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A Regional Arts Leader

50 years in the making

February 8, 2024

This year, Florida Studio Theatre celebrates 50 years of delivering high-quality, professional theatre to all. Over the past half-century, we have remained steadfast in our mission of making theatre accessible and affordable to as many people as possible.

As a result, Florida Studio Theatre has grown to become one of the major cultural resources in Florida. Located in the heart of downtown Sarasota, we serve over 225,000 attendees a year through our diverse programs: Mainstage, Cabaret, Stage III, Children’s Theatre, Improv, New Play Development, and the FST School. Today, we are the largest subscription theatre in the Southeast, and one of the top subscription theatres in the nation. We produce shows 52 weeks a year with over 1,500 performances across our five stages, consistently playing to full-capacity audiences.

Sarasota Woman's Club (1915)

Putting Down Roots

FST was founded in 1973 by artist Jon Spelman as an alternative touring theatre group, performing for isolated and underserved audiences in places such as nursing homes, prisons, and on migrant farms. In 1977, FST found a home at 1241 N. Palm Avenue, the historic Sarasota Woman’s Club. The building was constructed in 1915, and by the late 1960s, it was destined for demolition. However, theatre patron Marian McKenna was determined to save the building from destruction and purchased the property, allowing FST to use the building. At first, the building was used primarily as a rehearsal hall, but all that would soon change with the arrival of Richard Hopkins.

Richard had been working with FST as a guest director and fell in love with the ramshackle old building and envisioned something more. When he was named Producing Artistic Director in 1980, he established FST as a resident theatre and founded FST’s Mainstage Series with a modest 106 subscribers. In 1985, FST was able to purchase the building from Marian McKenna for $140,000. When Richard asked Ms. McKenna why it was important to her that the building remain, she replied, “It is where I got my first kiss.” The Historic Woman’s Club has been a part of the cultural landscape of Sarasota for over 100 years. The Woman’s Club hosted dances in its ballroom. It was Sarasota's first library, and the Mayor's office. Today, this building is known as FST’s Keating Theatre and serves as the venue for both Mainstage and Children’s Theatre productions.

The first ten years of FST’s history were also some of the theatre’s most challenging. In those early days, resources were limited. The earliest version of the Keating Theatre was equipped with 72 folding chairs and tin cans for stage lights. Some of the earliest plays produced in that theatre included Seascape by Edward Albee, La Ronde by Arthur Schnitzler, and True West by Sam Shepard.

Simultaneously, FST’s education program was just beginning. In the early 1980s, there were very few arts programming options for children in Sarasota. FST recognized this need and the importance of arts education for youth development, responding in 1982 by launching the FST School, founded by Kate Alexander. Today, the FST School reaches over 1,000 children and adults each year through its professional method of theatre training.

Sharon Scott and Dan Stetzel in Hi-Hat-Hattie (1991)

Investing in the Future

In 1982, FST produced its first New Play Festival. From the beginning, FST has seen new plays as the creative life blood of the theatre. FST has remained steadfast in this commitment throughout its 50-year history, investing in the development of the best new plays of tomorrow by supporting today's top playwrights.

In 1991, FST premiered Hi-Hat-Hattie by Larry Parr, a drama about the first African American woman to win an Oscar. The play continues to be performed in theatres across the U.S.

FST also recognized that new plays were not just for adults. In the same year, 1991, FST launched its WRITE A PLAY program, an arts-in-education initiative that provides students with the example, inspiration, and skills to write their own original plays. Today, this award-winning program has impacted over one million youth across the state of Florida, as well as nationally in places like Camden, NJ, Memphis, TN, and Woodstock, IL, and internationally in countries such as Scotland and Israel. Now in its 33rd year, FST receives plays written by thousands of young playwrights annually through WRITE A PLAY.

1991 also marked the year that Dennis McGillicuddy became  the President of FST's Board of Trustees after joining the board in the 1980's. Under his leadership, the board has remained committed to its mission of strategic growth for the theatre.

