Florida Studio Theatre leaders rediscovering their love of theater in new season

Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
A scene from the original Broadway production of “The Play That Goes Wrong.” Florida Studio Theatre will produce its own version during the 2021-22 season.

Richard Hopkins has learned a lot about how theater works and what audiences want since he became artistic director of Florida Studio Theatre in 1980.

He has overseen the slow and steady growth that now includes five performance spaces for plays, musicals, original and touring cabaret shows, improv comedy and education programs, as well as real estate holdings and residential properties to house visiting artists. Over the years, FST has built one of the largest subscription audiences in the country.

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When facing various challenges over the years, Hopkins has tried to turn them into opportunities. When the theater was forced to shut down last year at the start of the coronavirus pandemic, he used federal relief money to hire playwrights and other artists to create new works.

Audiences will get to see one of those plays, Jason Odell Williams “America in One Room,” during the new season that begins in November, just weeks after the conclusion of the first summer season in two years. Attendance may have been lighter than usual, but audiences were enthusiastic and eager for more, he said.

Hopkins said he was never really worried that FST wouldn’t come back, even as other companies across the country struggled or closed for good.

Richard Hopkins, right, is in his 41st year as producing artistic director of Florida Studio Theatre. His wife, Rebecca Hopkins, is the theater's managing director.

“I was just saddened and depressed that it wasn’t here. It’s like losing some big part of yourself,” he said. “Even working online. We got a lot done, but boy, as soon as we got back on stage this summer, I thought, now I remember this is why we do this. The energy starts coming back.”

Revving back up this summer meant re-learning old habits that had once been second nature.

“You do instinctively remember how to ride the bicycle, but you don’t do it as well,” he said. “The actors’ muscle memory wasn’t as strong because they hadn’t been acting for a year and a half. They thought it would come back instantly and magically. If you’re not exercising it, it does go away.”

Despite concerns about how the current surge in COVID-19 cases could impact the arts, Hopkins is confident that FST will come back stronger.

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“We had a chance to reflect on what we missed,” he said. “We had a time where people said you can’t do this or you can’t do that. Stay home. So you reflect on what things were important to us and one of those things is art and theater and being able to engage socially and better understand the world around us and the people you live with.”

While many theaters lock in titles months before seasons start, Hopkins was adjusting the 2021-22 season even days after talking about it during a Zoom interview (while on a vacation cruise with his wife, managing director Rebecca Hopkins). 

The final result is a “more exciting season for the audience, and a little more difficult for us to produce,” he said.

Early rock star Buddy Holly is the subject of the musical “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” at Florida Studio Theatre

A new season

FST opens this fall on Nov. 3 with the London and Broadway hit “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” followed by “America in One Room” (Dec. 8-Feb. 27), the comical farce “The Play That Goes Wrong” (Jan. 19-March 13) and the dramatic comedy “The Legend of Georgia McBride” (March 30-May 22).

“Buddy,” which he had originally planned as a summer season opener, “is all about uplifting the audience, plus it’s a good story and the music is fantastic.” It’s about the early rocker known for “Peggy Sue” “That’ll Be the Day” and other hits, whose career was cut short when he died in a plane crash with fellow music stars Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as the Big Bopper, both of whom are depicted in the musical.

A scene from a recent workshop reading of Jason Odell Williams’ new play “America in One Room.”

“America in One Room” is inspired by the 2019 America in One Room convention, which brought together a diverse group of 500 voters to discuss a wide range of issues. Williams’ play was recently presented in a well-received workshop production at FST, Hopkins said.

“The play puts all of us in the room and on the spot. It doesn’t take a liberal or conservative side,” Hopkins said. ”The theme of the show is how dug in we all are in our perspective and how we need to listen more.”

“The Play That Goes On” was created by Henry Lewis, Henry Shields and Jonathan Sayer for Britain’s Mischief Theatre Company and enjoyed a long run on Broadway and off before the pandemic. The New York production is scheduled to resume performances Oct. 15. 

The comedy is set on the opening night of a community theater production of murder mystery when just about everything that could go wrong does, from forgotten lines to ill-timed entrances and collapsing scenery.

“Georgia McBride,” which will be directed by Kate Alexander, is by Matthew Lopez, who is nominated this year for a Tony Award for his play “The Inheritance.” It’s about a financially struggling young man who takes on an unexpected challenge when the bar where he works as an Elvis impersonator replaces him with a drag show.

Hopkins said the play, dealing with issues surrounding sexual orientation, may have greater resonance now than it might have last year, when he first intended to produce it.

On Cabaret stages

The two Hopkins oversee the creation of shows for its popular cabaret series, which opens this season with a new production of the 2010 hit “The Wanderers,” saluting the vocal harmonies of groups from the Four Seasons to the Beatles, The Drifters and the Platters. It runs Sept. 29-Jan. 30.

From left, Eric Collins, Francis Kelly, Bryan McElroy and Robert H. Fowler starred in the original 2010 production of the cabaret show “The Wanderers” at Florida Studio Theatre.

The original proved so successful it spawned the 2012 sequel “Let’s Twist Again with The Wanderers.” Rebecca Hopkins said while they considered a third version, she thought it would be best to first reintroduce audiences to the original show (with some tweaks).

“Friends in Low Places,” running Nov. 17-March 20, explores the sound and style of such contemporary country music stars as Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert and George Strait, who told their musical stories in a different way. 

The cabaret season closes Feb. 9-June 12 with the 2022 edition of “Laughing Matters,” an ongoing series of sketch comedy shows that poke fun at life in Sarasota and around the country.

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“I think the pandemic pushed us to come back to ‘Laughing Matters.’ We could all use a good laugh and laugh at ourselves,” said Rebecca Hopkins, adding that she’s no longer gun shy about touching on sensitive subjects.

“I’m finding a lot of joy in it,” she said. “I got over that fear and jumped into it. We’re dealing with all kinds of issues but approaching them from a human angle.” 

The theater’s Stage III season, featuring edgier works presented in the intimate Bowne’s Lab Theatre, will be announced later in the year.

For children and families

FST also is launching a new season of its popular Children’s Theatre Series, which begins with Sarah Durham’s adaptation of “Cinderella,’ running Saturdays and some Sundays Oct. 9-30. A new edition of the holiday show “Deck the Halls,” by Durham and Caroline Saldivar, will be presented Nov,. 27-Dec. 24, and Brendan Murray’s “Hare and Tortoise” telling the popular Aesop fairy tale will be presented Jan. 8-Feb. 19. 

Sarah Durham is the author of a new stage version of “Cinderella” that will be part of Florida Studio Theatre’s Children’s Theatre series.

The work of young playwrights participating in the theater’s school-based Write a Play program will be featured in the season-ending “The Grandma That Eats Everything & Other Winning Plays,” beginning March 26.

Caroline Saldivar, director of children’s theater, said the shows are designed to “spark imagination and conversation” and that as people return to the theater “it is important to me that this season is full of joy and laughter.” The fall production of “Cinderella” is a new kind of undertaking for the program “because it is inspired by a British style of theater for young audiences that includes audience participation, slapstick comedy and popular music.”

For ticket and subscription information for all Florida Studio Theatre productions: 941-366-9000; floridastudiotheatre.org

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