Under the Radar

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Sarasota is smack-dab in the middle of a cultural revolution. But it’s easy to miss. Out in the mainstream, the art scene still looks like the glossy brochures of our long-time arts institutions, showing classic ballerinas or blockbuster Broadway musicals. But off the radar and on the fringes, where fresh epiphanies and approaches spark word-of-mouth […]


Sarasota is smack-dab in the middle of a cultural revolution. But it’s easy to miss. Out in the mainstream, the art scene still looks like the glossy brochures of our long-time arts institutions, showing classic ballerinas or blockbuster Broadway musicals. But off the radar and on the fringes, where fresh epiphanies and approaches spark word-of-mouth buzz, something new is being born.

An edgy scene is slowly emerging in Sarasota—a bohemian archipelago of alternative hangouts. At scattered venues—perhaps the Backlot, perhaps mack b projects—those listening have been able to hear echoes of Austin, shades of Seattle and even an occasional hint of the East Village. Something new is happening—finally. Why?

People, of course—and critical mass.

Creative people. High-energy people. Talented artists of all flavors. We suddenly seem to have more of them than ever before, and they intend to create their work here rather than flee to New York or L.A. Art is becoming more regional all over the country, as more artists have decided they can work and live more pleasantly and successfully in a comfortable small city than in the crowded metropolises. Case in point: the members of Sarasota’s Misplaced Comedy Troupe, who were selected as the country’s best emerging artists in American Idol Magazine’s March 2007 Internet poll.

Founder and producer Steve Grabo (aka Steve Grabusky) sees the group as part Saturday Night Live, part Firesign Theatre—a pack of irreverent, countercultural comedians using the latest technology, including podcasts, CDs and interactive video, plus low-tech comedy tours, to reach fans across America and Europe. Sarasota’s Backlot has been their base of operations, and Grabo plans to stay put right here.

“We’re building a fan base in Sarasota,” he said the morning after one of their recent shows. “Last night, the audience was totally mixed—all the way from 14-year-old kids to people in their mid-60s. People are ready for something different here. I like the community. I always wanted to be near the water. Why move?”

The boom growth of the last decade has swelled the number of young people in town—and that means there’s a bigger audience for unconventional work as well as more young artists to create it. Many of our young residents grew up here as kids and have figured out a way to come back and prosper from the new economic opportunities the city’s development has provided. In addition, our cultural institutions, from New College of Florida to the Ringling College of Art and Design, are getting bigger and putting more young artists and art lovers into the mix. Technology has also played a role, allowing creative workers like software designers, graphic artists and serial entrepreneurs to move here for the sunshine and lifestyle. Once they arrive, they expect and support a wider range of art alternatives than the conservative retirees who once comprised so much of our audience.

People who make fresh, new art. People who demand it. Put them all together, and it’s the perfect recipe for an alternative scene. All you need is a catalyst, a place to bring the people together.

Enter the Backlot.

The Backlot Theater

This not-for-profit performance arts organization took its name from its original home—a nondescript 1970s-era warehouse, way in the back of an industrial park. The Backlot, which opened almost four years ago, is now in the process of saying goodbye to that home (due to the expiration of an exception to county zoning ordinances that had allowed them to stay in the industrial area), and at press time the nonprofit was looking for new quarters, perhaps in downtown Sarasota, where more theater and arts lovers will be likely to find them. The East Village Cabaret, its adjunct operation in Lakewood Ranch, will stay where it is.

Mark Marvell, Backlot’s executive director, insists he’s not looking for a grand edifice. “When the space is raw, people feel a sense of excitement when they first walk in,” Marvell says. “The audience knows the building isn’t the point; the art on stage is.”

He plans to keep the Off-Off-Broadway feel—the sense of walking into a loft in one of those fringe Manhattan neighborhoods, three flights up, where something new and different is being performed. And he wants his target audience—people who might not see a show at the Van Wezel or a ballet performance as a hip way to spend a Friday night—to come with their friends to see what’s happening, and to see each other.

In pricey Sarasota, the Backlot has given emerging artists an affordable way to stage their productions. Performers pay a modest usage fee based on rehearsal and performance time. If Marvell found the right angel, he’d love not to have to charge them anything at all.

“We’re not here to make money off these groups,” he says. “We’re here to collaborate with artists—and make what they do possible.”

