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Entertainment execs chat in front of Newsies panel

The Observer brought together four local arts and entertainment executives to discuss how their organizations have fared during the pandemic and beyond.

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  • | 11:01 a.m. January 28, 2022
  • Arts + Culture
  • Performing Art
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What has the last year been like in Sarasota's arts community? And what will the immediate future bring?

A panel of local entertainment executives provided their thoughts on the situations surrounding their respective organizations Wednesday evening at the Arts Advocates gallery at Crossings in Siesta Key. 

The panel — convened by the Observer Media Group for its Newsies program and moderated by OMG President Emily Walsh — included Travis Ray of Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Richard Russell of the Sarasota Opera, Iain Webb of the Sarasota Ballet and William Skaggs from The Players Centre for Performing Arts.

Travis Ray spoke about the upcoming plans for the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)
Travis Ray spoke about the upcoming plans for the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)

Ray, WBTT's associate managing director, spoke about the difficulties surrounding scheduling during the COVID-19 pandemic and about how the troupe successfully managed to stage plays in its parking lot when the theater space was closed down.

"The beautiful part about it was that our staff had the ingenuity, the creativity, the want and will to do it," Ray says. "It turned what would've been us not doing anything to finish off our season to transition into actually having two shows able to run during the open-air outdoor concerts.

"That was the main thing I learned. We can do anything."

Ray also spoke about the WBTT's new state of the art facility, which allows the organization to not only have enhanced performance capability but also to stage its administrative offices and educational initiatives in the same venue.

Skaggs, the CEO of The Players, said that his organization has been in transition during the pandemic but that its trustees had made the commitment not to lay anyone off or send employees home on furlough. 

Read more: Looking ahead at 2022 in arts and entertainment in Sarasota

The Players has had to be extra resilient, Skaggs says, because the company is in the midst of looking for a new performance space.

The group has performed in a number of locations over the past two years and is currently gauging the feasibility of establishing a continual home at the Sarasota Municipal Auditorium.

In the long run, the company hopes to set up in Lakewood Ranch.

At any rate, fundraising for a new home fell by the wayside during the pandemic, Skaggs says.

William Skaggs talked a bit about the local performance culture in Sarasota. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)
William Skaggs talked a bit about the local performance culture in Sarasota. (Photo: Spencer Fordin)

"You're worried about quarter to quarter and keeping your organization healthy," Skaggs says of running a fundraising appeal to finance a new venue. "That was something that got set to the side for about 18 months, and it has been relaunched more recently to begin rebuilding that awareness and look at bringing a performing arts facility to the east side of I-75."

Webb, the director of the Sarasota Ballet, spoke briefly about how hard it was for his dancers to socially distance during the pandemic, and he touched on the complications of performing for a camera instead of a live audience. And when the conversation turned to facilities, Webb noted that his company has had to make a number of theaters home over the past few years.

Read more: Sarasota arts organizations fought for a return to normalcy in a trying year

"I think we're a touring company of Sarasota," Webb says. "We share the buildings; we're joint tenants with the Asolo Theatre company up at the FSU Performing Arts Centre. But we only get in a few times during the season. We tour Sarasota by performing there, and twice we come into the Opera House, which we love. And we also perform at the Van Wezel."

Russell, the general director of the Sarasota Opera, drew laughter at multiple points during the group conversation. 

When asked about his company's plans for the Sarasota Opera House, he said, "It's there."

Russell said that the Opera House is in good shape and that there are no plans for a new facility as of now. And he said that many patrons have told him that they enjoyed shorter operas, which might play into the company's future scheduling plans.

In the short run, though, Russell says he's really ready for the entertainment scene to return to normal.

"This winter, we are planning a season that's very close to our normal season," he says. "We're excited about that. We're grateful for all the support we've had from the community to be able to do that. It's not easy, and we know that everybody is not going to be back this year. It's going to take a few years before we're back to that place, but nevertheless we're determined to keep going and to see the light at the end of the tunnel. They just need to stop moving the light. I've really learned my fill of Greek letters."


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