Dec 31, 2015 01:57AM
Asolo Rep: World Class Theatre, Made in Sarasota
by Juliette Jones
When we come together at the foot of the stage, we come with a deep expectation: we are there to leave the world of ordinary reality and enter into a world of the non-ordinary. The performance experience closes a great rift in our lives by enabling us to experience imaginative truth as physical presence.
The theatre is a magical environment, and the stage a center for powerful energy convergence— where time stands still in the completeness of the now, a balancing and transcending place, a mirror of mirrors, a space to learn and play, to be solemn and to believe. The relationship between actors and audience becomes a living crucible wherein catharsis, laughter, heightened awareness and all types of consciousness transformation occur. A quality theatrical performance can be described as a gateway into different ways of viewing reality— not just actors pretending to be characters, but invisible and incarnate life shaping the now.
Once upon a time, I was a die-hard theatre devotee. In fact, for nearly a decade, the study of acting and the drive to master performance art was the central focus of my life. I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from California State University Northridge then, despite meager circumstances, managed to matriculate to Michigan State University on a Graduate Assistantship, where I acquired a Master of Fine Arts degree in Acting. For awhile, I performed in summer stock, regional and repertory theaters, eventually landing the role of Julia in the Detroit Repertory Theatre’s racially integrated performance of A Delicate Balance.
The Detroit Rep was populated by a fierce group that produced challenging theatre for adult audiences. Located in the heart of what would now be called a “socially disadvantaged neighborhood,” most mainstreamers stayed away. Nevertheless, I was impressed by the strong number of loyal season ticket holders and donors who flocked to attend performances and support the theatre, which operated on the notion that diversity can operate in unity—not a popular notion with in Detroit at the time. This was the type of theatre that blossomed in an alley and brought diverse cultures together, united in our humanity.
After the closing of Delicate Balance, I decided to bow out of theatre practice. It wasn’t a difficult decision; in fact, I felt as though I’d reached the end of an important relationship and was ready to exit gracefully. Acting was a glorious experience, and I cannot overemphasize how the skill-sets one develops as a performer can be used in every phase of life; however, my time had come to explore other pursuits.
Fast forward thirty-five years. Recently, a friend of mine began working for Sarasota’s Asolo Repertory Theatre. Her joy and excitement for the place was contagious, so I decided to visit and tour the premises. My friend was right; Asolo Rep is an exciting venue—an elegant, theatrical oasis of the highest caliber, yet astoundingly welcoming and accessible. Like many Sarasota residents, I was familiar with this theatre’s intriguing name, but I had no idea where its origins stemmed from.
As it happens, the original Historic Asolo Theater (built during the 18th century) was located in a castle near Venice, Italy. The structure was dismantled and eventually purchased by the State of Florida as an acquisition for the Ringling Museum of Art, and is presently located inside the Ringling Museum Visitors Pavilion. The Historic Asolo Theatre has been meticulously reconstructed to incorporate the original architecture into a modern facility for staging contemporary theatrical performances. The graceful jewel box-shaped edifice is now used by Asolo Rep for one production each season; however, most productions take place at the larger mainstage Mertz Theatre across the street.
The Mertz is a stunning 500-seat proscenium theatre, built in the early 20th century as an opera house in Dunfermline, Scotland. The theatre was purchased by Asolo Rep in the mid-1980s, and is now the central performing venue for Asolo Rep productions. In addition, the Mertz is located adjacent to the Ringling Visitors Pavilion—a gateway to the entire Ringling experience including the Historic Asolo, Circus Museum, Bayfront Gardens, Ca’d’zan (John and Mabel Ringling’s mansion on the bay), the Ringling Museum of Art and an Education Center. This composite grouping of the theatres and Ringling grounds is both overwhelming in inspirational grandeur and an engaging experiential nature.
I am ashamed to admit that, during the several years I’ve lived near Sarasota, I had not previously attended these theatres or toured the Ringling grounds. Sometimes, as residents, we fail to enjoy the sites that are most special about our surroundings, but I will not continue making this mistake. In fact, I encourage every reader who seeks inspiration and loves beauty not to let the approaching year pass without visiting the Ringling and experiencing a theatrical performance at Asolo Rep.
The 2015-2016 season will be rich and extensive, offering a multitude of performance selections by Asolo Rep—a world-class theatre company that performs in true repertory rotation and represents one of 71 member theatres in the League of Resident Theatres (LORT). This season will also showcase a series of plays produced by the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, a renowned three-year MFA program. The sheer volume and scheduling of these available offerings exceeds the scope of what can be listed here, so I am opting instead for a partial illustration.
During the past four years, Asolo Rep has developed an undertaking titled, The American Character Project, featuring annually rotating thematic insights into American lives and experiences. This season, the overarching subject matter will focus on Times of Change which examines American cultural and religious values in a rapidly changing world. The theatre’s producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards writes how this effort as captures “diverse groups of people, as well as the country itself, in moments of deep fundamental change,” while at the same time, realizing that social and cultural change can be difficult which, therefore, requires “an empathetic expansion of spirit and mind.”
In keeping with this exploration of cultural change through the theatrical medium, a new series of performances and discussions titled IllumiNation is forthcoming and will feature plays that examine “race, religion, identity and cultural intersection in ways that are uniquely American.” West Side Story, All the Way, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, Disgraced and Josephine have been chosen to promote cross-cultural conversations and “elevate our shared experiences.” At Asolo Rep, the examination of cultural and religious diversity through our core humanity remains front and center.
“It seems that just the visible presence of a social context creates in individuals the need to be at one with it and, thereby, with each other. And, where is ‘social context’ ever more visibly present than in that veritable scale of social order, a theatre auditorium?”
David Cole, The Theatrical Event
As a complement to the IllumiNation performance series, Asolo Rep has integrated several interesting free or low-cost events to provide opportunities for audience participation through insightful interaction. Post-performance discussions, opportunities for direct interface with production staff and an annual community-based documentary theatre piece, Faces of Change (in this case inspired by the production of Disgraced), will explore cultural and religious performance themes sparked by the production.
Powerful theatrical performances often move audience members to conversation about what they have seen and heard. For those who desire to participate, these complementary events take audience members beyond the role of spectator and provide a variety of forums to express their ideas and feelings. This allows the community a to strengthen and move its awareness forward, thereby expanding the context for IllumiNation. However, the IllumiNation Series is only one numerous world-class events presented throughout Asolo Rep’s 2015-2016 season. For those who have yet to discover everything Asolo Rep has to offer—that’s reason enough to visit this truly magical environment.
Asolo Repertory Theatre is located at 5555 N Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information, call 941-351-8000, 800-361-8388 or visit AsoloRep.org.