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Five Sarasota arts events you won't want to miss this summer

All performances are affordable and take place in air-conditioned venues.

Jack Dowd's "Last Call," a life-sized installation of a New York tavern, runs through Aug. 16 at Ringling College's Stulberg Gallery.
Jack Dowd's "Last Call," a life-sized installation of a New York tavern, runs through Aug. 16 at Ringling College's Stulberg Gallery.
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Once upon a time in Sarasota, the calendar was divided into "season" (October through April) and "off season" (May through September). But in recent years, the line has blurred. 

Yes, the snowbirds begin heading home after Easter and Black Tie events go on hiatus, but each year, the area attracts new full-time residents. Cultural institutions like the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Urbanite Theatre and Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe have responded with seasons that now last into June.

For 60 years, the Sarasota Music Festival has been held each summer, bringing in faculty and fellows from around the world and delighting classical music lovers with three weeks of performances. 

A Sarasota summer arts mainstay is Florida Studio Theatre, with a sizzling cabaret season as well as mainstage and improv performances. FST also hosts the Sarasota Improv Festival, which came back with a vengeance last year after being on hold in real life for years.

Another longtime participant in the summer arts scene is the Circus Arts Conservatory. It will be taking up residency in The Ringling Museum’s Historic Asolo Theater once again this summer. The CAC will also be heading to Massachusetts with a show called Summersaults in the Berkshires from July 19-28 at the Duffin Theater in Lenox.

We've scoured the summer calendar for five events that you absolutely won't want to miss. All are surprisingly affordable and some are even free. 

The meteorologists say it's going to be a hot summer, but these must-see events provide respite from rising temperatures with air-conditioned performances and screenings. All of our picks sell out quickly so don't wait to buy your tickets. 

Jack Dowd's 'Last Call'

June 7 through Aug. 18 at the Stulberg Gallery, Ringling College of Art & Design, 1188 Dr. Martin Luther King Way. Tuesday through Saturday 12-6 p.m. Visit Ringling

Nearly everyone has their version of "Cheers," the TV bar "where everybody knows your name." Such a mythical tavern, where business types in suits mix with artists, musicians, socialites and a neighborhood character or two, will be inside the Stulberg Gallery at Ringling College of Art & Design this summer.

Sarasota artist Jack Dowd's installation "Last Call" will open on June 7 with a reception featuring free food for the first 250 visitors and a cash bar on the patio outside the gallery from 5 to 8 p.m.

The installation featuring a 22-foot-long mahogany bar and 13 life-size characters, including the late John F. Kennedy Jr., was first created in 2001 by the artist and his son, Jon Dowd. It was displayed at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art the same year.

In "Last Call," the clock on the wall reads 3:55, meaning it's just minutes before the mandated 4 a.m. closing time in New York City, where the tavern is set. There's enough time for the bartender to serve just one more round to the bar's patrons, hence the title "Last Call."

The diversity of the bar's patrons and their realization that the long evening is drawing to a close echoes the grittiness of the 1930s Ash Can School, according to Ringling College Chief Curator Tim Jaeger. 

Dowd, who is in his eighties, will attend the opening reception, which promises to draw an eclectic mix of Sarasota artists and art aficionados. There may never be another party quite like this one. You won’t want to miss it.

Elia Kazan's "On the Waterfront" is the featured film July 5 at Classic Movies at the Opera House.
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Classic Movies at the Opera House

Select Fridays through Oct. 18, 61 N. Pineapple Ave. $12. Visit

If you've got Turner Classic Movies on cable or the Criterion Channel streaming on your laptop, you can watch a great selection of films from Hollywood's Golden Age. But as the events company Fathom has discovered with its screenings in AMC, Regal and Cinemark cinemas, there are plenty of people who still like watching movies on the big screen as part of an audience.

What about watching classic films in a premier venue like the Sarasota Opera House? Yes, please! 

You've already been warned about the hazy definition of the off season in Sarasota, so don't be surprised to see that one of our must-see events of the summer runs through October. 

In fact, in a lineup that includes such fan favorites as "On the Waterfront," "American Graffiti" and "A Fistful of Dollars," the classic film on the top of our list is "The Greatest Show on Earth," about the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. 

The highest-grossing film of 1952, Cecile B. DeMille's "The Greatest Show on Earth" was filmed in Sarasota, the winter home of the Ringling Bros. circus. It made its world premiere at the Sarasota Opera House, which was then known as the Florida Theater. 

Given the cosplay that reigned at the screenings of Taylor Swift's "Eras" concert tour movie last summer and the fun-loving spirit of Sarasota residents, we wouldn't be surprised to see a few clowns, leotard-clad ladies and other bigtop denizens at the GSOE screening at the opera house.

Trezure B. Coles and DeAnna Wright star in Urbanite Theatre's "Oak," which runs through June 30.
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine

Urbanite Theatre's 'Oak'

Through June 30 at Urbanite Theatre, 1487 Second St. $7-$44. Visit Urbanite

If you grew up telling ghost stories around the campfire or at slumber parties, "Oak" is the summer play you won't want to miss. Written by Chicago's Terry Guest, the Southern Gothic horror is making its world premiere at Sarasota's black-box Urbanite Theatre. 