Ground Breaking Goldstein Cabaret (1996)

The Birth of the Cabaret

For its first decade as a resident theatre, FST produced plays in its Keating Theatre and built its sets on the side lawn. The next step for growth was clear: the theatre needed a permanent scene shop. At the same time, FST was performing Cabaret entertainment for diners at the Paradise Café, located across the street from what is now the Selby Library. There, FST discovered a new audience in the popular downtown restaurant – an audience that wasn't yet coming to the theatre. In addition to a new audience, FST also found a revived sense of freedom in this work. Cabaret performance took the preciousness out of the creative process, allowing theatre artists to combine high entertainment value with great art. So, while planning to build a much-needed scene shop, FST added a Cabaret theatre to the construction plans, along with rehearsal halls. The result was The Cabaret Club, known today as the Goldstein Cabaret, which opened in 1996.

The first musical revue produced in this new space was Hot 'n' Cole, followed by My Castle's Rockin',  which featured a face that has become familiar to many loyal FST fans today: Jannie Jones, who has been in over 20 productions to date. FST launched the Cabaret as a multi-show series with a subscriber base of just over 3,000 people. Today, the Cabaret plays 52 weeks out of the year in the Goldstein and Court theatres to over 14,000 Winter Subscribers and 6,800 Summer Subscribers.

In addition, in 2001, Rebecca Hopkins, FST's Managing Director, launched FST improv which was performed in FST's Goldstein Cabaret.

Park-Seventh Movie House (1925)

The Need to Grow Again

Just two years later in 2003, FST found itself playing to capacity audiences yet again. Driven by space limitations and the need to serve a rapidly growing audience, FST acquired the newly named Gompertz Theatre on First Street. This space would allow FST to expand the work of its Mainstage Series. In 2005, FST reconnected with its roots by launching its Stage III Series with Edward Albee’s The Goat, or Who is Sylvia. This program is dedicated to presenting socially significant productions, stimulating attendees by presenting challenging content in unique forms. Featuring plays with grit, verve, and drive, Stage III brings provocative and experimental work to the Sarasota contemporary theatrical landscape.

Like the Keating Theatre, the Gompertz Theatre also has historical and cultural significance. The building was constructed in 1925 as a 600-seat silent movie house, known as the Park-Seventh Movie House.

Sadly, due to the Great Depression, the doors to the movie house were closed just a few years later in 1929. The building remained shuttered until 1950, when John Ringling’s nephew reopened the venue as Palm Tree Playhouse. The site has been used as a playhouse ever since. FST opened the Gompertz Theatre with a return engagement of Sophie Tucker: The Last of the Red Hot Mamas in 2004, a play developed at FST. In 2008, FST hosted the inaugural Sarasota Improv Festival, a two-day event that featured a dozen acts from across the country. This past summer, the 13th Sarasota Improv Festival was a three-day event with more than 20 of the world's top improv troupes.

Two years later, the Gompertz Theatre would house FST’s first production of Shear Madness. The show was a hit, and FST would go on to produce the theatrical phenomenon several more times due to high audience demand, including most recently as part of the 2023 Summer Mainstage Season.

Additionally in 2010, FST introduced the FST Forums, a community conversation series designed to delve into the themes presented in plays featured during FST's Winter Season. The series kicked off with David Mamet's Race. During each Forum event, FST assembles a panel of community experts representing diverse perspectives and invites the public to engage in deeper discussions about questions, topics, and ideas inspired by FST's productions. Over the years, FST Forums has explored themes from productions like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Wednesday’s Child, Network, and more. FST Forums played a pivotal role in establishing the foundation for the theatre’s Suffragist Project, a community-wide artistic centennial commemoration of the ratification of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote.

But it wasn’t long until FST ran out of seats…again.


Sheffield Chastain and Stephanie Weeks in The Best of Enemies (2012)

So, FST designed an annex to be built onto the existing Gompertz Theatre. Today, this expansion is known as FST’s Hegner Theatre Wing, which houses two theatres in addition to the Gompertz Mainstage: the Court Cabaret and Bowne’s Lab Theatre, as well as the Green Room Café & Bar. In January 2012, FST broke ground on the Hegner Theatre Wing, and celebrated the grand reopening of the newly renovated Gompertz Theatre in November 2012 with The Best of Enemies by Mark St. Germain.

The Court Cabaret's grand opening was held just a few months later in January 2013. The first show featured in that space was Urban Cowboys, featuring songs made famous by artists such as John Denver, Dolly Parton, and Kenny Rogers. With the opening of the Court, FST’s Cabaret audiences grew again – this time by another 20%.

Next was the grand opening of Bowne’s Lab in January 2014. This space has become home to weekly FST Improv performances as well as Stage III programming, including such well-received plays as Hand to God (2019), Stalking the Bogeyman (2017), and Grounded (2017).

