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"We have nothing now, we don't have one brick laid down or one actor signed," Brendan Ragan says. "But we have people buying in and believing in us, and as soon as we had that — that's when it started feeling real."
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jun. 4, 2014 8 years ago

Inside the Box

by: Mallory Gnaegy A&E Editor

In February, Summer Dawn Wallace and Brendan Ragan sat around Wallace’s square kitchen table. They had a passionate and lively discussion over entirely too many cups of coffee. They both quickly realized they had a similar agenda for their future plans in Sarasota.

The two professional actors didn’t know each other very well, but after this overly caffeinated brainstorm — they became business partners.

Fast forward to six months later, and that fortunate meeting evolved into a groundbreaking reality as construction of their (pending) nonprofit black box theater company, The Urbanite Theatre, is underway. The duo hopes the 50-seat intimate theater a block north of Whole Foods, located at 1487 Second St., will open this fall or winter.

The partners are alumni of FSU/Asolo Conservatory — Wallace was one year ahead of Ragan. They had cordially chatted after shows and extended hallway greetings in passing between classes, but that was it. Their story is in the early stages of being written.

This is how it starts. Wallace moves to New York City to act professionally for 11 months. She and her fiancé, Grant Herren, go on vacation to Sarasota and a dream accounting job in the area falls into Herren’s lap. The couple moved here last summer, just after Ragan graduated FSU/Asolo Conservatory.

Ragan kept busy that summer filming an independent film, “The Lucky 6,” and making a few other acting appearances. Wallace had seen him perform a one-man show adaption of Homer’s “The Iliad” in January, at Home Resource.

Wallace, impressed, contacted him about getting together for coffee. Cue the kitchen table meeting.

“We sat down and had a conversation about our goals and our bigger dreams for what we could do for ourselves,” she says.

They were two young people with a big vision. Both wanted to make art, were on similar career paths and had a mutual respect for quality theater. Plus, Sarasota was lacking the type of venue they hoped to open: intimate, contemporary, producing lesser-known works, year-round.

“There’s a huge gaping hole in Sarasota,” Ragan says. “Theaters are doing tremendous work, there’s nothing wrong with the work they are doing — but in a diverse theater community, you need a small, cutting-edge black box theater doing cutting-edge work.”

Ragan knows about opening a small cutting-edge theatre such as this venture. Upon getting his bachelor’s degree in acting from the University of Colorado, he and 10 of his classmates moved to Baltimore to found Single Carrot Theatre in 2007.

The group of “entirely too many people to open a theater” had $1,000 to start. Ragan thinks it only worked because they were passionate and young enough to have other jobs. Single Carrots, with fewer partners, is still functioning today. Ragan stepped out of the business to attend graduate school here.

It was a lesson in learning. Opening a nonprofit theater is a thankless 24/7 job, and before you have staff, you have to do everything yourself. Ragan knows he has to do everything from sweeping the floor to networking with other organizations.

“I learned that it takes a village to raise a theater,” he says. “It’s not necessarily about going and doing great shows, which is a critical part … but it’s not as simple as that.”

So when Wallace said she was serious, he started grilling her to see if she was ready.

“Are you ready to focus lights, dust chairs, change garbage bags, clean bathrooms, build sets …” he demonstrates the types of questions he asked her.

And Wallace was more than up for late nights in exchange for pursuing her passion. Plus, as Ragan says, “Her work ethic is unquestioned; she means business.”

And they have a silent partner believing in the cause. He has given the duo a rent of $1 a month with a five-year lease and let them contribute to the design of the space. The construction is set to begin early June. Now, all they have to do is raise their goal of $175,000 to get up and running and fund their first year of production.

“Some people will catch on with our passion and believe in (and support it), and for others, it might take a little while,” Wallace says.

So far, they haven’t seen the latter. And as business partners first and friends second, they think they can make it exactly the kind of place people want to go: where seasoned theater goers and new theater goers, retirees and young professionals can see new works, or works they haven’t yet seen.

“Theater shouldn’t be an event you plan a month in advance,” she says. “But it’s something that on a Friday night you can think, ‘Oh yeah! I want to do that!’ and you can do it in your jeans and a T-shirt.”

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