- July 29, 2015
The year was 2014. Brendan Ragan and Summer Wallace had both recently graduated from the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training in Sarasota. Should they stay or should they go?
What they both wanted was a black-box performing arts space with a focus on edgy new plays. Sarasota didn’t have one. Instead of leaving town, Ragan and Wallace decided to create the theater of their dreams right here. With help from Harry Lipstein, they opened Urbanite Theatre in 2015. As the company’s co-artistic directors, Wallace and Ragan racked up a stellar track record, with audiences and critics alike, over the next nine years.
What’s next? For Ragan, it’s a stint as artistic director at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, Illinois, in the Chicago metro area.
Ragan talked to Marty Fugate about his years at Urbanite and his plans for the future.
We hoped to fill the gap in Sarasota’s performing arts landscape. We have a fantastic arts scene here. But Summer and I realized there was one missing piece in the puzzle: Sarasota didn’t have an intimate, black-box theater specializing in cutting-edge contemporary plays. So our short-term goal was to create one — and provide that missing piece. Our audacious, long-term goal was to become a player in the national theater landscape. Ideally, Urbanite would be known as a very intimate, flexible black-box space with a successful track record developing new works, particularly new works with very small casts.
I think we’ve made a great start. We accomplished our short-term goals right away and that really exceeded our expectations. Summer and I had initially underestimated the demand for edgy theater in Sarasota. We thought it would take years to build a local audience. But when Urbanite opened, the reaction was, “What took you so long? We’ve been waiting for a theater like this for years.” So, we wanted to create a great contemporary theater in Sarasota — and we did.
We also wanted to make Urbanite Theater a national destination for small-cast, contemporary, thought-provoking work. We’ve taken important steps toward that goal. Urbanite’s joined the National New Play Network, and become a theater where talents from other cities (and larger theater cities) have heard of us.
When we hold auditions in Chicago, we’re approached by so many actors who really want to work with us. Important playwrights also want to work with Urbanite. Premiering “Backwards Forwards Back” is a great example. Jacqueline Goldfinger’s plays are produced all over the country — and she actually brought this play to Urbanite. She said, “I know that you guys specialize in this kind of work. I've loved everything I've seen there — and I think it would be perfect for Urbanite.”
So, we’re starting to achieve our long-term goals. To me, that’s very satisfying. From Summer’s point of view, Urbanite’s work is not done — and there are still a lot of great things to come. But we’ve accomplished many of our original goals.
My advice is what I say to anyone who wants to produce theater in Sarasota. First — be courageous. Urbanite is willing to take risks — and we’ve always succeeded because of that bravery.
We color outside the lines and tell big stories in a small space. That takes guts. That’s what we’re known for and that’s why people come to Urbanite. So, open your heart and find the courage to take keep doing that. Put on plays that challenge the audience — and make them think! Second, stop and smell the roses. The people of Sarasota appreciate and support theater to an amazing degree. There aren’t many communities like that in America, so enjoy it every second you can!
Several things! It’s a larger theater, with 329 seats. They put on four to five self-produced shows every year. They also have about 70 one-off performances — anything from musical nights to cabaret nights to comedians to cover bands.
To me, the big appeal is diversifying my work. I’ll not only bring great plays to the stage, I’ll also be producing non-theatrical performances. Because the Metropolis is a larger venue, they’ve produced a long list of traditional musicals over the years. I developed an innovative approach with new works at Urbanite; I hope to apply the same theatricality to the full spectrum of the performing arts. It’s an exciting challenge, and I’m really looking forward to it!