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The Players transforms mall into theater

The Players Centre is planning a big move in the future. In the present, it has made a smaller move to a Sarasota shopping mall. It’s only a temporary home. But the shows will still go on.

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  • | 2:15 p.m. July 23, 2021
  • Arts + Entertainment
  • Performing Art
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In the not-too-distant future, The Players Centre for the Performing Arts will be relocating to a shiny new, state-of-the-art performing arts facility it intends to build in Lakewood Ranch. It’s an ambitious move — and a big move. It’s going to take a lot of money, planning and time before it can make it. In the interim, the troupe is making a smaller move. To a shopping mall, no less.

Sarasota’s oldest community theater company has quietly settled into temporary headquarters at the Crossings at Siesta Key mall. (That’s the former Southgate Shopping Center, in case you were wondering.) Its provisional performing arts space was originally a defunct Banana Republic. The Players Centre has now officially claimed it for its Republic of Theater.

Two weeks ago, I called Jeffery Kin for a progress report on the Players’ new home-away-from-home. As the company’s producing artistic director, he’s been at the heart of this relocation. I imagine it’s occasionally stressful. Moving can make you crazy — even a short shift to the other side of town. But Kin says he couldn’t be happier. Really?

“Really,” he says. “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.”

Bang! Bang! Bang!

I can hear a hammer’s repetitive beat in the background of our call. “Sorry about the noise,” Kin says. “Today’s the day we start building the temporary platform. It’ll be 18 feet across and about 20 feet from front to back. Ken Junkins is working on it as we speak. He’s the guy with the hammer. You can hear him, right?”

Bang! Bang! Bang!

Yes. I definitely can.

“What you’re hearing the sound of a theater being born,” Kin says. “The process really is a lot like going through labor — based on what I’ve heard anyway.”

We both crack up. Junkins keeps hammering.

“Seriously, the scope of this project is huge. It’s both a relocation and a reinvention — and this is just phase one of our makeover. And, like it always seems to happen, we’ve got almost zero time to get it done. We start our 92nd season tomorrow—well, October 5, really. But it feels like tomorrow to me. The clock is ticking, right?”

On the day of this call, The Players Centre’s new home at the mall boasts plenty of open space: 5,400 square feet, to be precise. It still doesn’t have a stage. Or dressing rooms. Or chairs for theatergoers. That’s all missing. But what it does have is far more important. A dream team of seriously skilled talent — including hard-working carpenters and scenic designers who are black belts with hammer and circular saws. (Junkins is clearly one.) They’ve been transforming this old retail space into a theater at warp speed. But they’re not done yet. The Players will continue to hold its rehearsals and classes at its Sixth Street studio until the new theater is ready. For Kin, that means a lot of driving. Just thinking about it makes him groan.

“Gah! The crosstown traffic — even a short trip is nerve-wracking. I feel like an extra in a ‘Mad Max’ movie.”

Kin expects his scenic talents to wrap up the Banana Republic makeover in plenty of time for the Players Centre’s upcoming 2021-22 season. (Junkins hammering seems to accelerate as Kin says this.)

 “We’re going to make the deadline,” Kin says. “I’m confident.” And he does sound confident. Not to mention happy.

The Players Centre’s reinvented venue is coming together, and Kin is definitely upbeat. Still, it must’ve been terrifying on Day One, when he and his creative crew first set eyes on the remains of a long dead shop.

“Nah,” Kin says. “Our designers walked into this space, and they instantly saw its potential. They were all like ‘Oh, we can do this, we can do that.’ I basically just got out of their way.”

Bang! Bang! Bang!

The hammer’s staccato beat continues in the background. Then it goes silent — replaced by the whine of a circular saw. Seconds later, I hear it jam. Junkins says something colorful. A minute or so later, the saw whines back to life. Kin ignores these offstage noises and just keeps talking.

“Hey, I’ll admit this makeover is a creative challenge,” he says. “That’s great, if we rise to that challenge. And we totally are! We’ve all got work to do — brain work, physical work, you name it — and it’s anything but easy. I’m not going to sugarcoat it, Marty. We have to downsize and scale back to smaller productions. We also have to educate our audience — ‘Hey, we’re still here! We didn’t go away — we’re in the mall now! Just drive down the Trail, but turn left this time.’”

I reassure Kin that I know how to find the Players Centre’s new location. I’ll just pretend I’m shopping for slacks at Banana Republic. He laughs. After that, our conversation winds down.

That chat is now old news. Two weeks later, Kin calls me back with some fresh news. And it’s all good. This phase of the makeover is pretty much a wrap. Really?

“Really. We’ve reached the final countdown, Marty! We’ll be ready to launch in mid-September.”

After that, The Players Centre’s ad hoc theater will be up and running. And the shows will go on.

After that big build-up, Kin dials back my expectations. And sets the dial to “realistic.”

“This is just the first phase of our makeover,” he says. “It’s kind of like the hold-it-together-with-duct-tape-and-chewing-gum phase. Our performance space will still be totally provisional. It’ll be more like our temporary-temporary theater.”

According to Kin, the Players Centre’s new venue is going to be a work-in-progress for a long, long time. There’ll be plenty of work to do in the future. But the work they’re doing in the present will be enough to get the season started.

“I’m psyched,” says Kin. “We’re rehearsing later today — and, yes, that’s still happening in the studio. We still have to drive downtown — but that’s going to stop pretty soon. No more fighting traffic and driving across town day after day. We can finally stay right here and do what we do best — put on a show!”