Arts Capital - February 2011

By Charlie Huisking February 1, 2011

Too Close For Comfort?

Even the most congenial neighbors can get on each other’s nerves, and apparently that’s been happening to the Asolo Rep and the Sarasota Ballet.

The two institutions, tenants in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts for 14 years, have recently sparred over scheduling and other issues. The latest flashpoint was the ballet’s decision to move its box office into the lobby space formerly used for the Asolo Rep gift shop. Though the ballet was entitled to the space under its lease with FSU, some at the ballet felt the Asolo was dragging its feet. I’m told Michael Shelton, the ballet’s managing director, even attached a fake eviction notice to the gift shop gate.

Shelton wouldn’t confirm that, and he maintained he has a good relationship with his counterpart, Asolo managing director Linda DiGabriele. She downplays any problems, too: “The ballet and the Asolo are doing very well as colleagues in this facility,” she says. “The ballet leadership, and Michael Shelton in particular, are making a considerable effort to be collegial.”

This marriage was arranged in 1996, when the Asolo was in danger of shutting down. In return for getting performing and rehearsal space, the ballet gave more than $1 million to FSU, to wipe out debt it was owed by the Asolo.

Under the lease, the ballet gets 12 performance dates during the Asolo season. Working out that schedule has gotten more contentious since the hard-driving Shelton was hired by the ballet last year. “In the past, the ballet just sort of went along with whatever the Asolo proposed,” he says. “Now I’m asking more questions, and that has caused some tension. But it’s nothing dramatic. These are two high-caliber organizations who are naturally concerned about their best interests.” (DiGabriele says the scheduling was always a collaborative effort).

Ironically, the ballet would prefer to have fewer, not more performances at the Asolo. The stage is too narrow for most ballet productions, and the 480-seat capacity is too small. But with rental fees at the 1,700-seat Van Wezel too high for the ballet’s budget, and the 1,000-seat Sarasota Opera House offering few open dates, the company is in a box.

“If we can’t find alternatives to the Asolo, I really worry about the long-term future of the ballet,” Shelton says bluntly. “Right now, because the Asolo’s capacity is so small, we earn only 30 percent of our revenue from ticket sales [most arts groups strive for a 50-50 balance between earned and donated income]. Those numbers have to improve.”

Leading Man

Even though the Broadway-bound Bonnie and Clyde has closed, the Asolo still has a Broadway connection this season. The director of the Asolo’s just-opened drama Twelve Angry Men is Frank Galati, who won a Tony Award for a memorable production of The Grapes of Wrath. Galati, a genial man with a Santa Claus beard, also earned a Tony nomination for directing the musical Ragtime.

Both of those shows were sweeping epics with huge casts. Twelve Angry Men, by contrast, takes place in a cramped jury room. But Galati says this classic show is epic in its own way. “It’s actually a complicated story of these 12 men, their backgrounds and personalities, and how all of that affects their deliberations,” he says. “You experience numerous stories unfolding simultaneously. It’s really a cross-section of America, though, being set in 1956, this is a cross-section of white, male America. That’s part of the poignancy of it now.”

Galati spent much of his career in Chicago with the Steppenwolf and Goodman theaters. But he’s been aware of the Asolo since 1966, when he was a professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa and came to see Asolo productions. He and his partner bought a place here recently, so this could be the first of several Asolo shows he directs.


A Warren of Warrens

I’m not sure if the two Robert Warrens in the Sarasota arts community are getting each other’s mail. But they are getting confused with one another.

Robert Warren, the Van Wezel’s new director of education and community support, explained that he wasn’t “the other Robert Warren” when he introduced himself at a Van Wezel committee meeting recently.

The Van Wezel’s Robert Warren has a background in arts management, having worked at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., from 2001-09. Since moving to Sarasota, he was on the staff of Florida Studio Theatre briefly, and is chair of the group trying to create the new arts festival in Sarasota County.

The other Robert Warren, a financial consultant, is vice president of the Sarasota Film Festival board. He is also the founder of the Warren BackPack Program, which distributes nutritious meals to needy Sarasota County schoolchildren.

The Van Wezel’s Warren notes that some people have also confused him with Robert De Warren, the former Sarasota Ballet artistic director, who is back in the news with a new ballet program in Sarasota.

“And there’s a Robert Warren in Bradenton, too,” Warren says. “But he is incarcerated.”


Comings and Goings

When Suellen Field retired last August as senior development director at the Ringling Museum, they didn’t have to search for her successor. Field had groomed Amy Sankes to take over, and in fact, Sankes had the development director title before Field retired. But now, all the responsibilities of the job are hers.

 Sankes has been exposed to the arts all her life, having grown up in Jamestown, N.Y., home of the famed Chautauqua Institution. She and her husband traded snow for sand when they moved to Sarasota three years ago from Buffalo. But the arts attracted them as much as the weather. Running the recently expanded development department, she says, has made her excited about “moving Ringling to its next chapter.”



What a talented trio! Artistic director Nate Jacobs, executive director Christine Jennings and board president Howard Millman have transformed the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe from near extinction to the hottest troupe in town. The WBTT held not one but two gala opening parties at Michael’s on East in the fall, introducing the company to many new supporters. Subscriptions have doubled in the past year to 1,500, and the organization is performing in a comfortable new space at 1646 10th Way.

But Jennings says she will truly feel good when the organization increases its corporate support. “We’d love to have corporate sponsors for each show, as the Asolo and FST do,” she says. “We’re making a concerted effort now to attract that support.”

The WBTT season opened with a rousing production of Ain’t Misbehavin.’  The Prince of Soul, a Marvin Gaye tribute, is just concluding. Next up is the musical revue Five Guys Named Moe. Go see what all the buzz is about.


For more from Charlie Huisking, click here read his blog, Arts & Travel.

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