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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Sep. 20, 2017 1 year ago

Weathering the Storm: Arts community proves resilient after Hurricane Irma

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In the days following the historic storm, Sarasota’s arts community shows its strength.
by: Nick Friedman Managing Editor of Arts and Culture

As Hurricane Irma approached Sarasota, residents scrambled to find supplies to prepare. Amidst the uncertainty, gasoline, food, plywood and other materials were in short supply. But as the city’s arts organizations joined in their own preparation — shuttering windows, sandbagging doors, evacuating performers and relocating priceless works of art for safe keeping — the support they found within their community was abundant.

It’s something of a cliché that it sometimes takes an emergency to bring people together. But for the Sarasota arts community and its supporters, Hurricane Irma only revealed the strength of the bonds that already exist.

THE SHOW MUST GO ON

On Sept. 11, Hurricane Irma had come and gone — largely sparing Sarasota the major destruction many anticipated. But at the Players Centre for Performing Arts, the work was just beginning.

In the preceding days’ preparation, Players staff had saved the task of safeguarding their own homes for last — the theater came first. They removed any possible flying debris outside the building. Inside, they caulked doors shut, cleaned out ice machines and lifted costumes, props and tools as high as possible.

They cut short their run of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”

“That was a painful decision,” says Artistic Director Jeffery Kin. “But putting actors and audiences at risk would be even more painful.”

When the storm passed, the outside of the theater building was unharmed, save for scattered debris and a few hanging gutters. As staff inspected the inside, it appeared undamaged, as well. Until they stepped onstage.

“This squishing sound,” says Kin. “Every step we took went squish, squish, squish. That’s when we knew we were in trouble.”

Their gutter had collapsed  above the stage, taking the fascia board with it, leaving an inch-and-a-half gap between the wall and roof. Rain poured in, down the grand curtain and onto the stage, flooding the orchestra pit.

The next day, Kin drove a U-Haul to St. Petersburg to buy replacement floorboards; Managing Director and CEO Michelle Bianchi put out a call to supporters for help.

Without electricity in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts, Sarasota Ballet dancers have relocated to their satellite space on Tallevast Road, where they continue to prepare for the upcoming season.

It didn’t take long to arrive. Volunteers — including seven from Venice Theatre — began tearing out the water-logged flooring, installing new floorboards and two coats of paint in just three days. It’s a process Kin says previously took them two weeks.

On Sept. 13, 20 volunteers, surrounded by dozens of pizza boxes, wrapped up a quick break and headed back to work — measuring, sawing, prying and drilling, sans air conditioning, in a flurry of activity.

“People think about theater as being really competitive,” says Dorian Boyd, lighting the darkened stage with a headlamp. “But we’re all part of the same community. We wanted to share resources and lend a hand. Anything we could do.”

“In bad situations, you find out who your real friends are,” says Kin. “These people could be spending time at their own theater, but they’re here helping us. It speaks volumes about the arts family here — talk about community theater.”

But the work isn’t over yet. “Will Rogers Follies” opens in less than two weeks, and normally, the cast would be well into rehearsals on stage, and crew members would be putting the set together.

They’ll need a new grand curtain. And money. But for now, the show must go on.

As volunteer Cindy Carruth grabs a drill and heads back out to the stage, she puts it simply.

“When we see a need, we fill a need.”

WHERE EVERYBODY KNOWS YOUR NAME

After the storm passed, thousands in Sarasota were left without electricity, in search of food, cellphone service and help clearing downed trees.

For Tyler Yurckonis, owner of The Starlite Room, he saw an opportunity to help.

“I was lucky in that I still had power,” he says. “I didn’t have internet, so I opened Monday, on a cash-only basis.”

In the days following Hurricane Irma, Growler's Pub has become a place for neighborhood residents to enlist and offer help, as well as find a sense of normalcy.

Yurckonis opened the bar, offering what limited food he had on hand — wings and fried mozarella, which he prepared himself. More than 100 hungry guests showed up.

He even offered his upstairs lounge area to people, free of charge, to relax in the air conditioning, charge their phones or watch television.

“People can stay as long as they’d like,” he says. “There’s no pressure to buy anything. It’s about helping out fellow Floridians — and Americans. It’s a shame it sometimes takes something like this to bring out the best in people, but I hope we see more of this in the future.”

Sherry Kolyno, who owns Growler’s Pub, considers her North Tamiami Trail beer bar a true neighborhood pub. It’s home away from home for many of its regulars, she says, and after the storm,  Growler’s became a hub, not only for people to charge their cellphones and stock up on water (or beer), but also to enlist and offer help.

In the days following Hurricane Irma, Growler's Pub has become a place for neighborhood residents to enlist and offer help, as well as find a sense of normalcy.

“People from the neighborhood knew they could come here,” she says. “They brought chain saws and trucks, and they were happy and ready to help anyone who needed it. This neighborhood has opened its arms to us for the last seven years; it was only right that I open and offer what I could.”

On Sept. 13, Kolyno insisted the pub’s weekly trivia night continue as planned.

“It’s a social event more than it is trivia,” she says. “People are without power. People are stressed. This is something I could do to help return their lives to normal. If you need help, you might not pick up the phone to ask — but you’ve got 100 people at the bar who are willing to help.”

“People have met up here left and right,” adds Zaq Bencomo, a bartender who has been working overtime to fill in for other staffers stuck out of town. “They’ve offered chain saws, help with debris — anything. There’s a great sense of community here.”

Marty Fugate and Niki Kottmann contributed to this story.

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