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Sarasota arts educator Scott Keys starts his second act

Keys is directing "Ruthless" at The Sarasota Players and "Parade" at Manatee Players.

Retired Booker High School educator Scott Keys has more time to pursue community theater and other venues since his 2021 retirement.
Retired Booker High School educator Scott Keys has more time to pursue community theater and other venues since his 2021 retirement.
Courtesy photo
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When a visitor urges the actors rehearsing for an upcoming performance of "Ruthless!" at The Sarasota Players, formerly The Players Centre, to pretend "she's a fly on the wall," director Scott Keys laughs.

"That's impossible," he tells the cast. "It's like when the principal comes to observe a class; everyone sits up a little straighter."

Keys knows a little something about life in a classroom. In 2021, he retired as director of the theater program at Booker High School's renowned Visual and Performing Arts Program, where he had been a teacher since 2000.

But retirement isn't a word that's in Booker's vocabulary. Instead of high school musicals, some of which he wrote by himself and with partners, Keys is directing community theater, including "Ruthless!" The morbidly humorous tale of a scheming child actress opens at The Players Centre Sept. 27.

One of the oldest cultural institutions in town, The Sarasota Players was founded in 1929 and recently returned to its original name. 

During his teaching career and now after it, Keys is one of the exceptions to the longstanding putdown about academics, "Those who can't, teach." The first part of that sentence, lifted from George Bernard Shaw's 1905 play, "Man and Superman," is "Those who can, do."

A graduate of Syracuse University's musical theater program, Keys has over 150 productions to his credit, including Venice Theatre, FST, Manatee Players and Sarasota Players, as well as Weathervane Playhouse in Newark, Ohio, where he served as artistic director for seven years.

Watching Keys mark up his script during the "Ruthless!" rehearsal, "give notes" (theater-speak for critique) and use his index finger as a baton to direct his pianist and cast, Keys evokes archetypal characters. 

Scott Keys conducts a rehearsal for the play "Ruthless" at the Sarasota Players' offices in the Rosemary District.
Photo by Monica Gagnier

Is he the Magician in the Tarot? Maybe the Pied Piper of children's fairy tales? Perhaps even Willy Wonka of the silver screen, if you give him a jaunty top hat. 

In any event, one gets the feeling that Keys is up to something fun, maybe even subversive, and you immediately want to be part of it. 

After an hour or so watching Keys rehearse, you come away quite sure that he's the kind of high school theater teacher who has launched a thousand dreams.

And indeed that's the story of how Keys ended up in the theater himself. A native of Dayton, Ohio, Keys attended a high school dominated by sports. Despite his lanky physique, Keys didn't see himself as a basketball player. Instead he found his calling after his high school drama teacher, Doug Benbow, cast him as Jesus in the school's production of the musical "Godspell."

A former seminarian, Benbow was the only Black teacher at Keys' high school at the time, Keys says. "He was very creative. He changed my perspective. He gave a closeted gay boy a chance to shine," he says.

At Booker, Keys gave aspiring artists the tools (keys?) to hone their talents, earning the award for Sarasota County Teacher of the Year in 2008-9. Among his former students who have gone on to show business careers are Charlie Barnett, Drew Foster and Syesha Mercado.

While at Booker, Keys directed more than 50 productions, including plays, musicals and original works. His last hurrah was "Kingdom of Solitaire," which he created with theater music director Johnnie Mnich. The two had previously collaborated on the original musical "Sleepy Hollow" in 2012 as well as on songs and librettos for musical revues.

"Kingdom of Solitaire" was built on the foundation of a play that Keys wrote in high school called "The Fifth Suit," about a kingdom of cards that's on the brink of collapse. Keys went back and modified it in response to the political tensions fueled by quarantine, social distancing, masks and other measures designed to stop the spread of Covid.

Keys had planned to retire from Booker in 2020 but agreed to stay on for another year in the middle of the pandemic.

Remote learning and isolation from peers were particularly difficult for students in the performing arts, Keys says. "There was a genuine malaise, lack of engagement and in some cases almost hostility during the pandemic," he recalls.

"We actually had a few students withdraw from the program," he continues. "They just didn't see the point to taking acting classes or voice when you had to stand 6 to 12 feet away. Plus, there was a real fear that the performing arts would never come back, and therefore was it was no longer a potential career choice."

Scott Keys performed in a one-man show at the first Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival called "The Sequestered Jester."
Courtesy photo

Like many members of Sarasota's arts community, Keys earned his theater stripes in New York City, where he spent 10 years. In addition to earning his MFA from NYU, he worked at Playwrights Horizons. Ultimately he and his partner, David Covach, now head of the costume department at Asolo Repertory Theatre, came to Sarasota for its sunshine and vibrant performing arts scene.

Today, Keys is one of the pillars of that community. After "Ruthless!" at The Sarasota Players, Keys will direct the Tony Award-winning musical "Parade" at Manatee Players in March. Earlier this year, he appeared in Sarasota's first fringe festival, the Squeaky Wheel Fringe Festival, with a one-man play called "The Sequestered Jester."

Despite all his theatrical credits, just a few of Keys' productions are available to license and perform. When you Google him, among the musicals and revues that turn up are "Look Out, Olympus!" and "Hula Hoops and Halos" (both with Jeffrey Smart), "Hollywood Hillbillies" (with Tim Kelly) and "First in Line" (with Robert Frankel).

Given the enduring appeal of the Headless Horseman and its spinoffs, Keys and Mnich's "Sleepy Hollow" would seem to be a prime candidate for license. 

But Keys says submitting musicals to publishers requires lots of documentation and live footage, which he and his collaborators didn't always bother to create in the first place or preserve. 

Evidently, those who do, don't always document. 

No matter. Keys' legacy is the magic he creates in the lives of his students and audiences. 

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the location of Weathervane Playhouse.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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