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Dream theater

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  • | 4:00 a.m. October 21, 2009
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Nate Jacobs is feeling lighter this season. Less scattered. More focused. He’s returning phone calls and answering e-mails, meeting with board members and settling into a third-floor office above the now-vacant Sarasota News & Books store.

Jacobs, the 48-year-old founder and artistic director of the West Coast Black Theatre Troupe, is celebrating his organization’s 10th anniversary season with new muscle and an A-list board of directors.

Sipping from a tall can of Arizona iced tea, Jacobs leaps from thought to thought, barely pausing to breathe between sentences; a display of joie de vivre with which those around him have become familiar. A man doesn’t sustain his own theater company for a decade without possessing Energizer Bunny-levels of ambition.

“Before Christine got here, it was just me, juggling the world of WCBTT,” Jacobs says, motioning toward the lived-in desk 6 feet away from his.

The “Christine” in question is Christine Jennings, Jacob’s interim executive director and only office mate. Jennings, together with business partner Michael Shelton, has agreed to help steer the fledging theater troupe through its 2010 season until Jacobs finds a permanent partner.

“She and Michael stepped into this job and, one month later, came at me with this,” Jacobs says, pulling out a 40-page, spiral-bound strategic plan prepared by Jennings and Shelton. “They broke the organization down and built it back up. All I did was show ’em where the bones were buried.”

In 10 years Jacobs has never had an executive director, nor was he on the path to finding one until Howard Millman, WCBTT’s board president and the former artistic director of the Asolo Repertory Theatre, arranged a meeting this summer with Jennings.

Jennings, the 2006 and 2008 Democratic nominee for Florida’s 13th Congressional District, is a retired bank CEO and the past president of the Sarasota Film Festival, the Sarasota Ballet and the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Although Jacobs was familiar with the CEO-turned politician’s expertise running arts organizations, he admits he couldn’t picture her running his.

“Personally,” Jacobs says, lowering his voice, “I didn’t think Christine would take the job.”

But Millman knew better.

For more than a year he had watched as Jacobs, overwhelmed and understaffed, single-handedly juggled WCBTT’s artistic-and-business responsibilities — organizing fundraisers, contacting sponsors, scheduling auditions and rehearsing shows with the help of only a few part-time volunteers.

And then there was the issue of a stage. In 10 years, the 23-member company had moved in and out of five temporary performing-arts venues, including Florida Studio Theatre, the now-defunct Backlot Theatre, Glenridge Performing Arts Center and the Historic Asolo Theater.

For more than a year, Millman, who joined the board in 2006, silently sketched out a plan in his head to help set the troupe on solid ground and restore confidence among longtime supporters who had lost faith in the organization over the years.

“They were gypsies,” Millman says. “They had no home to play in and no place from season to season where people could easily find them.”
Despite displacement and financial woes, the company’s shows continued to make headlines, drawing audiences from Longboat Key to Newtown.

“They loved our work,” Jacobs says. “But when it came to funding our work, we were starving to death.”

He hired Jennings in June and spent the summer wooing two-dozen new board members, cutting expenses, developing a marketing strategy and designing a WCBTT Web site, slated to launch sometime next week.

“We’re standing on much stronger legs now,” Jacobs says.

With much of the troupe’s business operations being divvied up between Jennings, Shelton and Millman, Jacobs can finally focus his attention on the troupe’s biggest task at hand: finding a permanent theater.

“My ideal season would have three dramas and two musicals,” Jacobs says, his eyes widening, “once we find a home.”

He mentions that he’s found his dream property in the Rosemary District — the dilapidated Sarasota Boxing Club on the corner of Central Avenue and Sixth Street. The project would cost an estimated $7 million and involve building a new theater from the ground up.

The property owner, says Jacobs, read a story about the troupe in the newspaper two years ago and called Jacobs the next day offering to sell him the land. He jotted the message down on a Post-It note, stuck it to his computer and then promptly forgot about it the next day. The prospect was so far from the company’s realm of possibilities, that Jacobs returned the call a year later.

“The interest in us having a home has grown greatly,” he says. “At a time when so many arts organizations are struggling, we’re experiencing our greatest growth. You know a vision is meant to be when that happens.”


by Nate Jacobs

• “Follow what you know is in your heart, not necessarily what you see or don’t see. Many times we don’t realize things in the moment, but we’ve got to trust our hearts and keep moving down the road.”
• “Stay grateful.”
• “Life is really composed of people helping people. Our success has really been on the backs of people who supported my dream; people who stepped up to the table and felt philanthropic enough to do something constructive.”

if you go
The West Coast Black Theatre Troupe is celebrating its 10th anniversary at 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 29, at Michael’s On East. The evening will include a music revue of the company’s 10-year history, including performances by original company member Teresa Stanley, who started her career with WCBTT in 1999 and later went on to perform on Broadway in “The Color Purple,” “Dream Girls” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’.”

For tickets, call 366-1505 or e-mail [email protected]