Urbanite Capitalizes on Culture

Entrepreneur

BY JACOB OGLES SRQ DAILY FRIDAY WEEKEND EDITION FRIDAY FEB 2, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is the last in a five-part series on winners of SRQ magazine’s 2018 Localpreneurs of the Year.

What’s it take for a nonprofit to win a business award? For one, by becoming an institution in a community already brimming with successful theater companies. That helped land Urbanite Theatre founders Brendan Ragan and Summer Dawn Wallace on the inaugural list of winners for SRQ Media Group’s Localpreneurs of the Year award. Ragan and Wallce took special pride in winning as leaders of a cultural institution. “Sometimes this is about art, but it’s also the theater business,” Wallace says. Ragan agreed: “It means people appreciate something we are doing beyond just making money.”

The Downtown Sarasota theater employs four full-time employees but also provides work for about 40 contract workers who come in to work on projects throughout the year. The studio also hosts a team of interns.

The black box theater specializes in small, experimental and provocative productions, such as its current production of Northside Hollow, which opened last weekend and runs through March 11. The productions by nature reach a less broad market and as a result the tickets become significantly more affordable than a touring Broadway show; the theater will sell a bundled package with tickets to its three shows in the winter-spring series for $87.

But the theater quickly established itself as an institution in the region. Wallace and Ragan, both graduates of the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training, only kicked off renovation and construction at Urbanite in late 2014.

But perhaps counterintuitively, Ragan believes Urbanite thrived because of all the existing cultural venues in Sarasota, not in spite of them. Yes, it’s a crowded marketplace, but the presence of legacy stages means a community that gravitated to Sarasota for a love of the arts. “The professional theaters in Sarasota are more or less accidentally responsible for all our success,” he says. “Because they all have developed such passionate audiences, and because they do a certain style of work, that opened up a niche for us.” That’s ultimately why Ragan and Wallace, who have connections in New York City and other communities, decided to open a box office here. Better to found a black box theater in a community of theater-goers than somewhere with no regard for drama, Ragan says.

Beyond that, the theater also employs some 21st-century best practices. There are no paper tickets or physical programs for shows, helping the venue save thousands in paper and ink each year. Beyond that, like many entrepreneurs, the Urbanite founders survived on a share of hutzpah. In the entry for the Localpreneur award, Wallace and Ragan explain: “We felt the area needed a theater producing contemporary, provocative material in a black box space. We weren’t sure if Sarasota agreed with us. It turns out, we actually underestimated how much hunger for this kind of work there was.”

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