What started out as a long shot artistic venture, downtown Sarasota’s Urbanite Theatre is looking toward a full winter season after a successful summer premiere
Two years ago, Harry Lipstein was walking through Gillespie Park inspecting homes. Lipstein was admiring the new paint, molding and additions to the exterior of the historic houses he had bought, restored and flipped. One of those homes was inhabited by Summer Wallace, an M.F.A. acting student at the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. When Wallace noticed Lipstein — barefoot, bearded and peering at her house — she cautiously approached him.
It turned out Lipstein is not only a lover of architecture but also of modern and intimate theater. Lipstein, is also an equity actor who has performed in off-Broadway plays and at the Players Theatre in Sarasota. And Lipstein found out that Wallace, who was finishing her last year at FSU/Asolo’s M.F.A. acting program, always had a dream to start her own professional theater company.
“In 10 minutes we connected on such a visceral level in terms of theater and what I also wanted to do with a small theater,” says Lipstein. “I said, ‘Wait there. I’ll be right back.’”
For the next two weeks, Lipstein scoured the Sarasota area for a potential building to house the new theater. He found the perfect home on Second Street behind Whole Foods.
The entire space is 7,500 square feet with 1,500 square feet for the theater. The theater will rent out space to Kahwa Coffee, a coffeeshop from St. Petersburg, office and rehearsal space for the theater, an art gallery and studio and an architectural office. The full complex will be operational during the theater’s winter season, from October through April.
Lipstein, Wallace and Brendan Ragan (a 2013 alumnus from the FSU/Asolo Acting Conservatory) co-founded the theater with the goal of providing an outlet for thought-provoking entertainment. They also wanted Urbanite to be a cultural hub.
“By definition being an urbanite just means living in a city,” says Ragan. “But, for us, it’s someone who is ready to do something fun that isn’t just going to a bar or a restaurant and wants to be culturally active. We want folks coming in to see shows and lingering and being patrons for the local businesses around the theater and making the area much more urban.”
Lipstein, Wallace and Ragan tapped their resources within Sarasota’s theatrical community to gather the seats, lights, props and set pieces (including lights from the former Golden Apple Dinner Theatre) for the intimate 55-seat theater.
For the uninitiated, a black-box theater is often a small space, walls painted black with seats able to move depending on the needs of the show and the director. They want you as close as possible to the actors and action occurring onstage. The plays are often U.S. or regional premieres.
An Urbanite play has four qualifications, says Lipstein. First, the play needs to be contemporary and preferably written within the last five years. Second, due to the limited size of the Urbanite Theatre, it generally looks for plays that have five characters or fewer. Third, the theater seeks to expose new works by established or up-and-coming female playwrights. And the fourth is that all Urbanite productions must possess a focus on pertinent and serious social issues.
“I think as an artist I’ve always been hungry for more,” says Wallace. “When working a lot as an actor, I wasn’t doing the type of work I wanted to be doing. In order to see and do the type of work, I was at the point where I thought I needed to take it into my own hands.”
Even during the off-season for the arts during the summer, Urbanite drew an audience hungry for contemporary and hard-hitting drama. It’s initial show, “Chicken Shop,” a U.S. premiere about the sex trafficking industry, saw an extended run.
“I absolutely did not expect to sell out our entire seats during the run,” says Lipstein. “We thought for the first shows we’d benefit from what they call ‘the new restaurant phenomena’ where when a new restaurant opens up, everyone in town has to go to it.”
Although a new theater, the Urbanite boasts ties to the Sarasota community. The designers, actors, stage managers and ushers all have roots in Sarasota theater. Bill Najmy, the lighting designer for all three shows in the Urbanite Theatre’s first season, is also the master electrician at Asolo Rep.
“They brought me into an empty room and asked what could I do,” says Najmy. “I had to figure out where to hang and place the lights, power sources and how to control them. I had never done anything like that before. It was really fun to flex my creative muscles.”
That potential for new and exciting artistic experiences has been what’s been drawing area actors to appear onstage. At most theatrical houses, the actors are a safe distance away from the audience. And most times the performers can’t see the audience because of the bright lights shining down on the stage. But at the tightly packed Urbanite, actors and the audience are truly part of the same space.
At a recent rehearsal for Urbanite’s third production, “Isaac’s Eye,” opening Aug. 14, director Vincent Carlson-Brown discussed the intricacies of cigarette smoking.
“This time, try putting it out as you say thank you,” he told actor Robby May, who was polishing a particularly villainous scene. “I like that power play of smoking in someone else’s house, especially if you don’t even finish the cigarette. And we get that nice lingering smoke smell when she leaves the room.”
Carlson-Brown, artistic director of Nebraska Shakespeare, is more than just geographically removed from his element; Urbanite’s space is far more intimate than the 3,000-member audiences to which he typically caters, affording him the opportunity to work in the more nuanced aspects of directing.
“The space itself is a lot of fun,” he says. “I love fine-tuning some of these really small details that would never translate to a larger stage.”
Lucy Lavely graduated from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory in 2014 and has been living and working in New York City. She is friends with Ragan and was invited to audition for the theater’s opening show, “Chicken Shop.”
“It was the first time in my life where I really struggled from not breaking out of character,” says Lavely. “I could actually see the audience, and the reason I wanted to get on board was that it seemed like such a brave thing to set sail with a new play and theater in this community.”
In addition to tackling a new play and challenging subject matter, this was the first time Lavely did partial nudity onstage, albeit with an audience just a few feet away.
“There were was an evening where I removed my shirt and a woman bumped her husband in the second row and said, ‘Are you awake now?’”
With pre-show ticket sales for their last show of the summer season already outselling the previous two shows, the founding members are excited to take this momentum into the competitive winter arts season as they present four brand-new plays.
“I want to keep bringing in work that people have never seen or heard of that are on the verge of breaking out,” says Ragan. “The idea is to keep doing work that’s exciting. I want the audience to be on the edge of their seat because they don’t know what’s going to happen next.”
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