Five Theatres: A Case for Diversity

I am often asked, “what in the world prompted you to build five theatres!?!”

My answer is simple: I did not set out to build five theatres. It just happened. And here is how it happened, and why.

We started the ‘resident operation’ in 1980. Before that, FST was a touring theatre for six years. When we produced that first resident season our goal was “to explore all that is good and true and honest in the American contemporary theatre. “

The first five years we focused on the challenging work of David Mamet, Christopher Durang, Lanford Wilson and other living writers of the day. And then one evening, while watching a riveting FST production of Sam Shepard’s True West, I had an epiphany. I noticed that a young couple, probably in their mid ‘30s, was not fully engaged in the play. The play wasn’t grabbing them. And that didn’t make sense. They were the right age and the right demographic for this play. They were supposed to love it, and that set me on a course of exploring my audience.

I was not just exploring the people who were already in the FST audience, but those who were not attending. I began to study the audience, and I soon found out that the plays we were producing had limited appeal. (We had about 2,500 subscribers). I also found out that I wanted to play to a larger audience. I wanted my theatre to speak to a broader audience. I wanted theatre to be accessible and affordable to as many people as possible. I wanted FST to speak to a more diverse audience. I was tired of preaching to the choir.

So the next season we produced our first musical, and we attracted a broader audience. That broader audience led to a broader selection of plays aimed at an increasingly diverse audience, and thus began an evolution that continues to this day. The theatre was evolving to include a wider and wider audience. And the plays were evolving to include a wider and wider view of our society and the world. This experience proved to me that a dialogue with the audience, an artistic back and forth, leads to a better theatre. And better theatre leads to a wider audience.

It is interesting to me that all through my college years my course of study was liberal arts, and more specifically theatre arts. But in all that study of art, there was never a course of study on the audience. (Not unlike a doctor studying medicine but never studying the patient.) Which is odd when you consider that it is a ‘performing art’ not a ‘rehearsal art.’

It is easy for artists to forget the audience, which I think makes it easy for artists to slip into producing art for art’s sake, rather than art for the audience’s sake.

Today, we at Florida Studio Theatre, aim to “create the uncreated conscience of the race” in order to reach the broadest possible audience with the distinction that we produce theatre that the audience ‘needs,’ and not theatre that the audience ‘wants.’ Producing theatre that the audience ‘wants’ leads to pandering to the audience and producing pabulum. Producing theatre that the audience ‘needs’ leads to producing theatre of meaning and value.

But to backtrack once more: In 1996 we opened our second theatre. It was a cabaret that is now named the Goldstein Cabaret. We thought it would be a good “gateway theatre”– a way to attract people to the theatre who don’t normally attend the theatre by producing entertainment that can rise to the ranks of art. We also thought it would free us artistically. And indeed the cabaret fulfilled that promise.

People who were marginal theatre goers became rabid cabaret fans and would frequently switch over to the Keating Mainstage Theatre as they became more versed in the many styles of theatre and more interested in a variety of theatre experiences. But, to our surprise, it worked the opposite way as well: Those people who were attending the ‘meaty plays’ on the Mainstage soon found the Cabaret theatre a vibrant theatre to attend to hear the contemporary voices of the lyric poets of our day.

And thus, both the Mainstage and the Cabaret programs grew. They grew so much that we added the Gompertz Theatre to our roster. And when we renovated, we added a second cabaret, the Court Cabaret.

Today, the Mainstage plays to over 13,000 subscribers for every show, and the Cabaret Theatres play to over 12,500 subscribers for every show.

While all of this was occurring, we made sure to remember the children. In the early ‘90s we designed and launched the WRITE A PLAY program for youth. This was one of the first programs of its kind in the United States to encourage youngsters to write plays, then to hold a festival of plays that they wrote and perform them for their peers. Today, we receive nearly 5,000 plays annually from children throughout Sarasota and through our ‘sister city’ connections in Israel, Scotland and Russia. It has become an international festival that produces some of the most imaginative new plays for youth in the country. Today we reach roughly 50,000 children every year. Most of them in Sarasota and Manatee counties.

By the early 2000s we added Improv to the mix to pursue the theatre of current events and attract the young/hip audience and the audience that is young-and-hip-at-heart. It’s been growing ever since with the Sarasota Improv Festival, becoming one of the largest most successful improv festivals in the nation.

So it was only natural that last year, in our quest to serve as many people as possible we re-launched the cutting edge Stage III program. This series is dedicated to producing plays that challenge with passion and attract the adventurous theatre goer. The plays are produced in Bowne’s Lab, the most intimate of our theatres and it is here that the emotional wallop of the new and often in your face theatre is deeply experienced.

And at the same time, while we were re-launching the Stage III Series, we launched the Saturday Children’s Series to create a place where children (and their parents and grandparents) could find theatre for youth every Saturday morning at FST. Both of these programs continue to grow today.

Our goal has evolved into a village of theatres that meet the needs of the diverse population found in Sarasota. And our productions over the past twenty years have become increasingly diverse in race, ethnicity and thought. Our goal is to put the world on the stage, and our hope is that as a result we will find the world in our audience.

And we have been kindly rewarded. As our play selection has broadened and become more diverse, so has our audience. Today, we play to the largest audience in the state of Florida and one of the largest in the nation.

Diversity in the theatre is good. We learn from each other and we grow together. And thus, FST becomes the ‘melting pot of our national culture.’ A place where the meaningful plays and musicals of our day are performed and a place where we can meet our brothers and sisters and shake hands with those who seem different. Then we come to the reckoning that we all belong together. So it makes sense that it takes five diverse theatres to meet the diverse needs of an ever-expanding, ever-changing audience.

Richard Signature.png

Richard Hopkins
Producing Artistic Director


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