In a 10th-anniversary season that had many edgy entries, Urbanite Artistic Director Summer Dawn Wallace thinks "Oak" is the best play of the season. And she is not even directing this one; Mikael Burke is.

Oak is the name of a sleepy town in Georgia where nothing much happens except the periodic disappearance of African American children. The snatchings are attributed to a creek monster, Odella, who is reportedly the spirit of a runaway slave who drowned and who is Oak’s answer to the Bogeyman.

The play "Oak" follows three restless Black cousins —16-year-old Pickle, her little brother Big Man and their cousin Suga — during one of the town's "child snatching seasons." 

There are lots of twists and turns that keep you on the edge of your seat in "Oak," so we don't want to give away too much. Suffice it to say that mysterious abductions are as much a part of the landscape in Oak as racism and poverty and are viewed with a grudging acceptance typically reserved for rain.

At the heart of the Faustian play lies the question: What deal are you willing to make with the Devil — or in this case, Odella — to escape a humdrum existence in a dead-end Georgia town? If you're living in Oak, be afraid, not of Odella, but of the lengths you'll go to escape.

The play may provoke some soul-searching among audience members, who may be less interested in escape than in things remaining the same in their town. Who are you willing to throw under the bus to maintain the status quo? Spooky stuff, indeed.

The hand-balancing acrobats The Bello Sisters are among the featured acts at the 2024 Summer Circus Spectacular.
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Summer Circus Spectacular

June 14 through Aug. 17 at the Historic Asolo Theater, The Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Road. $20 adults/$15 youth 15 and under. Visit

If you're not a circus fan, why not? You don't like animals, scary clowns or bleachers? No worries. You won't find any of those things at the Circus Arts Conservatory's annual Summer Circus Spectacular.

Instead you'll get a one-hour show filled with sophisticated, family-friendly entertainment in the beautiful Historic Asolo Theater.

Did I mention the ticket prices? They are just $20 for adults and $15 for youth under 15.

This year's summer lineup is different from what the CAC, under the direction of husband-and-wife team Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs, presented under their new bigtop at Nathan Benderson Park during season.

Presided over by Ringmaster Jared Walker, the summer circus includes contortionist Uranbileg Angarag, acrobatic hand balancers The Bello Sisters, hair hang artist Camille Langlois, slack wire performer Antino Pansa and clown Renaldo, a veteran of the Big Apple Circus.

If you've never seen a show in the Historic Asolo Theater, or The HAT for short, this is your chance. First built in 1798 inside a palace in Asolo, Italy, the jewel-box theater's elaborate proscenium, decorative panels, gilded stage boxes and other components were purchased by The Ringling in 1949. 

The historic theater, which opened for Sarasota performances in 1952, has only 286 seats. It's a theater fit for a king, or at least a duke.

Why not make a circus day of it at The Ringling? Before or after watching the Summer Circus Spectacular (shows are 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on Saturday), why not visit the Circus Museum? For just $5, audience members can gain access to the museum on the day they attend the show.

This is a timely offer because the Circus Museum recently added a new installation on the second floor of the Tibbals Learning Center called the Greatest Show on Earth. The multimedia exhibit is dedicated to the modern Ringling Bros. circus as it evolved under the ownership of Feld Entertainment, which acquired it in 1967.

Also, the Circus Museum isn't part of The Ringling's free Mondays admission. 

"All Play," the annual finale performance of the Sarasota Improv Festival, shown in 2023.
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Sarasota Improv Festival

July 12-13 at Florida Studio Theatre's downtown campus, 1241 N. Palm Ave. $10 each show. Visit

When Florida Studio Theatre announced the Sarasota Improv Festival's return to real life in 2023 after a four-year hiatus (there was a virtual fest in 2020), it was hard to know what the reaction might be. Would fans have forgotten about the once-popular summer event, which began in 2009? 

Not a chance. Last year's festival, which was headlined by London hip-hop comedian MC Hammersmith, sold out almost immediately. FST draws a faithful improv following with its Saturday night shows featuring its own FST Improv Troupe. These fans turned out in droves for the improv festival, featuring talent from around the world.

When it comes to improv, Sarasota is definitely on the map, along with places like Los Angeles, New York and Austin. 

With $10 tickets, it's hard to find a better live entertainment bargain in town than the Sarasota Improv Festival, which will be held July 12-13. Festival passes are available for $75 for two days, $59 for Saturday and $49 for Friday. 

Headlining this year's festival is Impro Theatre, a Los Angeles-based group that creates full-length plays inspired by the world's greatest playwrights, but on the fly. This will be Impro Theatre's second appearance at the Sarasota Improv Festival.

Also returning to the festival are fan favorites Available Cupholders (Austin, Texas, and Los Angeles), Big Bang Improv (Boston, Sarasota and New York City), Dad's Garage (Atlanta), Parallelogramophonograph (Austin), North Coast (New York City) and FST Improv. 

Repping Chile at this year's festival is the troupe Lospleimovil, which is making its debut.

Even if you don't attend this year, be sure to add the improv festival's traditional closing performance to your "bucket list." In the "All Play" finale, more than 80 festival artists jam themselves onto FST's Gompertz Theatre stage for an unscripted show full of fun. Summer fun, that is.


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