“When you come in to see a show, it’s almost like you’ve seen a festival that’s been stretched out over the course of eight months. You walk away from it with this encyclopedia of really interesting things that you’ve experienced,” says Elizabeth Doud of The Ringling’s Art of Performance Program at the Historic Asolo Theatre. “Our season typically runs from October through April and features a diverse mix of 11 to 12 shows. While there are threads that connect them, they’re purposefully not all thematically connected–I don’t know if that would serve our generationally and culturally diverse community.” 

Photo 1

Cultivating such an environment, for some, would be a tall ask. But for Doud, The Ringling’s Connie-Kuhlman Curator of Performance, it’s just another day in the office. Since stepping into the role in 2019, she has become the driving force behind the biggest oxymoron in the Sarasota art scene. For in a region as densely saturated with theatrical programming as the Gulf Coast, the bowels of an 18th century Italian opera house would be the last place one would expect to find some of the most avant-garde, cutting-edge acts of the performing arts. Yet here they congregate, from Brazilian dance troupes to experimental theater companies to contemporary jazz musicians, to perform in the reconstructed remains of a 224-year-old relic. Operating in the shadow of the city’s most prestigious arts organization, the Historic Asolo Theatre—now dubbed the HAT—has become the little theater that could, a pivotal piece of the Sarasota arts ecosystem.

Photo 2

How? Programming—specifically through the Art of Performance series. “My methodology as a curator or programmer is always to first look at the local arts ecology and think about offering something that isn’t currently being offered, so that we are filling a niche that isn’t currently occupied because there’s so many other thriving arts organizations here that are doing excellent work,” says Doud. “For example,  Asolo Repertory Theatre is right across the street. They do very high quality repertory theater and musical theater. We wouldn’t try and reproduce that because we already have a neighbor that’s doing that really well. The same can be said for the Opera and a lot of other organizations all doing excellent work with classical, orchestral music. Trying to replicate that probably isn’t the best move for us.”

Photo 3

The Historic Asolo Theatre’s ability to fill that niche was the result of a pivotal decision made by The Ringling in 2017, when the organization decided to end the run of the renowned annual Ringling International Arts Festival (RIAF), reframing its approach to the performing arts. Instead of hosting up to 11 various productions over three days in October, the organization opted to spread out its presentation of international, contemporary, and unique acts over an entire year—deepening its relationships with the artists and granting more time for audience members to experience each performance. “In the spirit of the Ringling International Arts Festival, which was such a breath of fresh air and brought in some very high quality, unique, artists on the vanguard, we’ve wanted to continue to bring in artists that are a little more experimental and international in scope,” says Doud. “I think we’re one of the few presenters in the city that are bringing this many international artists. About 65% of this season is going to feature artists from outside of the United States.” 

Photo 4

Restructuring the Art of Performance series over the calendar year also allowed The Ringling to provide further community engagement for its audience. Workshops, classes, and lectures with visiting artists have now become commonplace, built into the contracts of the visiting artists. “While RIAF was this spectacular, intense, multidisciplinary festival, it didn’t lend itself toward community engagement. In a festival environment, it’s actually really hard to carve out the time that you need to do a class or to organize student groups,” says Doud. “Now, when we have artists come to Sarasota, we ask them to come in a couple days early so they have time to do their technical setup in addition to providing some kind of interactive program with our community – whether it’s a workshop, a masterclass, an artist talk, or a visit to a local school. We negotiate that into the contract so that the artists get paid for their time, but we can offer it to the community for free. It’s one of my favorite things that we do.”  Historic Asolo Theatre at The Ringling Museum, 5401 Bay Shore Rd, Sarasota, 941- 360-7399, ringling.org/historic-asolo-theater.