Just on the outskirts of downtown Sarasota, there exists a dense jungle. However, this rainforest is rich with creativity and humanity instead of exotic wildlife and giant plants (though it does have its fair share of foreign Banyan trees). The Ringling Complex, the combined canopy of The Ringling, FSU Performing Arts Center and the New College of Florida, houses and produces an abundance of classic art, circus artifacts, new works of theater and ballet, foreign architecture and gardens galore. But living within this wilderness lives a strong collective that feeds off this ecosystem of creative raw materials: the FSU/Asolo Conservatory.
Formally titled the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, the conservatory is a competitive, three-year, master’s of fine arts acting program that ranks among the top 10 programs in the country and in the top 25 in the English-speaking world. Each incoming class consists of 12 students — just small enough for the faculty and staff to mold and elevate each individual performer, but also just large enough to create a sense of camaraderie and collaboration. After a three-year gauntlet of learning and performing, the students earn a degree and their Actors’ Equity Association card.
“The conservatory combines academia and graduate-level training that is professionally based,” says Greg Leaming, director of the conservatory and associate artistic director of Asolo Repertory Theatre. “This is not an academic institution per se. We’re not training teachers; we’re training artists.”
The tribe of thespians is as eclectic in taste, temperament and creative energy as the conservatory’s upcoming season. The conservatory’s season opens with David Mamet’s rarely produced play, “The Water Engine,” running from Nov. 4 through Nov. 23. The remainder of this year’s productions are William Shakespeare’s cross-dressing comedy “As You Like It;” the fairly new musical about creating a musical, “Title of Show,” by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell; and Anton Chekhov’s seminal play of class struggle and decay, “The Cherry Orchard.”
All 12 of the conservatory actors have their own personal goals, but stay connected in their ultimate desire of taking the stage this year. Their first year in the program was dedicated to intense training and the study of acting, voice and textual analysis. Then after this year of four productions (each student performs in three out of the four shows), the troupe ventures on to a summer of study in London, and returns the subsequent semester to performance opportunities with the Asolo Repertory Theatre company during its production season.
But, in the end, the goal of the 12 actors and the overall mission of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory is to not only produce professional actors, but craft and participate in awe-inspiring theater.
“My strongest memory was the first time I ever actually felt fully connected inside of my body within the rest of the ensemble and the audience at the same time,” says Joseph Knispel. “I was in the play ‘Three Sisters’ by Chekhov, and I was doing a monologue, and it literally felt like the entire world had stopped spinning and was listening to me. Ever since then I’ve been working toward figuring out how to get back there.”
Even though they are practically surrounded by a veritable sea of fine arts and entertainment, the dramatic dozen of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory stand strong among the league of professional and classical art offerings of the Ringling Complex.
“Our approach is a lot more energetic and tends to be a lot more imaginative,” says Leaming. “The audiences that come to see our work are surprised at the caliber of the actor and surprised at the plays that we are presenting that nobody else in town seems to be doing.”
IF YOU GO
‘The Water Engine’ by David Mamet
When: Opens 8 p.m. Nov. 4 and runs through Nov. 23
Where: Cook Theatre, 5555 N. Tamiami Trail
Cost: Tickets $29
Info: Call 351-8000 or visit asolorep.org.