For Dialogues on Diversity, the play is just the starting point. Florida Studio Theatre’s annual forum series, Dialogues on Diversity, has been asking the big questions and bringing the community into the conversation. Beginning with January’s production of Stalking the Bogeyman, telling the true story of a victim of child rape confronting questions of vengeance and justice at the reappearance of his attacker, and with five additional plays in the program, including Grounded (currently onstage) and the upcoming The Exonerated, each has sought to address critical social issues of the time, from race to aging to a flawed criminal justice system.

“It’s necessary to our community that we have a place where we can speak about the issues currently affecting all of us,” says Dialogues on Diversity Forums Director Kate Alexander, who, while Artistic Director Richard Hopkins slates the plays for production, works with a steering committee of local leaders to organize an array of opportunities for the audience at large to engage with artists, local organizations and each other to discuss what they’ve all just seen together. From post-show discussion with the cast and special guests to organized panel discussions and Q&As with local, regional and national experts, Dialogues on Diversity brings out the power of theater and turns it into something more. “The play brings everything forward in a very personal and deep way,” says Alexander, “yet the forums allow organizations to link up with the theater and use the theater as a pulpit for ideas that are in tandem with the ideas of the play.” With regards to this month’s production of The Exonerated and the accompanying forum discussions, guests include local advocate and public defender Larry Eger, representatives from the Innocence Project of Florida, a death row minister and even actual exonerees. For those who cannot attend in person but want to join the conversation, online forums for remote participation feature panelists no less impressive, including Pulitzer Prize-winner Gilbert King and the head of the NAACP, Cornell Brooks.

But Dialogues on Diversity is also about more than just talk, according to Bradenton’s 12th Circuit Chief Judge Charles E. Williams, who returns to the series not only as a member of the steering committee but also as a continuing participant in the forums. “In addition to offering an opportunity to speak about issues such as gun violence, crime, racism, sexism and other matters, I hope it will inspire people to take action,” he says. As a panel member for the many discussions that surrounded Kimber Lee’s Brownsville song (b-side for tray), the story of the shooting of a straight-laced young black man in a violent neighborhood and a family picking up the pieces, gun violence and gun control were hot topics. And timely too, says Williams: “Sarasota’s not Chicago, but we still have some of the same issues when it comes to gun violence.” Not everyone on the panel or in the audience always agrees with one another, but that’s what fruitful conversation often looks like. Most importantly, it can’t stop there. “To make real change, dialogue is the first step in the process,” says Williams. “Organization is the second step and action is the third step, but the first thing we have to do is talk about what the issues are.” And as the dialogues continue to unite like-minded individuals, organizations link up, initiatives bloom and volunteer and donor bases swell. “At some point,” he says, “it will lead to action and lead to change.”

“The play becomes a catalyst,” says Florida Studio Theatre Artistic Director Richard Hopkins. “[Dialogues on Diversity] takes the ideas in any singular play and spreads it throughout different institutions in the community.” And as the forum series grows year to year, so does community involvement. This year, more than 40 organizations took part in one way or another, including nonprofits like The Links and activist groups like Black Lives Matter. In addition, the entire Sarasota Ministerial Association joined the discussion this year, says Hopkins: “So these issues that the plays deal with will be preached from the pulpits of churches, synagogues and temples throughout Sarasota.” Of course, FST could never tell a religious leader what to preach, but they can invite them into the conversation.

In short, what Hopkins, Alexander, Williams and others hope to create through Dialogues on Diversity are “active ideas”—notions that go beyond the intellectual and hypothetical and through a critical mass of participatory conversation cannot help but manifest through action. “It gives the play a lot more resonance,” says Hopkins, “and brings home the importance of art in general.”