Jay Handelman
Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Oct 21, 2022

Three weeks after Hurricane Ian ripped apart its main theater and fly loft and caused massive damage to electrical systems, costumes, stage and theater seats, Venice Theatre revealed ambitious plans to have the building ready to reopen in a little more than a year.

The theater said it would open its delayed production of the Cyndi Lauper-Harvey Fierstein musical “Kinky Boots” on Jan. 12, 2024. The show was just weeks away from its Oct. 12 opening night when the hurricane hit.

But other Venice Theatre performances will resume even sooner. On Dec. 2, it will open a scaled-down version of its annual “A Christmas Carol.” Auditions will be held on Saturday.

Murray Chase, the theater’s producing executive director, said the company has been meeting with architects, engineers, the city of Venice and contractors about next steps toward rebuilding and reopening the theater.

“It’s a real push but we’re hoping to be in there running by late October or early November next year. We’ve just added a couple of months into the schedule in case that doesn’t happen,” Chase said about the rebuilding plan.

A view from the inside auditorium across the stage and outside at Venice Theatre’s MainStage Jervey Theatre after Hurricane Ian led to the collapse of the back of the building. Remnants from the scenery from a show that was forced to end hang over the stage.

“We’ll rebuild the stage floor. We may move the back wall further back to create a larger and deeper backstage and a deeper on-stage area,” he said. “We’ll also be adding fly lines. We will need a full redo on the electric system which eats up a lot of backstage space and we’ll modernize stuff to meet codes and be more efficient.”

The rain that entered the building after the walls blew off caused flooding and mildew in parts of the building, including the auditorium, so the fabric on audience seats may have to be replaced.

Chase said he was not ready to put a value on the cost of the project but, “we’re talking several million dollars over what insurance will cover and we were well insured.” The cost of water removal and mitigation alone was about $600,000 for just one side of the building. “That doesn’t include putting it all back together and it doesn’t include costumes and fabrics, which were removed from the building and are being refurbished. That will be several hundreds of thousands of dollars.”

Once electricity is restored to the building, Chase said the company will be able to use the 90-seat Pinkerton Theatre, which was mostly undamaged, as was the newly renovated lobby. He expects to start using the theater in the next few months. Offices on the west side of the theater building also will be usable again.

A Christmas Carol, 2021

From 2-6 p.m. Saturday, the theater will hold auditions for its 22nd production of “A Christmas Carol,” which will run Dec. 2-19 in a newly constructed temporary theater in a building that will eventually become the company’s home for arts education programs.

In 2019, Venice Theatre purchased the former Hamilton Building, which briefly served as the Venice Public Library, and plans were in place to begin turning the building into the Raymond Center for arts education programs. That work will be delayed. Instead, the staff is creating a 125-seat thrust theater (with audience members surrounding part of the stage) for “A Christmas Carol” and other performances.

All scheduled education programs are happening in six different venues around Venice. “The community has just been great about helping out,” he said.

“A Christmas Carol” will feature a new and smaller design and fewer cast members than past years. It will mark the 20th year that Chase has directed the show with musical director Michelle Kasanofsky.

After photos and videos of the damaged building appeared on television, online and in social media posts, Chase said “there are a lot of people who think the theater doesn’t exist anymore and that Venice Theatre is gone,” Chase said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We’re rockin’ and rollin’ and working hard to get back together.”

The theater looked for alternative performance venues for “Kinky Boots,” but there was limited availability, and “we saw we could not do enough performances in the smaller new venue to accommodate tickets that were already sold,” he said. In addition, some of the costumes were damaged during the storm and will need to be rebuilt.

The damage included some of the thigh-high boots that factor into the story about a drag queen’s efforts to help a young man save his struggling shoe factory by having him make high-heeled boots.

Delaney Lockwood raised about $700 to help rebuild Venice Theatre, which was damaged during Hurricane Ian, from a lemonade stand.

Supporters have rallied around the nation’s second-largest community theater and donations have been coming in, while local businesses have offered services and meals for volunteers and staff working on repairs and getting reopened.

The theater is accepting donations for recovery efforts at venicetheatre.org/donate, but Chase said a bigger, more organized push will begin once the full extent of the cost is known.

The theater received one donation of $700 from 13-year-old Delaney Lockwood, an eighth grader who has performed in several productions. She raised the money from a lemonade stand where she expected to collect up to $100.