Like many Sarasota theater lovers, I was shocked a few months ago at the news that Florida State University planned to move the FSU/Asolo Conservatory of Actor Training, lock, stock and greasepaint, up to Tallahassee. It hit me-as well as the current students and others connected to the Conservatory-hard.
When I first moved to Sarasota in 1979, I was swept up in-and away by-the world of theater that existed here. Certainly at the top of the heap of the theatrical arts was the Asolo Theater, then housed in a quaint but cramped 18th-century building brought over from Asolo, Italy.
The seats were close together in the old Asolo (people were smaller in the 18th century, I guess), and the sight lines from certain portions of the balcony impossible. But it was intimate and warm (sometimes too warm in the summer, when the air conditioning struggled to cool the 300 or so people in the audience). And aside from the performances of works by Chekhov and Shaw and Moliere, it was always a pleasure to admire the oil paintings of harlequins (on loan from the Ringling Museum) that hung in the hallways, and to stroll out into the Dwarf Garden at intermission, where, on opening nights, you might also sip a glass of champagne under the stars.
At first I was unaware of the existence of the Asolo’s educational arm, the Conservatory. FSU had begun sending its acting students to Sarasota for internships at the Asolo back in 1968, and in 1973 the entire graduate program arrived here. It was the custom for the students to appear in the Asolo’s productions in smaller roles, providing them with valuable onstage experience and the Asolo and its fans with the chance to produce and see larger-scale plays that might not have been possible with the Equity acting company alone.
But my first memories of the Conservatory’s small, talented band of student actors are not centered on the mainstage. I saw them instead downtown, at the Palm Tree Playhouse on First Street (currently the location of Theatre Works). And they were not performing works by Chekhov or Shaw; more likely, they were works about Chekhov or Shaw, for the Palm Tree was where the third-year MFA students presented their one-man (or one-woman) shows.
It was a requirement of graduation in those days for these one-person offerings to be, not only performed by the students, but researched and written (with the helpful guidance of their teachers) by them as well. Quite a challenge, and there may have been some grumbling on the students’ part from time to time that, after all, they were actors, not writers; but since I still remember their bravura interpretations of characters as diverse as Virginia Woolf and Errol Flynn, there must have been some value in the exercise, for the audience as well as for the students.
In the 1980s the Conservatory’s own workshop productions (apart from their work in the Asolo’s mainstage plays) took place in the Frankel Building on old 301, conveniently located where the airplanes taking off and landing at nearby Sarasota Bradenton Airport sometimes nearly drowned out the lines being spoken onstage. No matter; fine work was still being done.
Sarasota theater has always been designed to appeal to the masses with sure-fire shows that will sell tickets and keep budgets in the black; at the Conservatory, where ticket prices were low and the house small, chances could be taken. You might see a piece by that gloomy Henrik Ibsen no one else wanted to touch (Hedda Gabler); but you could also be introduced to new, important voices like David Mamet, Sam Shepard and Lanford Wilson. The young actors threw themselves into all roles with passion and energy; they were unafraid to tackle anything from Pinter to Schnitzler to Shakespeare, and the choice of works and the intensity of their performances mitigated any qualms one might have about the minimalist production values.
In the ’90s, the Conservatory moved into its own brand-spanking-new theater within the FSU/Asolo Performing Arts Center (home at last!) and initiated its own subscription season. In the 161-seat Cook Theatre, their longtime fans, including the generous donors who supported "their" adopted 30 or so students with scholarship money to the tune of more than $200,000 annually, still flocked to see the eclectic mix of productions (Noel Coward, Neil Simon, Tom Stoppard), now on a "real" stage. The hardiest theater lovers even stayed up late-really late-to take in more offbeat works (like Edward Albee’s The Zoo Story) in the occasional LateNite Series bowing well after other theaters in town had turned off the lights.
With the revelation that FSU, so long a partner in the Conservatory with the Asolo and still the Asolo’s landlord at the FSU/Asolo Center, intended to uproot the Conservatory, rumors swirled. People talked about the bad blood between the FSU administration and the Asolo, due in part to Asolo producing artistic director Howard Millman’s decision not to retire after earlier agreeing to participate in FSU’s retirement incentive program. The Asolo’s board backed Millman, and FSU promptly announced that acclaimed actress Jane Alexander would be heading up the transplanted program in Tallahassee by fall 2005.