In addition to two new venues, FST achieved multiple major milestones and experienced significant growth during this time. In 2013, FST celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Woman’s Club, and in 2015, WRITE A PLAY celebrated its 25th year, while the Cabaret celebrated its 20th Season.

By 2019, 46 years since putting down roots as a resident theatre company, FST had grown to a five-theatre campus reaching over 230,000 attendees a year, officially making FST one of the largest subscription theatres in the nation.

Alexander Stuart in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2019)

Bridge over Troubled Waters

Florida Studio Theatre was in the middle of a banner season when the 2020 pandemic forced the theatre to close to the public for the first time in more than 46 years. Over the next 300+ days, FST would navigate a storm it never imagined facing. While theatres went dark worldwide, FST refocused artistically, launching an innovative new program that would put artists back to work.

In May of 2020, FST launched The Playwrights Project, an artistic initiative employing 33 of the country’s top playwrights, sketch comedy writers, and musical theatre developers. With funding from the Paycheck Protection Program, FST hired these artists as full-time staff writers. The material generated during this time would be considered for future production at FST, and many plays would go on to be produced by theatres throughout the country. Some of these plays include Eleanor by Mark St. Germain, which had its World Premiere at Barrington Stage Company in 2021; Visit Joe Whitefeather (and bring the family!), which had its World Premiere as part of FST's 2022-23 Winter Mainstage Series; and Here You Come Again by Bruce Vilanch, Gabriel Barre, and Tricia Paoluccio, which had its World Premiere at Delaware Theatre Company in 2022. Seven artists who were part of The Playwrights Project went on to join The Playwright Collective, a targeted coalition of artists dedicated to developing new work for FST’s stages.

FST's Playwright Collective currently has 15 members who are working on a wide spectrum of plays.

Thanks to the loyalty, support, and outpouring of community generosity, FST emerged from the “extended intermission” caused by the pandemic stronger and ready to serve audiences once more.

In its 2022-23 season, FST was back up to full speed. The theatre returned to full programming in all five theatres with the return of Stage III. It was a banner year with 7 shows being extended. By the end of the season, FST had reached over 225,000 attendees. All previous Cabaret records were also shattered with the hit musical revue: The ‘70s: More Than a Decade, which ran for a total of 23 weeks and served over 23,000 audience members. Last season's success is a testament to FST’s resiliency, pursuit of artistic excellence, and commitment to serve its valued audience once more.

Stacey Harris, Nick Anastasia, Eddie Weaver and Jannie Jones in The 70s': More Than A Decade (2023).

New Horizons

As we celebrate our 50th anniversary season, it's a joy and a privilege to look back on all the wonderful milestones and moments that have led us to this day. We remember all the important individuals who have gone before us, and whose work and generosity have brought FST this far – from the days of tin cans for lights and squeaky theatre seats to trailblazing new theatrical series to investing in new plays. We also take this opportunity to look forward to the next 50 years. And as we've always done, we do so with our mission of “making theatre accessible and affordable to as many people as possible,” along with our pursuit of organic, need-based growth at the forefront of our vision.

Today, we find ourselves in a familiar place: playing to capacity audiences and facing space restrictions, while the demand for more programming continues to grow.

Our latest initiative, The Mulva Arts Plaza, is our response to this need. Nestled amongst the theatre’s existing five-theatre campus in downtown Sarasota, this necessary next step in FST’s story will take the theatre to new heights while laying the groundwork for a strong future.

The Arts Plaza will feature an additional Mainstage theatre to allow for expanded Mainstage and Stage III programming; two more Cabaret theatres to accommodate the audience demand for our most-popular programming; safe and comfortable housing for FST guest artists; affordable housing for Sarasota’s year-round arts workers; and much-needed parking for our patrons.

Our Next Chapter

We thank you for being part of our journey. This season, we are 50 years strong. But ultimately, Florida Studio Theatre is so much more than a campus of buildings.

FST is a community of people – a network of stories. We look forward to sharing the next 50 years together, and we invite you to pass it on and help make a difference for the next generation of theatregoers.

For more information about how you can put your name on FST’s future and be part of our next 50 years, contact Melody Mora-Shihadeh at melody@floridastudiotheatre.org or 941.366.9017 ext. 326.