In May 2016, Sarasota’s oldest community theater,  The Players Theatre, made a shocking announcement—it would be leaving its storied location off South Tamiami Trail and adopting a new moniker. The Players Centre for Performing Arts would soon be located in Schroeder Manatee Ranch’s new Waterside Development in Lakewood Ranch, and house a 480-seat main stage auditorium, a 125-seat black box, a 100-seat cabaret and the main campus for the Players’ studio program. At near 90 years old, it seemed a bit late for youthful rebellion, but the intervening two and a half years brought little outward movement and more than a little internal upheaval, with the sudden departure of then-Executive Director Michelle Bianchi—a key figure in the move—in 2018. But with the theater selling its location this past October and strange rumblings in Lakewood Ranch, SRQ checked in with Players Artistic Director Jeffery Kin and newly arrived Advancement Director Morgan Gerhart on the state of the stage.

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First of all, we’re still in the old theater all season? Jeffery Kin  Correct. This year, all the way through the summer, for sure. Likely, we’re going to be here another year as well. 

Why is this the time to move?  Morgan Gerhart  We have a parking problem. Kin  Yes, and air conditioning and plumbing. And if you don’t have a place for people to park, and people can’t get to you, then you’re doing a disservice to your clientele. Gerhart  The structure’s been here since 1974, parts of it. How do you replace that aging infrastructure? What would that look like? What would be the cost? Kin  It’s everything that happens in a building that was built in the 70s. We have to look at the community and serving the community as best we can. You can’t do it when you’re stagnant. Sometimes you have to make bold moves.

Was there pushback?  Kin  There was a little bit. But we’re doing what’s best for the organization, so that we know that the Players Centre is going to be around for another 100 years. It won’t happen in this location. Guaranteed. The facts are this lot and this space aren’t good enough for us. It was great for a while. It’s not great now. At some point, we have to be smart business people too.

How do you start a process like this?  Gerhart   In order to make that happen properly and to build a theater the best possible way, Jeffery, [Board Member] Donna [DeFant] and Michelle [Bianchi]—the key people—went out and met with other theaters that had just built and gone through that process. They found out what worked, what didn’t work, who should you use, who should you not use—all the ins and outs of building a theater.

Why Lakewood Ranch?   Gerhart  It was a chance conversation with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, and they offered the land. That started the ball rolling as to building a new theater, and expanding the reach to be a performing arts center, so that it could partner with other organizations and collaborate and draw from the northern part of the community, southern part of the community, and farther afield. Kin  They really don’t have arts organizations that have been able to get out there and to either build a space or ingratiate themselves into the community. That’s what we’re doing now. We’re getting to know them; they’re getting to know us.

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Were there concerns about the distance?   Kin  We are still in the very same county that we were grown up and raised in. We just had to make a change. We want to be able to engage as many people as possible. The I-75 corridor, from a business perspective, makes sense.  Gerhart Everybody’s saying Lakewood Ranch, which it is, but it’s the Sarasota side of Lakewood Ranch. It’s Fruitville, just east of 75. People have this impression that it’s way far away, and it’s not. It’s more accessible to more people. So if you’re right off of 75, you can draw from so much farther because of that ease of accessibility. 

Are you thinking it’s going to be a bigger audience? A different audience?  Kin  It’s going to be a combination. There are going to be the people who have been with us for years and they’re going to follow us and join us and be a part of that ribbon-cutting. They want to see us succeed. They understand us. They know the problems that we’re having. They see our frustrations.

Was there a feasibility study? Gerhart  That was part of our brand audit. We met with and talked to community people, supporters, donors, ticket holders, staff, people in the arts around us, to just see where the Players stood in the community.

According to the study, where is audience support coming from?  Gerhart    We were kind of surprised by that. 2.6% from barrier islands; 28.5% come from I-75 corridor (LWR to south Sarasota); 47.5% from Whitfield, Central and East Sarasota; and 21.4% are tourists.

Will this move affect programming, in terms of style and sensibility?   Kin   We may find that it shakes up a little bit. We’re going to know that as we grow and get out there and listen to our clientele. Our Broadway series, our summer programming—those will all stay intact. There will be things that likely we won’t do anymore. 

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Programming may scale back?   Kin    We’ve had to produce a lot of things in the course of a month to pay the bills. We produce more than any other local theater. It wears and tears on you. My expectation is, as we grow to three performance spaces, we will engage more creative arts teams. We will probably, as an organization, produce less. We want to make sure there’s room for the opera. We want to make sure there’s room for the ballet. We want to make sure there’s room for these choral groups and for the symphony. We want to be the community resource.

The Arnold Simonsen Players Studio in the Rosemary District is going to stay where it is, however. Was that always part of the plan?   Gerhart    Yes. Our benefactor, Arnold Simonsen, that’s one of his key focuses—the education for the students, the kids and the adults. And that is still going to be a strong focus.

Will it eventually move to Lakewood Ranch, once the center is fully up and running?   Gerhart  We have a 15-year lease [downtown], so we’re here for that time period. Now, if needs change or something happens in the future, who knows? Right now, it’s to serve kids in the area and families that really need it.  

The rollout was a little confusing to some people. Did someone jump the gun? Did something change midstream?    Kin   No, actually everything is going almost exactly the way we planned. These things take time. You just have to go with the flow. We’re moving and there are things that are going to come up and change. The first buyer, at the last minute decided he didn’t want to jump through some of the hoops that he said he was going to jump through. Luckily, there was a secondary buyer. 

What is the timeline now?    Kin    The main change from the first buyer to the second buyer was the first buyer had dates, and basically said, “I’m going to buy your property, and then you will have a year to clear out.” The second buyer felt it was going to take him at least two years. So we have two years, and that puts us out of the building in September of 2020. All likelihood of having our new building up and running by then is slim. And in a kind gesture, [the second buyer] alluded to the fact that, if we needed a little bit more time, that he might consider doing a month-to-month lease with us.

Has that uncertainty affected the ticket sales and subscriptions?    Kin    It has, absolutely. There are people that still call us and say, “Are you in the new building yet?” And it’s understandable. We started this process two and a half years ago. We announced our name change, so some people just assumed that we’re already in our new building.

Sometimes change takes time, right?    Kin  Sometimes change is good. Sometimes change is challenging. Sometimes change forces you to stop and really look at who you are as an organization and put yourself back on track. That’s what we’ve been doing over the summer. 

What have you found? Kin I found that our Players’ family is smart. They’re resilient. They’re incredibly caring. We have a strong board. We have an amazing staff. We are prepped and ready and very strategically aligned with what our future needs to be.