For those familiar with the sometimes hectic schedules involved in national conventions, it would not be surprising to hear comparisons to a kind of circus atmosphere for the events. That was never truer than for last week’s annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association in sunny Florida, where the chosen convention city, Sarasota, is of course the historically famed headquarters of the Ringling Brothers’ and Barnum & Bailey Circus. ATCA member, and well-known entertainment columnist for Sarasota’s HERALD-TRIBUNE, Jay Handelman, was the “ring master” for this national gathering, and he made certain his fellow delegates saw all the best of the town, including tours of the fabulous John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art and its beautifully landscaped 66-acre estate, including the Venetian-Gothic mansion, Cà d’Zan, the priceless art collections, and the extensive Circus Museummemorabilia collection. The latter, with its Tibbals Learning Center, includes a monumental scale model of the full circus layout, designed in extraordinary detail over a period of more than a half-century, by master model builder and philanthropist, Howard Tibbals. Tibbals, by the way, was one of the many luminaries who addressed the convention throughout the week.
Of course theatre was at the top of the agenda, and delegates quickly learned that Sarasota has much to offer in that regard, beginning, of course, with the Ringling estate’s own Historic Asolo Theatre, built in Italy in 1798. The theatre was acquired by the Ringling Museum and installed on the property in the early 1950’s, where it has since been the home of the Asolo Repertory Theatre. The board president of Asolo Rep, Ron Greenbaum, and his lovely wife, Rita, graciously opened their exquisite waterfront home to the ATCA delegates for a delightful, “Sunset Welcome Party” on the first night of the conference. In the days that followed, delegates had the opportunity to view such Asolo productions as Shaw’s “The Devil’s Disciple,” Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” and Jeffrey Hatcher’s, “Murderers,” and also enjoyed a dinner in the theater hosted by Asolo Rep (Michael Donald Edwards, Producing Artistic Director). Special guest that evening was Russell Crumley, Executive Director of the Sarasota County Arts Council. Additionally, the Asolo hosted a panel for delegates titled, “John Ringling’s Circus Legacy in Sarasota.” Curator, Dwight Currie, offered opening remarks regarding the restoration of the theater. Panel moderator was former Ringling Bros. vice-president for public relations, Rodney Huey, and panelists included Patty Campbell, (director of PAL Sailor Circus, the 60-year-old youth circus), Jim Ragona (Managing Director, Circus Sarasota), Steve Smith (clown and former director, Ringling Bros. Clown College), and Deborah Walk (curator, Ringling Museum Circus Galleries).
Other conference highlights included the joyous “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” production at Sarasota’s Golden Apple Dinner Theatre, featuring a post-show discussion with the theater’s owner, Robert Turoff. There was a luncheon visit to the lovely Selby Gardens that offered an informative “talk-back” session with New York Post theatre columnist and PBS broadcaster, Michael Reidel. Then there was a gala dinner in the grand foyer of the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, where guests included the center’s Executive Director, Mary Bensel, Marketing Director, Julia Mays, Herald-Tribune Media Group publisher, Diane McFarlin, Executive Editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Mike Connelly, and Herald-Tribune features and magazine editor, Diane Tennant.
Meanwhile, back at the Hyatt Regency convention hotel, ATCA chairman, Chris Rawson, skillfully conducted the various business meetings of the group, while conference organizer, Mr. Handelman, moderated a panel titled “State of the Arts,” and Kay Kipling of Sarasota Magazine moderated a discussion of “How Sarasota became Florida’s Cultural Capital.”
But perhaps the most satisfying Sarasota arena for this gathering of the nation’s critics was found in the varied venues of the brilliant Florida Studio Theatre. Under the skillful leadership of Artistic Director, Richard Hopkins, this talented troupe hit theatrical home runs in each of its four theaters. First, in Goldstein Cabaret Theatre, FST performers offered hilarious improvisational theater that made one long for that time decades ago when “Saturday Night Live” was actually funny. The program included more cabaret fun with a sampling of the group’s “Laughing Matters” that was full of clever spoofs and witty songs (many based on such familiar musical scores as “Fiddler on the Roof”), all dealing with assorted topics of the day. Rarely have so many critics been so happy at the same time.
