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Interview

Asolo Rep Ignites All-American Conversations

Asolo Rep Ignites All-American Conversations
Photo Source: Jenny Graham

While New York and Chicago might come to mind first when searching for a wealth of theatergoing opportunities, Asolo Repertory Theatre is ensuring that Sarasota, Florida, has a similar variety. As one of a few theaters in the United States to operate with a repertory system, the LORT company offers audiences and artists alike the opportunity to experience up to four shows in one week.

For most actors, it’s a new and challenging approach, but producing artistic director Michael Donald Edwards insists it’s also rewarding. “It’s what actors were born to do,” he says. “It’s how the Greeks did it; it’s how Shakespeare did it.” He observes that once actors overcome their fear of studying lines and rehearsing for multiple shows, their instruments become more attuned and refined.

Nearly every actor in an Asolo Rep season takes the stage in at least two productions. Given the nature of the schedule, Edwards views the casting process like assembling a new resident company each year. The pool is composed of actors from New York and Chicago, local artists, and third-year students in the Florida State University/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training. The theater works with casting directors Claire Simon in Chicago and Tara Rubin and Michael Cassara in New York.

READ: “Florida vs. L.A. and NYC: 3 Major Differences Actors Should Know”

The actors’ appearances in varied roles highlight a connecting thread that weaves through a yearslong initiative at Asolo Repertory Theatre. With the 2011 production of “12 Angry Men” as a catalyst, Edwards embarked on the American Character Project. “We have a responsibility as a leading arts organization,” he explains, “to remind people of who we are and what the big project of America really is.” The driving question of what it means to be American is Asolo Rep’s window into every work it produces.

“There was a lot of intense discussion about who owns the idea of what an American is,” Edwards recalls as he reflects on the first years of Obama’s presidency, which served as the backdrop for the American Character Project’s early stages. “Now, we’re seeing that come to fruition in one of the most toxic ways. We have to be one of the leading forces for elevating the conversation.”

This idea is reflected not just in the season selection, but also in the company’s infrastructure and leadership. Asolo Rep has created a theater district of its own—one largely imported from Europe. Its main-stage venue, the Mertz Theatre, was originally built in Scotland, and now resides in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts with the company’s smaller Cook Theatre. The Historic Asolo Theater, an 18th-century venue built in Italy, stands across the street. Edwards himself hails from Australia, having come to America in the late 1970s to study directing.

READ: Explaining the LORT Contract

The year’s season kicks off with “Guys and Dolls.” Beginning in January, Asolo Rep introduces Robert Schenkkan’s “The Great Society” into its roster. The production comes on the heels of the company’s spring 2016 presentation of the playwright’s Tony-winning “All the Way,” starring Nick Wyman. This season, Jack Willis will play Lyndon B. Johnson in Schenkkan’s follow-up piece, reprising his role from the Oregon Shakespeare Festival production. Despite the demanding part, Willis has insisted on participating in the repertory schedule; he will also appear in “The Little Foxes.”

“When actors commit to being here, they become committed to the work and each other, and the differences in their approaches evaporate quickly,” says Edwards. “They value the way we approach the work. And because we’re in Florida, we’re speaking up right now—when what we say has an effect.”

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