After opening in 2004, the Backlot offered its stage to groups few Sarasotans had ever heard of: Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, Nate Jacobs’ company dedicated to African-American actors, playwrights and subjects; Sarasota Actors Workshop, Rick Hughes’ experimental theater troupe; Becky’s Rejects, Christine Alexander’s off-center improv troupe; and GG/Kiss productions, which featured the introspective adventures of Amy Knapp’s “GG” girl,” a single girl adrift in Sarasota. Some played to tiny but enthusiastic audiences; some folded; a few, like WBTT, used the experimental space as a launching pad to bigger and better things. After building their skills—and an audience—at the Backlot, in 2006, WBTT was able to make the move to the Historic Asolo Theater at the Ringling Museum of Art.

Lately the Backlot has hosted such acts as the young Fuzion Dance Artists, Michael Royal and his ad hoc jazz ensembles, Sarasota Senior Theater, and Jeff Kin’s Eclectic Theatre Group, which performs the annual “Got A Minute?” series of one-minute plays.

According to its Web site, the Backlot has presented more than 135 original shows, showcased more than 600 local performers, entertainers and craftsmen, and has paid out over $500,000 to area artists. If you’re looking for the alternative scene in Sarasota, the Backlot is where to find it—as soon as the Backlot finds a new space of its own.

But the Backlot is not the only alternative game in town, and those who’ve taken the stage there don’t have a monopoly on artistic energy. Here’s a quick look at some of the players on Sarasota’s emerging arts scene as well as the places where you’re likely to see them.

Anything Arts

Backlot alumni Christine Alexander and Rick Hughes have teamed up to create a monthly e-newsletter about area artists and art happenings. It’s quirky, funny, and slanted to the alternative. Alexander describes Anything Arts as the online equivalent of the Backlot, a labor of love created by and for their circle of artist and actor friends. “Talent has to find an audience or it’s wasted,” she says. “We know the audience is out there. We love talent. We hate waste. I guess that’s why we do it.”

Hughes has a number of projects cooking. Most will be coming to a boil in 2008. He’s announcing a contest for filmmakers to produce a 24-second spot on diversity—due Jan. 2—in connection with the yearly Embracing Our Differences campaign. He plans to create a not for-profit documentary filmmakers group in Sarasota. In the fall of 2008, he’ll launch a series of festivals: a documentary film fest, offering edgy work by filmmakers in Sarasota and nationwide; an e-fest, promoting sustainable living; and a “green” film festival, doing the same thing in celluloid. Times, dates and titles are subject to change. In addition to hatching those new projects, Hughes is also a stand-up guy in area stand-up comedy. His theme: Don’t just talk about being an artist. Get out there and do it.

“In my routine at McCurdy’s [Comedy Theatre], I introduce myself by saying: ‘Hi. I’m Rick Hughes. I’m a recovering realtor. I’ve just celebrated 262 days without a sale,” says Hughes.

Fuzion Dance Artists

Leymis Bolaños Wilmott and Rachael Inman founded this high-energy modern dance troupe in 2006. Like the sun, fusion is their power source. They take the movement styles of classical ballet, modern dance and the African Diaspora and fuse them together. What emerges is hot and shining.

Aftermath, Wilmott’s response to 9-11, was showcased at the Kennedy Center in 2002 and won Dance Magazine’s award for best choreography from the Southeast region for that year. In 2006, dance critics across the nation applauded Inman’s By a Thread, a work of contemporary choreography with aerial elements, commissioned by the Of Moving Colors dance company in Baton Rouge, La.

Fuzion’s dancers have toured in Chicago, New York City and other cities. But according to Wilmott, nobody plans to move from Sarasota.

“My last premiere [in Sarasota] was a mixed crowd,” says Wilmott. “There were older dance lovers, the families of dancers, and young people just falling in love with dance. They were all cheering me on. When older dance patrons and enthusiastic young people get excited by what you do, it keeps you going. That’s why I’m still here.”

Mack b projects

It began in 2005, as a tiny gallery downtown. Today, it’s a not-for profit exhibition space near Sarasota Bradenton Airport—11,000 square feet where almost anything can happen. Emerging artists can emerge. Established artists can experiment with a new direction. New audiences can see something they’ve never seen before, like Nathan Skiles’ foam rubber sculptures, resembling huge, blobby 3-D cartoons; Cindy Mason’s vibrant acrylic abstracts; or Amy Ross’ watercolor beasties.

Owner Margaret Barnes and gallery director Tobey Albright have made their space a scene. It’s on the short list for young audiences looking for something new. Art is more than static objects here—it’s a backdrop for edgy performers at edgy events. It’s not just a gallery. It’s a multimedia party waiting to happen.

