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$28M renovation of Booker High theater means 'enormous possibilities'

The recently completed project adds mezzanine seating, a black box theater, a costume shop and a grand lobby.

Federico Hradek stands in the black box theater space.
Federico Hradek stands in the black box theater space.
Photo by Ian Swaby
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Booker High School senior Cora Gerdes said it was a relief to finally have the Booker Visual & Performing Arts Center back in business. 

Following the approval of renovations to the building in 2020, student performances were held in the school's cafeteria.

The new $28 million facility offered a stark contrast to that location, as attendees saw at a ribbon-cutting ceremony on April 11.

Students led attendees on a tour showcasing the renovations, which include a new black box theater, a dressing room, a costume shop and an upgraded Main Theater.

The venue will serve the Booker High School Visual and Performing Arts magnet program, which is Sarasota's premier pre-professional arts education program.

“The possibilities that exist in this space are so enormous that we have to almost think from the ground up, because what we used to do is not what we can do anymore. We can do so much more,” said VPA Director and Coordinator Courtney Smith.

A state-of-the-art facility

As Smith told attendees, the year after the opening of the original theater in 1995, she found herself in the audience, witnessing what she called “the most spectacular” production of "Guys and Dolls" she had ever seen.

“A packed house was awestruck with the talents, the acting, the singing, the dancing, the costumes, the sets, the props, the lighting, there was no shortage of magic,” she said. “The experience confirmed for me a stance that I already knew: I was meant to be a Booker Tornado.”

Booker High School Principal Rachel Shelley said in addition to serving the school's nearly 350 VPA students, the space will also benefit another 150 non-VPA students involved in performing arts classes and 120 students in the school’s musical program, calling the facility, as well as all the Booker schools, a staple of the Newtown community. 

The building of the performing arts center has been renovated.
Photo by Ian Swaby

The new additions do not end with the theater itself, but also include an alternative space, a more intimate black box theater, seating 125 people, which students said could host shows like dance performances and those with smaller casts. 

The space includes rearrangeable seating, balcony seating, multiple catwalks that allow the curtains to be used in various ways throughout the room, state-of-the-art lighting and rigging equipment for lighting, projections and backdrops.

A new costume shop allows for the construction and maintenance of costume stock, featuring storage for accessories, sewing equipment, industrial washers and dryers and a fitting stage. 

The facility also features a new dressing room. The previous dressing rooms doubled as a classroom, creating scheduling conflicts between the groups who needed to use the space. Dedicated classroom space is now included. 

A central part of the renovations, however, is the Main Theater. 

Originally, the area had more of an auditorium appearance, but a revamped layout and design now aims for a more professional use and aesthetic, Smith said.

The theater has been renovated to include a mezzanine and other features.
Photo by Ian Swaby

Rather than the original one-level seating raised more inexpensively, the theater now includes a mezzanine. It also includes flexible box seating that can be rearranged, wood finishings and fabric accents designed to enhance both aesthetics and acoustics, along with new curtains and drapes.

Much of the equipment had become outdated, Smith said, but that issue has been addressed by the new additions to the room, which include LED lighting, sound equipment and new operating boards. 

The new facility also takes accessibility into account, with audio-assistive technology available for the performances, as well as two wheelchair lifts.

The building has grown in size too. An expanded lobby section featuring the grand lobby welcomes visitors to the space.

Student-designed playbills for past productions adorn the wall of the backstage space.
Photo by Ian Swaby

The area, which includes tiles imported from Spain, has the potential to host an art exhibition, according to students.

"I think this space has such potential to be an agent of change," said senior Morgan Takacs. "And for students to have opportunities opening left and right, I mean literally left and right, to perform their own pieces for solo plays in junior year, as well as our capstones from sophomore and junior year of medley productions, and I think having a space that so reflects a professional level, really shines a light on the professional part of the professional training program."

Jackson Carney, a senior, said traveling performance companies will now be able to access the school, whereas previously they only used the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall or the Venice Performing Arts Center.

VPA Director and coordinator Courtney Smith receives a hug from Principal Rachel Shelley
Photo by Ian Swaby

"Sarasota County now has this center as well, that so many touring companies will be able to come through,” he said. 

The ribbon-cutting ceremony saw the project praised by speakers at the ceremony, which included speeches by Principal Rachel Shelley, Vice Chair Karen Rose, Superintendent Terry Connor, Sarasota County Schools Assistant Superintendent Operations and COO Jody Dumas, CORE Construction president Scott Olthoff and Smith. 

The ribbon is cut by former school board member Jane Goodwin, Principal Rachel Shelley, Superintendent of Schools Terry Connor and School Board Chair Karen Rose.
Photo by Ian Swaby

“It's incredible to see everyone come together, and I know that this is going to represent not just the Booker community, but also Sarasota County. ... It’s a place, again, of boundless opportunity and here it lies, in Sarasota,” Rose said. 

As Smith told attendees, the facility is also about more than just who it will benefit today. 

“It is a place to house the passions and hopes of future generations, a place for brilliance to be displayed, a place where work is not just seen but celebrated. It is a home and it's my honor students, to welcome you here.”



Ian Swaby

Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.

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