Three years after buying a property near downtown Sarasota, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is turning its campus into a home.
To the uninitiated, the plans to renovate the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe’s campus along Orange Avenue might seem relatively modest.
To Nate Jacobs, founder and creative director of the theater company, it’s a major step forward for the institution he helped establish 17 years ago.
Until 2013, the theater operated without a permanent home. That year, the company purchased the 2-acre property at 1646 10th Way, officially moving into the venue that had temporarily housed the theater for the previous three years.
Now, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe is seeking the city’s approval to enhance and expand the property, located at the northeast corner of the Rosemary District. For Jacobs, the renovations are an affirmation that his once nomadic theater company is now a fixture in Sarasota’s arts community.
“It’s a sense of pride and a sense of contentment for us as an organization, to be here and to be able to not worry about — where are we going to have rehearsal, and can we find a place to rent to have enough dates to do shows?” Jacobs said. “It’s a serious weight off of my shoulders. We couldn’t fully do what we wanted to do. We were always working around someone else’s schedule.”
“We couldn’t fully do what we wanted to do. We were always working around someone else’s schedule.” — Nate Jacobs
The organization plans to add permanent seating to the main theater, adding between 20 and 40 seats to increase the capacity to around 200. The main theater building would get new dressing rooms and rehearsal space, larger lobby and reception areas, and improved restrooms.
The theater intends to move its administrative staff from downtown Sarasota into the two-story, 12,000-square-foot Binz building, adding multipurpose and conference rooms as well. The plans also call for 20 additional parking spaces and the creation of a plaza area between the two buildings.
Julie Leach, the theater’s executive director, said the organization has already taken the opportunity to expand its creative offerings after moving into its permanent home. The corresponding renovations will help facilitate that growth, which includes the addition of a youth summer camp this year, while allowing for continued expansion going forward as needed.
“Our program’s grown,” Leach said. “We’re kind of busting at the seams in terms of theater space, and we have a couple of different education programs.”
Leach said the theater is in the quiet phase of a capital campaign to pay for the improvements, and said information regarding the project expenses will be available when that fundraising effort goes public.
“For a black theater organization, there’s a sense of pride that there is a place we can call our own.” — Nate Jacobs
Earlier this year, the Players Theatre announced its plans to leave its home near downtown Sarasota for a new venue in Lakewood Ranch. Players Managing Director Michelle Bianchi Pingel said the move was partially motivated by the crowded arts scene in the city.
Jacobs didn’t share those concerns. He said the Westcoast Black Theatre, in particular, benefited from a central location, drawing patrons from Longboat Key, Lakewood Ranch and even west Tampa, remaining in close proximity to the cultural core downtown and staying connected to Sarasota’s black community. The last point is particularly important for Jacobs.
“For a black theater organization — pretty much the only professional black theater organization in this landscape — there’s a sense of pride that there is a place we can call our own,” he said. “It’s a sense of pride for our whole community.”
The company has been a presence in the Sarasota arts community for nearly two decades, but Jacobs sees the refurnished space as a new beginning of sorts for the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
“We control our destiny,” he said. “We are in control of our programs and our seasonal shows, and it puts us in a position to thoroughly and fully begin to stretch our legs artistically in this city.”