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. Here is how it happened and why…

We started the “resident operation” of FST in 1980. Before that, FST was an alternative touring theatre.

The first five years we focused on producing challenging contemporary theatre. And then one evening, while watching a riveting 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.

Playwright Sam Shepard.

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. Not just exploring the people who were already involved in the FST audience, but the people who were not attending. I soon found out that the plays we were producing had limited appeal.

I also found that I wanted my theatre to speak to a broader and more diverse audience. I wanted theatre to be accessible and affordable to as many people as possible. I was tired of preaching to the choir. I didn’t want to become an “elitist theatre.” I wanted to walk in the shoes of Shakespeare, who wrote plays for the rich and the poor. Because great plays explore the essence of life and what it means to be alive through comedy and tragedy.

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.

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 the course of study was liberal arts and more specifically theatre arts. But in all of 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.’

Today we at Florida Studio Theatre aim to “create the uncreated conscience of the race,” with the distinction that we produce theatre that the audience “needs” 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.

In 1991, we opened our second theatre, now known as the Goldstein Cabaret. We thought it would be a good gateway theatre – a way to attract people who don’t normally attend the theatre by producing entertainment that rises to the ranks of art. We also thought it would free us artistically. And, indeed, the Cabaret fulfilled that promise.

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FST’s Goldstein Cabaret. Photo by Sarah Haley.

People who were marginal theatre goers became rabid Cabaret fans, and would frequently switch over to the Mainstage as they became 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 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 13,500 subscribers for every show, and the Cabaret Theatres play to over 14,000 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 U.S. to encourage youngsters to write plays, then to hold a festival of plays that they wrote and perform them for youth to watch with their peers.

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FST Acting Apprentices bring award-winning plays written by young playwright to life every year. Photo by Matthew Holler.

Today, we receive nearly 5,000 plays annually from children throughout Sarasota and as far as Israel, Scotland, and Russia and serve roughly 45,000 children every year.

By the early 2000s, we added Improv to the mix to pursue the theatre of current events and attract the young/hip audience (along with 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.

Cedric Cannon and Sam Mossler in FST’s Stage III production of How to Use a Knife. Photo by Matthew Holler.

It was only natural that in 2016, 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 our Bowne’s Lab, the most intimate of our theatres, so audiences experience the emotional wallop of new and often in-your-face theatre is deeply experienced.

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

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

This quest to better understand and serve our audience has manifested into a village of theatres, allowing FST to meet the diverse needs of the diverse Sarasota/Manatee population. 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.