New Players Centre CEO leads through transition to Lakewood Ranch
William Skaggs’ introduction to the Players Centre for Performing Arts last fall as the new CEO came at an unusual time and an important turning point in the 91-year history of the community theater.
He moved to Sarasota from Kentucky months after the coronavirus had shut down performances, so he has never been able to see one of the mainstage productions around which the company has built an enduring following. And just before he arrived, leaders had decided it was time to stop leasing back the building they had sold a few years earlier to raise funds for a new multitheater complex planned in Lakewood Ranch. There was no point in remaining in a building they couldn’t use for more than storage and office space.
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But Skaggs got a clear view of how people felt about the theater as longtime actors, volunteers and audiences took a last look backstage during a series of farewell tours.
“I knew and I understood when we had conversations about me coming here that many people considered the Players to be family,” he said in a recent interview. “One of the most impressive things in my time here is how often that term is used and it’s unprompted and people really care about this 91-year-old organization known as The Players.”
That became obvious again two weeks ago when volunteers started posting photos of work crews demolishing the old building, knocking down exterior walls and exposing some of the painted posters representing shows presented years ago.
Though he’s been in Sarasota less than a year, Skaggs understands what his colleagues have been saying for years – while the old building at 838 N. Tamiami Trail “was a special place. What made it special were the people who walked those halls and acted and sang from that stage and chose to go to be entertained and artistically challenged by them. We can replace a theater but we can’t replace the relationships that built what is the Players family.”
Joining ‘a family’
Skaggs was hired to lead a 13-person staff that includes Artistic Director Jeffery Kin, who took on additional managerial duties along with board chair Donna DeFant after the 2018 resignation of former CEO Michelle Bianchi.
DeFant said the theater was able to maintain its entire staff throughout the pandemic, and she was impressed with how quickly Skaggs jumped in from his first days. “We’ve thrown the entire kitchen sink at him and he’s handled it wonderfully,” she said. “There’s a lot to learn about the landscape and he is picking things up so fast.”
Skaggs moved with his family from Kentucky, where he worked for three years as chief development officer for Southern Kentucky Performing Arts Center (better known as SKyPAC) in Bowling Green. He had also worked in financial services and spent years as director of annual giving and director of alumni resources at Western Kentucky University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in music and an MBA.
Even though he has only been able to see videos of past Players shows, he said the timing of his arrival could be fortuitous as the theater starts refocusing its attention on raising the millions of dollars needed for its planned new home in the Waterside development in the Sarasota County portion of Lakewood Ranch.
A temporary home
In the interim, the theater announced on Thursday that in addition to continuing to perform outdoors at the Bazaar on Apricot & Lime, Selby Botanical Gardens and other locations, it will take over the former Banana Republic store at the Westfield Siesta Key Mall (known to many as Southgate Plaza). The mall is already home to other performing arts programs, Rise Above Performing Arts and Tree Fort Productions.
Skaggs said the 5,400-square-foot store space will be remodeled to allow for about 140 seats.
“We’re going to take a proscenium approach to what we’re doing. There will be some platform and stage area,” he said. “It is a former retail space and we also know that this is simply a temporary venue for us for the next few years as we move toward the waterside project.
Kin said he expects to announce the company’s 92nd season during the summer, months later than usual, and the new space will allow him to produce a different kind of show.
“The big productions that people know us for are going to be relegated to outdoors,” Kin said. “This space is more intimate, bigger than some small theaters, but it gives us a chance to produce pieces that would have been lost on our large stage and big house.”
Kin said the theater is working on plans for a portable stage “that would allow us to do pop-up shows, revues, concerts, all over Sarasota and Manatee counties. We could take the stage to the people.”
Preparing for Lakewood Ranch
That would include the large space being reserved for the Players Centre at Waterside, where the company plans to create a 70,000 square foot complex with a 480-seat mainstage theater, a flexible-seating black box space for 125 patrons and a cabaret theater for as many as 100 people. There also will be kitchen facilities.
Kin and Skaggs said they don’t expect to break ground until 2023 and it could take until 2025 before the first performances are held at Waterside. Some of the timing depends on fundraising. The goal is now $26.5 million. Earlier had plans mentioned by the theater had called for raising up to $50 million, including a $15 million endowment. The Players Centre received about $9.5 million for its former home.
While Skaggs refers to the family aura of The Players, the community theater needs to find some deep-pocketed relatives because amateur playhouses often struggle to find major donors as easily as more professional theaters, the opera, ballet and orchestra.
“It’s all about relationships, building relationships and making people feel connected,” said Skaggs, who is working with Morgan Gerhart, the director of advancement, to raise the funds.
The goal is $50 million, including $35 million for the building and $15 million for an endowment. The Players Centre received about $9.5 million for its former home.
Work has been done to raise money but the project has not had the traditional “quiet phase,” because of the major announcement of the plans for the new theater complex in 2016.
“When I came in, the campaign had been quite public since they said ‘Here’s the future project. Here are our plans.’ Maybe the order of how things were announced was a little nontraditional, but we still have to build awareness and still bring people along with us,” he said.
Kin said the theater’s board made a wise decision in hiring Skaggs during the pandemic and all the transitions, so he could be “acclimated to our county and our cultural coast” when things return to something more normal.
Kin, who said he was happy to be able to focus again on the artistic side of operations, said Skaggs brings “a skill set to our organization that we never had before, and he is absolutely the right person to take us from the community theater we are now to the theater arts center we will be.”
Those skills include how Skaggs looks at things.
“The first way he visualizes things is with numbers and facts and figures and that’s a different way from most theater people where it’s more visual, heart and passion,” Kin said. “That’s the way I’ve produced and directed and led, and here’s somebody who approaches everything a bit more scientifically, mathematically. That’s an awesome way to round out a staff. Successful organizations surround themselves with people who do things better than them.”
The company also will continue to produce outdoors as it has since the fall at the Bazaar, where it has staged a one-person version of “A Christmas Carol,” the two-character “Souvenir” and the four-actor “Sylvia.” There also have been musical revues presented at Selby Botanical Gardens.
“Our outdoor performances have been very well received,” Skaggs said. “We have helped keep people safe and comfortable. And we’ve seen some new faces in the audience so we see it as an opportunity to meet people where they are.”
Jay Handelman, arts editor and theater critic, has been an editor and writer at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune since 1984. Read more of his arts and entertainment stories. And please support local journalism by subscribing to the Herald-Tribune.