In May, The Players Theatre announced its plans to relocate from downtown Sarasota to Lakewood Ranch. Backstage at its current location, the walls chronicle its rich history of community theater.
If you’re raised by wolves, you’ll wind up howling at the moon. If you’re raised by a theater critic, you’ll wind up going to plays — and probably reviewing them. Take me, for example.
My father became the theater critic for the “Sarasota Scene” in late 1969. He appointed me his sidekick and started taking me to live plays. “Room Service,” at The Players Theatre, was my first. It was just like the Marx Brothers movie, minus the Marx brothers. The actors actually spoke the lines in the script without changing them.
During intermission, I marveled at the theater itself: a rustic, pecky-cypress structure designed by Ralph Twitchell in 1936. That architectural futurist had created what looked like a log cabin. The walls were stuffed with framed, black-and-white photos of every production The Players had ever staged — windows of history and lost time. I recognized a few of the actors. Montgomery Clift in this one. A teenage Jayne Meadows in another. Then the lights flashed, and intermission was over.
Dad had told me about his first experience at a theater in New York City. How it gave him goose pimples. How his sister, a future Hollywood starlet, had actually fainted. I experienced neither of these reactions during “Room Service.” Though I laughed.
Our theatrical odysseys continued until I went off to college. When I came back for Christmas break, Dad dragged me off to a play in early January 1974. The play was “Kismet.” I didn’t feel like going, but it was my fate. Otherwise known as kismet.
When we arrived, The Players’ old wooden theater was gone. Sometime in my absence, they’d torn it down and replaced it with a shiny new concrete structure. They’d kept the old fireplace, though it didn’t work.
Nothing lasts forever.
In May, The Players, under its newly christened name, The Players Centre for the Performing Arts, announced its plans to leave its no-longer shiny concrete structure from 1974 and move to a new three-auditorium facility at the Waterside development in Lakewood Ranch.
It will finance the expansion with the sale of its existing lot — the only one left downtown with an unblocked view of Sarasota Bay.
For the sake of pure nostalgia, Artistic Director Jeffery Kin and CEO Michelle Bianchi Pingel agreed to give me a tour of the theater, whose walls are a living snapshot of the theater’s history.
It’s an off day. Not too many people around.
Behind the stage, the concrete block walls are thick with years of theatrical graffiti. It’s the painted legacy of thousands of actors and theatrical artists and technicians. If these walls could talk. And in a way, they can.
“Mame,” blowing her trumpet with a half-lidded look.
“Sweeney Todd,” wielding his razor and yelling his head off.
The diaphanous beauties of “Kismet.”
The big red tennis shoes of “Big.”
The images of these and other plays are crammed and overlapping one another on every square inch of space. It’s the only way to get them to fit — and they don’t really fit. How many shows have run in this theater, anyway?
Pingel looks to heaven. And makes a quick mental calculation.
“Five years ago, we were up to 521,” she says. “I’d say it’s nearly 600 by now.”
Any bittersweet regrets saying goodbye to this place?
“You can’t have anything but love for what people who came before us created,” says Kin. “For a community theater, this is an amazing space. Unfortunately, it’s falling apart.”
Murphy’s law is in effect?
Pingel nods. “Every day,” she says. “It’s the roof, the air conditioning, the seats — if anything can go wrong, it does.”
“Stuff gets old and starts to break down,” he says with a laugh. “I’m 52 years old. I can relate.”
Kin says he has a lot of good memories in this building. Now that it’s falling apart, he’s collecting more and more bad memories.
“The sheer exhaustion was taking something out of us,” Pingel says. “One day I just looked at Jeffrey and said, ‘We can’t go on like this. We have to do something, or it’s the beginning of the end.’”
Pingel and Kin look each other in the eyes. The bottom line? They knew they couldn’t grow in their current location. They couldn’t adapt to ever-changing theater technology. They couldn’t even afford to keep the building as it was. They knew they had to move.
“I’ll be sad to leave, but not that much,” says Kin. “A building isn’t the heart of who we are at The Players. Theater isn’t the performance space; it’s the people who make the performances happen. Those core talents are the heart of who we are. If we do our jobs right and stay true to them, we can keep the momentum going.”
Pingel nods. She says it’s not only a possibility — it’s a duty.
“We inherited a theater that was marvelous for its time,” she says. “The people who came before us did that for us. We owe the same thing to the next generation. It’s up to us to hand them a fantastic theater space. We couldn’t do it by staying in the same place, so we’re making the move. It’s as simple as that.”
The walls of the new space will be blank for a time.
But they’ve got abundant paint and plan to put on plenty of plays.
Before long, those new walls will have new stories to tell.