Part of being the cultural hub of Florida’s Gulf Coast involves thinking about the future. For the arts organizations around Sarasota, the future doesn’t just mean the next show, production or performance. The future is more than just next year’s slate or the year after or even five years from now–the future is about educating the next generation of arts patrons and professionals. Children of the 21st century are surrounded by the media more than ever before. From social media to streaming services to good old fashioned cable television, curbing what your children ingest can be a nearly impossible task. What well-meaning parents can do, however, is point their children in the right direction by providing them with enriching experiences that are sure to stick with them in the future. Fortunately, parents in the area don’t have to look too far, for the very same performing arts institutions that they frequent by themselves offer similar opportunities for their children.

Organizations such as the Sarasota Opera, Sarasota Ballet and Florida Studio Theatre have dedicated themselves to bringing productions for kids—and oftentimes by kids—to their main stages. “We are an after-school performance program that focuses on giving the kids a professional experience within the opera world. The program is almost 40 years old; we began back in 1984,” says Maestro Jesse Martins, the Youth Opera Music Director at Sarasota Opera. Since its inception in 1984, the Sarasota Youth Opera has prided itself on being different—it is the only program in the country committed to not only presenting an annual full-scale opera production for young voices, but equally committed to accepting all potential participants regardless of skill level or ability to pay the tuition. 

The Youth Opera is a year-round program with three different semesters: fall, winter and summer. “The fall is our signature semester, which is dedicated to a fully professional production where the youth take all the roles,” says Martha Collins, Director of Education. “The production features a full professional orchestra and the same people that do the sets, costumes, wigs and production elements of the adult opera also work on the youth opera as well. In the winter, we focus more on doing concerts—Maestro works a lot more with them in repertoire in foreign languages, so they get a taste of what that is. In the summer, we have our camp with the goal there being to explore everything that goes into opera. They learn about props, costumes, wigs and makeup—they write their own little opera scenes and perform them too.”

While the Youth Opera specializes in educating and training children ages eight to 18 in the ways of the opera, the goal isn’t necessarily to produce the next generation of opera singers. “We are, of course, thrilled when we help create future opera singers. It’s something that we’ve done before,” says Collins. “However, our main goal is to build confidence and a sense of community so that the kids can understand what it means to be collaborators and work together on a team.” 

It’s one of the reasons why the program is so inviting to all who want to join. “Most programs that are performance based have an entry audition, but we do not. We will work with your level and then once you’re in the program, then there are audition only opportunities for those kids that either want to do a solo role or maybe they want to be in a children’s chorus on a main stage show like Carmen in this upcoming winter,” says Martins. “I think that’s another thing that makes us accessible to all, basically, to give it a try if they want to.”

“One of the sweetest things of the program is to see the little munchkins at age eight who might be shy and watch as their confidence builds and their confidence in their singing builds and their understanding of where they fit in the art form grows,” says Collins. “And then to see those kids taking the stage and being stars, that’s incredibly rewarding. Being able to watch them grow and feel that we have a part in the development of their confidence is a really important part of this to us.”

Just down the street, the Children’s Theatre Program at Florida Studio Theatre is also paving the way for future fans of the arts. FST’s Children’s Theatre Program looks to bring families into the theater in two different ways. The first, is through their Weekend Children’s Theatre Series–four productions that will air on the weekend throughout the entirety of the school year, designed to create a haven for families to experience the theater at an affordable price. The plays are professionally vetted and produced, just like any other play at FST, only this time they are geared solely toward a familial audience. “Going into this season, we’re trying to make our studio here a destination for families. I want every family in Sarasota to know that they can come almost every weekend of the school year—from September until May–and experience theater together as a family,” says Caroline Saldivar, Director of Children’s Theatre at Florida Studio Theatre. “It’s not just for children, not just for adults, it’s really for the whole family to come and have this special in-person experience together. It’s different than taking your kid to see a movie and different than watching Netflix on your couch–this is happening in this room just for you. Every time it’s brand new.”