“We’ve had the Mayhem Poets do a spoken-word poetry jam; we’ve had dances with several digital video projections going at once,” says Albright. ”If you can imagine it in a contemporary art institution in a major city, we’re going to do it.”

Albright and Barnes are also hoping to create the dedicated arts audience of a major city. And they’re starting to see it.

“Our most well-attended opening was between 200 and 300 people,” says Albright. “The participants ranged from New College and Ringling students to people in their 80s and 90s—basically the whole range of the Sarasota demographic. Everyone is usually very gracious and supportive; they tell us they’re very grateful something like this exists in Sarasota. That encourages us to keep going.”

Spooky-Maceo Productions

There’s nothing new in Sarasota, you think? You wouldn’t say that if you’d strolled past Ringling’s Selby Gallery last August. Standing inside the window, you’d have seen a female figure—a department store clothes mannequin—sporting a brightly colored T-shirt on her body and a giant, rubber chicken mask on her head. Chickenhead is the name of the sculpture. Artist Daniel Miller created it as part of his series of sculptures illustrating down-and-dirty slang expressions. He’s not just making alternative art—he’s creating a context for it. It’s the result of a creative partnership with Matt Kelly that started in 2002, when both were art students, Miller at Ringling, Kelly at MCC. Life-after-college was approaching. They liked Sarasota, but they also wanted to live in a place with alternative hangouts, galleries and publications.

“We knew we wanted to stay in Sarasota,” says Kelly. “The things we were hungry for didn’t exist, so we created it.”

They started with something to read. While still in college, they created an edgy tabloid magazine called Porch, a place for alternative illustrations, poetry and politics. In 2003, Miller invented “Jump Monkey,” a fictional hip-hop promotional company, as a Ringling class project. His friend, Marty McGuire, a nonfictional break-dancer, got the gift of a ready-made marketing package.

The connection with McGuire drew the two visual artists into the emerging alternative music and dance scene. Before they knew it, Miller and Kelly had an events-planning business, named Lyridoxical Horizons. They began at J*A*C*S, an edgy tavern where the restaurant Esca exists now. “We filled J*A*C*S with a stellar lineup of different underground musicians, poets and artists,” says Kelly. “We made it the alternative music mecca of Sarasota.”

Later that year, they created Spooky-Maceo Productions (named after Miller’s cat and Kelly’s dog), an umbrella term for all ventures in print, on the Web and on stage. “It was never strictly commercial,” says Miller. “We wanted to give artists exposure.”

Now that they’re out of college, Miller and Kelly both have 9-to-5 jobs that make their creative risks possible. They sometimes get paid for their alternative ventures. But the money’s not the point.

While not publishing Porch any more, Miller and Kelly are still inventing new, cleverly named art ventures. “Graphic Love Juice” is Miller’s term for his slang-inspired art and clothing. Now strictly Kelly’s project, the events-planning business, renamed Mind Syndicate Productions, still brings music and spoken word events to Big E’s, Pastimes Pub, and other area hangouts.

“The alternative scene is out there in Sarasota,” says Kelly. “It’s not in one place, like Ybor City. You’ve got to make an effort. But it’s there, if you look for it.”

And sometimes you should look where you least expect to find it—in Sarasota’s long-established arts institutions. Some of them (the smarter ones, anyway) are also creating edgy islands in the mainstream. They know there’s a growing audience for it, and it’s their future. Here’s a sample:

Crossley Gallery

The Ringling College of Art and Design keeps an eye on the students who run this gallery, but the students do run it. Based on the art on the walls, the college has taught them many things, including the willingness to take risks. You can see it in the exhibits of both student and non-student art. In 2006, the Crossley went out on a limb to host the Notorious A.R.T exhibition of the politically controversial work of John Sims, a former Ringling professor, and artist Dred Scott. The art in their show was a deconstruction of the Confederate battle flag—considered risky business in the South, even here in Sarasota. But the shock and outrage never happened.

Players Theatre

This community theater has been around since folks wore double-breasted suits and said, “swell.” Now Jeff Kin, its new artistic director, hopes to honor its traditional roots—but also branch out in some new directions. Think of him as the artistic director who came in from the edge. Before taking the job, Kin had been an actor and director at SAW and was the founder of the “Got A Minute?” play festival. Kin hopes to replicate that off-mainstream sensibility with “SNAP” (“Something New at the Players”). “Contempofest ’07” launched the series last summer. It played to an enthusiastic crowd, but not a full house. Kin believes his audience is open to the experimental, and he’s confident that once the season gets going, the house will be packed at every “SNAP” production.

