Michael + Linda
Asolo Rep leaders look back at two decades of transformation as they step down.
By Jay Handleman- Sarasota Herald-Tribune
When he closes the door to his office at Asolo Repertory Theatre for the last time on June 30, 2023 Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards will be leaving behind an organization that he helped to transform during his 18-year tenure.
With his business partner, Managing Director Linda DiGabriele, and a supportive board of directors, Edwards led a major expansion of the theater’s production capabilities and the creation of a new rehearsal facility designed to appeal to outside producers; arranged to buy condominium apartments to provide housing for visiting guest artists; introduced fall and spring productions of new and classic musicals that became a staple of each season, and altered the shape and scope of both the performance schedule and resident acting company.
The budget grew from about $5 million to $11.5 million. The organization’s name was changed from Asolo Theatre Company to Asolo Repertory Theatre.
Edwards and DiGabriele are both stepping down at the end of the month. DiGabriele has been with Asolo Rep for 50 years, the last 35 of them as managing director.
On July 1, they will be succeeded by new Producing Artistic Director Peter Rothstein, whose production of “Man of La Mancha” just closed, and Managing Director Ross Egan, who will lead the company into its next chapter.
Slow and steady growth
Aside from the musicals, which began in his second season in 2007, the changes and growth happened gradually, as Edwards worked to avoid the kind of problems and controversy that cut short the tenure of one of his predecessors, Margaret “Megs” Booker, who was fired in 1994 after three years as the company faced bankruptcy and almost shut down. She had replaced the familiar company of resident actors with new artists and scheduled mostly new plays, some of which were not ready or did not appeal to audiences.
Edwards credits his close and supportive relationship with DiGabriele as a reason for the company’s growth and expansion in the range and quality of productions. And that relationship began almost from the first day.
During his first week on the job, Edwards said he asked DiGabriele about the significance of his job title as producing artistic director as opposed to just artistic director.
“She said to me, ‘It means the art must lead. The artistic vision is what it’s all about. I could be a brilliant manager, but without the art, what’s the point?’” Edwards said during a joint interview with DiGabriele as they were counting down their final days.
“That was my first week and right off the bat I thought yes, we’re going to work well together.”
He relied on her input, asking her to read scripts he was considering, not just to figure out how to pay for productions. “Your response has always been very important to me. And I knew she understood the audience better than I did, at least at the start.”
Earlier in her career, DiGabriele worked as a stage manager and led the Asolo Rep touring theater operations.
Working and leaving together
DiGabriele had already worked with three previous artistic directors – the late John Ulmer (1983-90), Booker (1990-93), and Howard Millman (1995-2006), who helped revive the company after it nearly shut down in 1994.
Her working relationship with Edwards may not be unique, but “it is very unusual,” she said, and has been discussed by other leaders in the League of Regional Theater, who occasionally meet in Sarasota and see the way they work together up close.
“I was surprised and grateful for it, for the way we worked together,” she said. “It was the strength of that relationship, everything about it, that made me not want to move on with another partner. I’ve had a number of artistic partners over the years, some more successful than others, and I dearly love Howard Millman. Some were tough, and I was not interested in doing that again.”
After signing five-year contract renewals in 2018, Edwards and DiGabriele announced a year ago that they would both step down together, leading to national searches to find their replacements.
Edwards said he liked her phrase of “surprised and grateful” because “I have heard horror stories from some institutions about how they don’t work together.”
DiGabriele said Edwards proposed some ideas early on “where I thought we were putting our toe into hot water. But I could see what he was striving for. I knew it was right and it would be good. I stretched in a lots of ways because of him.”
Philosophical and stylistic shifts
Edwards inherited a theater with a tradition of producing on a rotating repertory schedule – meaning multiple shows running during the same period of time with actors usually appearing in two or more shows. That had been the standard since the company’s founding as a graduate acting program of Florida State University in the late 1950s.
It is a system that has long been attractive to Sarasota visitors who can see two or three shows in one week.
At the time, the theater also had a resident company of Sarasota-based actors who formed the core of each season, with the addition of guest artists from outside the region and third-year students in the FSU/Asolo Conservatory for Actor Training.
