Florida Company’s Two European Houses
Sarasota’s Asolo Rep Has A History Of Imported Theaters

June 2, 2009

Quick – how can you catch a matinee in an historic Italian venue and that evening see a show in a former Scottish opera house? Try Sarasota on the west coast of Florida, where the Asolo Repertory Theatre seems to have a specialty in such things.

The theatre company is named for the 318-seat theatre saved from the Italian village of Asolo in which it began performing some 50 years ago. It wasn’t performing in Italy, however. The interior of the playhouse, which was built 1798 by Antonio Locatelli in the palace of 15th century Queen Catherine Cornaro, had been salvaged from its home and reassembled in a gallery of the Ringling Museum of Art, the 1920s era home for John and Mable Ringling’s collection of Rubens, van Dycks, Titians, and El Grecos. Later, the reconstructed theater was again relocated, this time to a permanent home on the grounds of the Ringling.

In 1960, the company which became the Asolo Repertory Theatre started as a restoration comedy festival taking advantage of the restoration-era ambiance of the reconstructed theatre. It caught on, and by 1966, the company had gone fully professional and was designated a Florida State Theatre. The company soon outgrew that space, even though its clientele had fallen in love with both the intimacy of such a small house and the glory of its history. How, then, to expand?

In the late 1980s, the Asolo Rep retained the international company with a name that describes its function, Theatre Projects Consultants, to devise a solution. Expanding what is now called “The Historic Asolo Theatre” wasn’t really an option. Ah, but how about importing yet another interior from across the Atlantic?

This time it wasn’t Italy that proved the source, it was Scotland. Specifically, Dunfermline, an historic city in Fife just north of the Firth of Forth, which lays claim to being a former capital of Scotland, the birthplace of Charles I, and more recently, of Andrew Carnegie. There the opera house, which dated only back to 1903 but which had undergone a thorough upgrading in 1921, had been torn down to make way for (of course) a shopping center. But the plasterwork, especially the proscenium arch which had been built as a megaphone-like pre-amplification aid to acoustics, had been carefully catalogued, photographed, disassembled, and stored.

Crates of ornamental plasterwork, cherubs, medallions, cornices, stage box railings, and moldings were purchased. While the Dunfermline had a seating capacity of nearly a thousand, the decision was made to adopt a more comfortable seating plan with greater legroom as well as wider seats. Sarsota architect Stuart Barger designed a building which would have as its interior auditorium a 500-seat, clear-sightline version of the Dunfermline Opera House fronting a modern stagehouse with full flies, wings and all the rest of the accoutrements necessary for a year-round repertory company.

To accommodate a wider auditorium and facilitate modern stagecraft, the proscenium arch was widened by some 4’, and facilities were incorporated for modern stage lighting and that new necessity for Florida buildings—air conditioning. There was also a rethinking of the color scheme and feel for the new version of the Dunfermline, since the warmth of wood paneling and red velvets would seem out of place in the tropics. Use pastels and add a Florida Rose on the stage left box to balance the Scottish Thistle on the right, and you have a Sarasota venue of distinction.

With some $5,750,000 in grant money from the State of Florida and another $7 million from its own capital campaign, Asolo was ready to begin performances in the new space in 1990. Today, the company presents a year-round season of about ten titles with as many as five shows playing in any given week. As befits a repertory company, the cast members perform in multiple plays while the technical staff supports them all.

Asolo Rep has its own set, properties and costume shops, with the set shop specializing in finding ways to manufacture the sets so they can be loaded in and out time and time again under tight schedule constraints. Often, the five-member IATSE crew has just three hours to remove the set from a matinee performance and install the one for the evening show. That crew works like a tight team having been together for an average of 20 years. One member has been with the Asolo for 40 years, and they all refer to the one who has only been there for five years as “the new guy.”

The stagehouse was specifically designed for roll-on, roll-off capability with wide wings and the light fixture capacity is enough to accommodate a basic rep-plot plus all the individual fixtures for each show so the crew needn’t refocus between each performance. Wing to wing, the stagehouse is 104’, and the grid is at 55’ over the stage behind the 28’x18’ proscenium.

The audience, however, sits in a Florida version of a Scottish opera house just a stroll away from the reconstructed restoration-period Italian smaller house that is still used by the Rep and by the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.