The timing was ironic. Only days earlier, The New York Times had reported that the Conservatory was one of nine institutions recognized by casting directors and theatrical agents for the quality of its master’s program in acting. Insiders say, however, that the move is one FSU may have contemplated for some time. Former Conservatory head Brant Pope (himself a Conservatory graduate) says that the circumstances of Millman’s postponed retirement and the determination of Steven Wallace, new dean of the FSU School of Theatre, to enhance theater buildings and programs in Tallahassee combined to bring about what seemed an abrupt rupture. The retirement of FSU president Sandy D’Alemberte may also have been a factor, placing more decision making power, at least temporarily, in the hands of FSU provost Larry Abele.
"They [FSU] covet the money that flows down to Sarasota," Pope says. "And they felt that the Asolo and its board didn’t fully appreciate" the way FSU came to the theater’s aid a decade ago, when the university forgave or paid off a substantial amount of Asolo debt, bought the performing arts center building (allowing the Asolo a lease of just $1 a year), and agreed to pay for six of the top Asolo employees’ salaries. The result, he says: "Egos at both ends triumphed, and who loses? Sarasota."
And assigning blame at this stage is probably an exercise in futility. "When you live in Sarasota," Pope says, "it’s easy to blame this on the university, six hours away. And in Tallahassee, they say, ‘We’re spending a lot of money on a few people.’" For Pope himself, of the loss of the program he was so closely connected with for years, he says simply, "it tears my guts out."
That’s an emotion that might be echoed by many of the Conservatory’s alumni, who often remember Sarasota and their experience here as a seminal time in their lives. Sarasota Film Festival head Jody Kielbasa; current Asolo Equity actor Patrick James Clarke, a grad who came back to perform on mainstage here after working in New York and on television; 1983 alumna Suzanne Grodner, who scored a breakthrough role here in Brighton Beach Memoirs while still a student and later starred in Rose Tattoo on Broadway; Angela Jones, who appeared in the film Pulp Fiction and on TV’s ER-the list goes on of distinguished former students.
Kielbasa, a 1985 Conservatory grad, says his training here provided him with both backstage and onstage experience that helped him when he established his own theater company in Los Angeles. And his memories of the "intimate learning experience and the chance we had to perform and work closely with the Equity actors" were part of what drew him back to Sarasota in 1995, when he worked for a time in development for the Conservatory.
"As a student my roommate was Michael Piontek, who went on to star as Raoul in Phantom of the Opera on Broadway," Kielbasa recalls. "And I think that’s one thing the Sarasota community, which has supported the Conservatory so well, enjoys: watching young actors grow here and then, later, reading about their new TV show or a play they’re doing on Broadway. Over the past few years, so many Conservatory students have played leading or supporting roles in mainstage productions. With them gone, it will limit what the Asolo can do. It’s going to have to hurt."
At press time, hope of reversing the FSU decision was not yet quite dead, as Sen. Lisa Carlton planned a meeting in Tallahassee between the important parties at FSU and the Asolo. But public comments from the opposing factions did not indicate a great willingness to negotiate. And beyond the loss of the Conservatory, like Kielbasa I’m troubled about what this means for the Asolo theater company in general. How can the theater afford to continue to produce the works of color, scope and size it has claimed for its niche without the talents of those students onstage? And will the Conservatory’s Jane B. Cook Theatre-which is, after all, FSU property-sit empty much of the time?
Millman says flatly, "The Asolo will continue to do large-scale shows [without the Conservatory student actors]. We’re discussing alternatives. I think FSU has made a terrible mistake; and I deeply mourn the loss of the Conservatory."
For me, and for many dedicated supporters over the past 30 years, the idea that after the spring of 2005 there will be no more Conservatory productions here is heartbreaking. Some of the most stirring and memorable moments I’ve spent in a theater in Sarasota have taken place during Asolo Conservatory productions. And seeing a new crop of those young, talented actors perform every season was a glimpse of the future of theater-the possibilities for them seemed limitless, and our connection to them and that future so close. I’d give a lot to be able to prevent that final curtain.