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Players Centre gets $1 million gift toward Lakewood Ranch theater complex

Muriel O'Neil Fund of the Performing Arts gives $1 million toward the Players' move to its Waterside at Lakewood Ranch complex.

Jeffery Kin and Michelle Bianchi of The Players Centre for Performing Arts are all smiles after a $1 million gift toward their new complex in Waterside at Lakewood Ranch.
Jeffery Kin and Michelle Bianchi of The Players Centre for Performing Arts are all smiles after a $1 million gift toward their new complex in Waterside at Lakewood Ranch.
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As the Community Foundation of Sarasota County announced a $1 million gift Friday to The Players Centre for Performing Arts, Michelle Bianchi talked about validation.

"This is not a pipe dream," said Bianchi, the managing director and CEO of The Players Centre for Performing Arts.

Bianchi and Artistic Director Jeffery Kin have spearheaded the effort to educate the Lakewood Ranch-area public about the value of The Players Centre. The Players announced in May of 2016 it was building a $30 million theater complex in the new community of Waterside at Lakewood Ranch.

With the first major gift toward the new complex, coming from the Muriel O'Neil Fund of the Performing Arts, Bianchi and Kin believe the fundraising effort can now begin in earnest.

"At all the meetings I attend, people always ask me, 'Who is going to be the lead gift?'" Bianchi said. "Now we are able to roll out the first major capital campaign piece."

Roxie Jerde, the president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, said The Players Centre was a perfect match for the Muriel O'Neil Fund.

Jerde had spoken to Dr. Gertrude Hight, who formed the Muriel O'Neil Fund in honor of her late sister, shortly before her death. Hight explained her sister's love of the performing arts and her passion for attending performances at The Players Theatre.

When the Community Foundation saw all the particulars of The Players Centre for Performing Arts' move to Lakewood Ranch, the gift became reality.

"We know The Players has been around for generations," Jerde said. "We know Michelle (Bianchi) and Jeffery (Kin) and their passion for what they do We know Schroeder-Manatee Ranch is behind this move. We know the new Players Centre will be on a valuable piece of land. When you put it all together, it all fits.

"We feel confident this gift could be a catalyst for them."

Kin said things are starting to take off for the theater's move to Lakewood Ranch.

"We are starting to see great movement (in fundraising) after a lot of hard work," Kin said. "The whole process is organic and now things are starting to bloom. We knew this would not be an overnight success. It's going to take years.

"But we have a very positive feeling. People have faith in us and they care about what we do."

Jerde said the Community Foundation's board was impressed The Players already has started programming in Lakewood Ranch, such as the children's theater that begins Saturday at the Sarasota Polo Club and the outdoor theater that is being planned.

“We are thrilled to be a partner in this new chapter of the Players’ long history in Sarasota,” she said. "What an incredible opportunity to honor the legacy and charitable intention of Muriel O’Neil, a donor who cared so much for supporting our region’s theaters and who enjoyed many performances at the Players. Aligned with their mission to promote community inclusiveness, this gift will ensure that Muriel’s passion for performing arts will continue to be shared with all people of our community for years to come.”

Jerde said The Players has committed to finding a way to honor O'Neil's name at the new complex. What form it will take has not been decided upon.

“It takes courage to change a community and we are thrilled that the board of directors at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County has that courage,” Bianchi said. “Muriel O’Neil had been a past patron and donor. We are so thankful for the gift as the cornerstone to our capital campaign and discussions are underway for a potential naming opportunity at the new Centre.”

The Players Centre at Waterside Place will feature a 480-seat main stage auditorium with balcony seating, a 125-seat black box theatre, a 100-seat cabaret theatre with dining, and the main campus of The Arnold Simonsen Players Studio which is the education arm of the organization.

The Players Theatre began in Sarasota in 1930.


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