Downtown’s Urbanite Theatre presents the regional premiere of a play called Breadcrumbs this month—but despite some initial fears, the fledgling company, just 17 months old, has not had to leave a trail of breadcrumbs for audience members to find their way to their doors.
Since opening in April 2015 with the area premiere of Anna Jordan’s challenging play dealing with sex trafficking, Chicken Shop, Urbanite has had one sold-out run after another. And while that may have been the hope of co-founders and co-artistic directors Brendan Ragan and Summer Dawn Wallace (along with fellow founder Harry Lipstein), the pair, both graduates of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory of Actor Training, admit they never expected so much success, so fast.
“We’ve been blown away by the loyalty and support” of area theater lovers, says Wallace. “It’s been incredibly rewarding to gain our patrons’ trust in this first year.”
Not that Urbanite was born on nothing more than a gamble. Ragan and Wallace did their homework, starting with serious discussions about the type of theater they wanted to do, and where they wanted to do it, back in February 2014. Creating a mission statement, setting up nonprofit status, and talking with just about everyone they met to drum up financial and logistical support took months, but they had a head start thanks to their knowledge of the community and relationships with theater professionals and fans stemming from their conservatory days.
“We had a great opportunity for 14 months before we opened to get the word out about the type of work we were going to do,” says Ragan. That type of work, in the small—60 seats or so—black box theater space on Second Street has proven to be new plays by rising artists, often starring fellow conservatory grads (Ragan and Wallace have both appeared in productions, as well as directing), along with established area theater professionals and a few newcomers.
“I don’t think we ever want to do plays that have been done in Sarasota before,” says Ragan. “We’re always looking for new plays, with stories we’re good at telling.”
“We read a lot, get a lot of submissions, look at other theaters around the country producing new works, check out play festivals and reviews, and listen to suggestions from actors and patrons,” adds Wallace. That approach has led not only to sold-out, extended runs of shows like Isaac’s Eye by Lucas Hnath and Stupid F…ing Bird by Aaron Posner, but to excellent reviews and support from a wide range of audience members. Most donors are in the $100 or under category, although there are 30 or so “angels” whose donations are in the thousands.
With such a small organization and budget (a projected $385,000 for the coming fiscal year, up from around $219,000 in the inaugural season), Ragan says donors “can see you’ve helped something to exist, and that’s impactful.”
Urbanite has launched a fund-raising campaign with a goal of $350,000 by April 2017, to pay for a new warehouse/storage/scene shop/costume building, provide actor housing, create an endowment and address the issue that so far, even those working full-time at Urbanite, like Wallace and Ragan, don’t make a living wage. They still depend on other jobs—teaching, public relations and marketing, etc.—to help pay their bills.
But right now, the excitement of having achieved so much, so soon, keeps them going. “Sarasota is a unique city, with phenomenal arts support and a hunger for more,” says Ragan. “We felt that in such a passionate community, there was a very specific need not being filled. Now people ask us, ‘What will you do when you outgrow your space?’ We just signed a 10-year lease on the building, and we will always do work here.” Eventually, though, they envision another space expanding the Urbanite brand, along with playwriting fellowships and more theater education programs and workshops.
But the mission will remain the same—to become “a well-known place where new plays go to get life,” says Ragan. To that end, he says, they’re willing to “work as many hours as you can fit into your life without having a nervous breakdown.