Next up, in the Gompertz Theatre, was FST’s production of David Harrower’s “Blackbird.” Directed by Beth Duda, and starring Dan Patrick Bradyand Sarah Stockton, one might be tempted to subtitle this “Harrower’s Harrowing Tale,” as the play tells the gripping story of an unexpected encounter between a man, and a much younger woman who was sexually abused by him years before when she was only twelve years old. Tensions build, shocking surprises are revealed, and most of the time this one act play was riveting theatre.
The third FST offering, also directed by Miss Duda, was uniquely creative because “Under Six” consisted of several 5-minute plays written by elementary school students. Joyfully performed by several FST actors, these plays were selected for FST’s “Young Playwrights Festival,” the culmination of the group’s annual “Write A Play” program for youngsters. The results were nothing short of stunning, with many of the young playwrights present in the audience to see their work performed by equity actors. “Perfect Soup or Your Job!” (By Jillian Packard, Grade 5) tells the amusing tale of a chef who may be fired if he doesn’t get the recipe just right. “Road to Rap” (by Sydney Avery & Katie Meseroof – Grade 5) is the imaginative story of a group of animals who band together to become rap superstars. “Excuses, Excuses” (by Karrington Johnson – Grade 4) is a comical look at the silly excuses kids offer the teacher when late for school. “Little Red Flower” (by Dara Dombrowski– Grade 1) is the darling tale of a flower coaxed out of the ground by the sun and the rain. “I Feel Invisible” (Regrettably I have no record of its young author) is a sophisticated tale of a wise young girl who is kept out of the loop by her protective family as the grandmother she adores becomes ill and goes to “the hospital, the funeral home, and heaven.” “The Answer is in the Stars” (by Malcom Moniz – Grade 2) was the touching story of a young boy who misses the attentions of his older sister until they reconnect on one wonderful night in the country, out under the stars. I confess to having tears in my eyes by the time FST’s talented cast performed the poignant short piece. My follow-up conversations with FST’s Teaching Artist, Adam Ratner, and the group’s Write-A-Play Manager, Alexander Wemyss, confirmed the youthful energy and creative enthusiasm that seems to permeate everything this fine company touches.
FST then provided the delegates with a delightful outdoor barbeque, followed by the company’s final offering, which clearly deserved its place on the Keating Theatre main stage. Directed by Kate Alexander, the production of Frank Higgins’ play, “Black Pearl Sings!” starred Alice M. Gatling as Alberta “Pearl” Johnson, a black woman in a Texas prison for murder in 1935. Pearl is consumed with worry about what has become of her grown daughter who has disappeared. Co-starring is Forrest Richards in the role of Susannah Mullally, a researcher of folksongs and folklore, who learns that Pearl may know many of the old African songs she hopes to catalogue from the slavery era and beyond. Gatling gives a stunning performance as Pearl and brings a rich voice, full of life’s heartaches, to the wide selection of songs reflecting the most painful pages of the black experience in America. Miss Richards gives us a Susannah consumed by her work, but somehow lacking fulfillment in life. Trust and mutual affection build between the women, and thanks to a gubernatorial parole offer, they head to New York to record long lost songs, and develop a touring one-woman show of the rich musical heritage Pearl reveals. While there may be some fine-tuning required before the play moves soon to the very appropriate venue of Washington’s Ford’s Theatre, it is a powerful piece of theatre that lingers long in memory. What a fitting conclusion for the last night of this annual meeting of The American Theatre Critics Association! If all this had been a full week of the circus for these delegates, surely Florida Studio Theatre would have owned the center ring.