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What I Learned in Sarasota

By Rick Pender · May 13th, 2009 · Curtain Call
Sometimes it’s good to go away to get a little perspective. Two weeks ago, I attended the annual conference of the American Theatre Critics Association (ATCA). We gathered in Sarasota, Fla., a city that was new to me. I’ll go back another time for theater in particular and arts and culture in general.

A dark thread ran through this conference, since many ATCA members are victims of a sea change in journalism that’s diminishing arts coverage by newspapers. Some full-time critics have retired or taken buyouts or been moved to assignments that don’t include the arts. Others have seen steady work as freelancers evaporate. At the same time, opportunities on the Web — blogs and other arts-related sites — have proliferated. Many veteran critics are still trying to figure out how to move forward.

Despite those challenges, the 50 of us who gathered in Sarasota were reminded of the essence of what we value: well-staged intriguing scripts. I value these trips because they help me to better gauge the theater I see in Cincinnati.

For instance, Asolo Repertory Theatre is an impressive regional theater, comparable to the Cincinnati Playhouse. Asolo began in 1959, the Playhouse in 1960. Asolo’s performance model differs — they’re just about the last major theater in the U.S.

to present a season in repertory, that is with a set of productions that open and remain on view for extended periods, changing from day to day — but the quality of their productions, somewhat more classical, is at a high professional level.

On three different occasions (but on the same stage) we saw Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple and Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, plus Jeffrey Hatcher’s Murderers (which the Playhouse staged at the Shelterhouse in 2007). I especially liked the Shakespeare, a production that contrasted the dark, gloomy world of Sicily, perhaps in the repressed 1950s, with the hippy-dippy locale of Bohemia, replete with Rock tunes and psychedelic costumes from the 1960s. Asolo transformed a seldom-staged work into one that made sense to modern audiences.

We saw several shows at Florida Studio Theatre, “Sarasota’s Contemporary Theatre,” now in its 35th season. FST would remind Cincinnatians of a multi-stage version of Ensemble Theatre; ETC’s productions of I Am My Own Wife and Souvenir, in fact, have moved to the Sarasota company’s stages. But FST is broader in its programming: It devotes a stage to cabaret and political satire and runs an ambitious outreach program, “Under Six,” which recruits and refines brief scripts from kids ages 5-12 and gives them professional staging for school groups. We also saw David Harrower’s provocative Blackbird (recently presented at the Cincinnati Playhouse) and a newer work, Black Pearl Sings! by Frank Higgins.

The latter is a two-woman show set in the 1930s about a Folk music researcher and her relationship with a woman descended from slaves who knows songs from previous generations (pictured). The moving script is the kind of show we see routinely at ETC.

When I find a show like this, I come back to Cincinnati and spread the news: Black Pearl Sings! is a script that would connect with local audiences. That’s what I learned in Sarasota.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: rpender@citybeat.com



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