; other times it’s a phone conversation that prior to the pandemic was probably a coffee. It’s about relationships, it’s about people, it’s about listening. So pandemic or not, that’s still the reality we live in.
In the end, people don’t give to a building. They give to other people that are involved with organizations they believe in — people that share the same passions and share many of the same values as it relates to how we provide for our community. So we’ve still got to do a lot of the same work, and we are. But back to your comment about pivoting, we’re finding additional ways to do the work we’ve always done.
Waterside Place is nearing the end of construction. How does that impact your fundraising?
Ultimately, it’s an asset. Waterside beginning to move to an initial completion and starting to open up is extremely exciting because it’s going to give everyone an opportunity to be there and say: “Oh, this is what’s been talked about. This is where The Players is going to be.” They don’t have to imagine the shops and restaurants down the street or the people who live nearby. It’s right there.
Speaking of construction of a new facility: Any updates on a timeline? Is it still over the horizon?
I wouldn’t say it’s quite over the horizon. We can see it. When the pandemic struck, it caused the organization to have to look internally to move forward in a responsible way from an operations perspective. The campaign and the new facility really had to be set aside for a while. What I can say when it comes to groundbreaking is that we will be looking at no later than spring of 2023. My hope is we can break ground more quickly than that, but it’s not something I would want to promise anyone.
How is the creative staff handling all the uncertainty and upheaval?
You know, it’s challenging while sometimes maddening and certainly invigorating … all at the same time.