The second way that FST looks to spread the love of theater to the next generation is through the schools. FST’s Write A Play, now in its 33rd year of operation, is a year-round arts integration program that reaches over 30,000 students annually across the state of Florida and even more nationally and internationally. The program is designed to do exactly what it says in its name: teach students how to write a play. Through supervision of teachers, students from across the country build their writing and storytelling skills through the medium of theater. The Write A Play program starts in September, when students can see the “example play”–either The Velveteen Rabbit via a field trip to FST or Red Riding Hood, which will tour through the schools. Next comes the second play, the one designed to inspire students to write their own original plays. “The Playmakers Tour will perform plays that have won the Young Playwrights Festival in the past for students aged kindergarten through sixth grade,” says Saldivar. “They will also act out the students’ dialogue and ideas on stage, before those same actors head into the classroom and  teach intro to playwriting. The students start by writing a group play and after we leave they work with a teacher to write their own play.” Students are then encouraged to submit their plays to FST’s annual Young Playwrights Festival, the winners of which will be performed by a cast of professional actors at the end of the year in the production The Power of Peanut Butter and Other Winning Plays

“We often recognize young people for athletic and academic achievement, but we can forget to recognize their artistic and creative achievements. Playwriting is a form of creativity that’s different from being a visual artist or being on the stage, this is something that happens in your mind and you record on the page,” says Saldivar. “I think that’s something that we need, we need more storytellers and these children are expert storytellers. We are creatures of story and they already at this young age have mastered this art form to the best of their abilities. It’s so important that we celebrate them and encourage them to continue to create stories that only they can imagine.”

The Sarasota Ballet also works tirelessly to grow the next generation of ballet dancers and enthusiasts in a multitude of ways. The first is through their educational programs: the Sarasota Ballet School, the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory, the Sarasota Ballet Studio Company and the company’s summer intensive courses. “Whether you’re a three-year-old who has never danced before or a 16-year-old with professional aspirations, we have real opportunities for anyone who’s interested in dance,” says Christopher Hird, Education Director at the Sarasota Ballet. “Our Ballet School is open to anyone from age three and above. We’ve tried to create a fun and creative environment for the students to learn safely and correctly. Ballet is using the body so we wanna make sure that it’s done safely. With that, all our faculty are certified in the American Ballet Theater national training curriculum, which I think makes us really unique.”

Above the Ballet School is the Margaret Barbieri Conservatory–an audition-based, pre-professional program offering elevated teaching and performance opportunities–and just above the Conservatory, the Sarasota Ballet’s esteemed Trainee Program. “At the age of 12, students can audition for the Conservatory, which goes until about age 20. Above that is our Trainee Program, from which we have students come from across the country because of the reputation of the program,” says Hird. “And then, each year students from the Trainee Program have the potential to move into the Sarasota Ballet Studio Company, which is sort of a bridge between student and professional life. We have a high percentage of Studio Company dancers that have come from our Trainee Program which is a really great thing because it shows that we’re training our dancers well–not only do we enable our students to get into the Sarasota Ballet Studio Company, but they also have graduated to performing with other ballet companies across the country.”

However, not all that the Sarasota Ballet does in the educational realm is about developing the next generation of elite ballet dancers. It’s also about using dance as a platform for personal and academic growth, across all age groups. That’s where the company’s community engagement initiative, Dance For All, comes into play. Dance For All houses the Ballet’s six different community engagement programs: Dance—The Next Generation (DNG), a tuition-free, dance education program that has been offered to underserved students across the area for more than thirty years, Silver Swans, a dance and movement program for dance enthusiasts 55 and over, Joyful Movement Through Parkinsons, Community Performances, In-school Performances and programs and Lectures, Tickets, and Tours–field trips for students from marginalized communities to explore ballet at little to no cost. “I like to say that this ballet company has such a soul,” says Doricha Sales, Community Engagement Program Director at Sarasota Ballet. “While the artists on stage are just incredible, I think the fact that the company has made community engagement such a big part of its mission is remarkable. I’ve always loved community engagement and programs like DNG, because every single week the children are going to be amazed by the magic of dance.”