“Come for Broadway musicals; also come for edgy concerts, dance and theater pieces,” Kin says of the Players. “They won’t all be instant audience pleasers—but we won’t shy from taking risks.”

New Music New College

This New College of Florida music series is only eight years old. But it’s big for its age; it’s grown from one concert a year to five. Directed by Stephen Miles, the series features talented guest musicians (like cutting-edge pianist Kathleen Supové) and original music (including experimental pieces by two Sarasota-based composers, “polyartist” Francis Schwartz and Miles himself). Its New College student musicians sound too good to be students. The concerts are always packed. “People constantly ask me: ‘Are local audiences ready for this?’” says Miles. “My answer is always: ‘Never underestimate your audience. In Sarasota, they’re ready for anything.’”

Gompertz Stage III

Back in 2003, when Florida Studio Theatre opened this new venue in the former Theatre Works building, it felt to FST managing director Rebecca Langford like going back home. That’s because “FST started out with edgy, off-Broadway theater, True West and plays like that,” she says. “As our audience grew, our programming became more universal. At Stage III, developing new work is our focus: new playwrights, new forms, political material and risky material. It’s a return to our roots.”

Stage III produces three shows a year, and last year, they attracted an audience of 4,500. “The majority are over 55, but we do see younger people, who tend to come in on single tickets,” says Langford. “Young people, old people, they’re all in their seats to watch the theater take a walk on the edge. We thought Hedwig and the Angry Inch would offend a lot of people, but it didn’t. If local audiences can deal with a play about a transsexual German rock star suffering from a botched sex change operation, they can deal with anything. They’re not only open to edgy new work, they’re hungry for it.”

FSU/Asolo Acting Conservatory

This Conservatory is anything but conservative. Here student actors get a taste of the new, even if the play is old. “The play may be classical or cutting-edge,” says Conservatory director Greg Leaming. “But we take an original approach.” In last season’s The Bacchae, Dionysus was a monomaniacal cult figure with the honeyed voice of a smooth politician and the eyes of Charlie Manson. This season’s contemporary adaptation, Murder by Poe, opens a new vein of fear in Edgar Allan’s old tales. “We push the students to new places,” Leaming says. “The audience comes along for the ride.”

Student actors at the master level get a crack at new material when the curtain opens at 11 p.m. for the Asolo’s “Late Night Series.” New as in first-time-onstage. Julia Guzman, the Asolo’s marketing director, says: “You’re watching the birth of new theater—new plays by new playwrights performed by actors at the start of their careers. You get a sneak peek at the creative process. It’s exciting.”

Some final notes: When you’re out on the edge, it’s nice to know someone will catch you if you fall. The passionate talents we spoke to keep mentioning the same names—other talents with the same kind of passion. They watch each other’s back and support each other fiercely.

Out on the edge, it’s good to keep your eyes open. Pioneers—those who survive, at least—tend to be realists. The artists and performers creating the new alternative scene have no illusions. Sarasota isn’t artistic utopia, and they know it. Rents aren’t cheap. Nothing is cheap. There’s a noise ordinance the Grinch would love. But they still want to stay. They love Sarasota. That’s why they want to change it. If you haven’t already, this might be the season to venture out on the edge with them. Something you see or hear just might change you, too—and isn’t that exactly what art is supposed to do?

ALTERNATIVE CURRENTS
The following is a list of local groups that are at the forefront of Sarasota’s evolving cultural scene. Call for complete performance and event schedules.

PERFORMANCE ART

Backlot Theater, 363-9300
Fuzion Dance Artists, 345-5755
Arts Council of Manatee County, 746-2223
Fuzion Dance, 345-5755
Misplaced Comedy Troupe, 685-1669
Eclectic Theatre Company, 957-1959
FST Stage III, 366-9000
SNAP, 365-2494
FSU/Asolo Conservatory, 351-8000

VISUAL ART

Graphic Love Juice, 315-0720
Mack b projects, 359-0654
Crossley Gallery, 351-7595

WEB RESOURCES

Spooky-Maceo, www.spookymaceo.com
Anything Arts, 359-3456

MUSIC

Mind Syndicate, 313-0621
New Music New College, 487-4154

CLUBS AND PUBS

Backlot’s East Village Cabaret, 363-9300

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