“I said I’ll keep everybody at first and figure out what their relationships are going to be,” Edwards recalled, acknowledging that it went against his instincts and training.
“I picked plays for those particular actors, which was a different kind of experience than what I had done before, which was picking plays and finding the actors we needed. And we were using the resources of the students,” he said.
The theater had a “very limited budget to bring in actors from New York. We didn’t have much housing to put them in, which were more reasons to stick” to the existing model, he said.
All that changed gradually as the budget expanded. Many long-standing actors stayed for at least a few seasons before retiring or finding there were no roles for them the next season or two because Edwards wanted to pick the plays for the stories, not for the actors who would be in them. Meanwhile, a new group of Chicago-based actors became regulars at the theater.
A musical theater
One thing Edwards did not hesitate about was his desire to produce musicals, something Asolo Rep had rarely done since its founding. He launched the 2007-08 season with the premiere of Jill Santoriello’s “A Tale of Two Cities,” a musical he had been hired to direct around the time he was offered the Asolo Rep job. The musical would go on to a month-long run on Broadway a year later, followed by “Bonnie & Clyde” in 2011. Musicals, both new and reinvented classics, have now become staples at the theater each fall and spring.
But Edwards recalls feeling nervous about the board of directors supporting the costly endeavors, which also impacted the Sarasota Ballet, which shares the Mertz Theatre and offices in the FSU Center for the Performing Arts.
For “A Tale of Two Cities,” “it meant appropriating the fall schedule. We bought the Ballet’s time in October. It would mean not starting the rep schedule until the new year. It was a big shift in the production and business models,” he said.
Edwards recalls conversations with some of the more powerful board members of the time, including Stanley Kane, Warren Coville and Lee and Bob Peterson, among others.
“It makes me cry to think about it, but they were so supportive. That kickstarted the rebranding of the theater,” he said. “It was personally a very difficult experience. I was fired from that show before it went to Broadway.”
But the production had its rewards by introducing Asolo Rep to a large number of designers and directors who would eventually create productions in Sarasota.
At the start, Edwards was busy as both a director and a producer, but over time, he gradually gave up directing slots to others, particularly Tony Award-winner Frank Galati and his husband, director Peter Amster, who had left Chicago for Florida.
Among Edwards’ more memorable productions were Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”and “Equus,” Shakespeare’s “The Winter’s Tale,” Bertolt Brecht’s “Life of Galileo,”a bilingual “Hamlet, Prince of Cuba” Galati’s adaptation of “The Grapes of Wrath”and Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible.”
“I directed three shows a season when I came. It was a chance for me to do what I wanted and I wanted to direct something in all three of the spaces we had access to” (the Mertz Theatre, the Historic Asolo Theater and the Cook Theatre), he said. He directed the beloved late actor David S. Howard in the one-man play “Nobody Don’t Like Yogi” partly because of the performer and partly because “I wanted to know what it’s like to be in that space. I didn’t know anything about baseball or Yogi Bera.”
Over the years, he discovered he got as much joy in the producing aspects of his job, bringing together designers and directors and letting them create.
“I started my career as a teacher. I loved teaching and directors are kind of a teacher, a coach,” he said. “You have a vision and have to coach people to share it, and producing is a combination of coaching and teaching and mentoring and stewarding. I feel like I had a lot of training for that.”
It became harder to direct “because of the time I have to be away from the office and removing myself from everything else.”
DiGabriele and Edwards were both reluctant to pick favorites from their years working together, but they found some things to highlight.
DiGabriele said she loves the musicals the theater has produced, but she is most proud of the outdoor Terrace Stage season that was created on the front steps of the theater building for the 2020-21 season at the height of the COVID pandemic. While other theaters shut down, Asolo Rep presented a series of concerts and musicals with limited staging.
“It took so much courage on the part of so many people to get behind that,” she said. “Yes, it’s crazy, but we’re going to do this. We’re going to build these cubicles in the lobby where actors can go safely. We had individually wrapped cookies for nourishment. I will never forget when we did ‘We Need a Little Christmas’ and how many people were in the audience, including me, crying because they were back and watching theater. That was a bold step and I’m just immensely proud of that.”
Edwards had his own multi-part answer.
He recalls the risks, like getting director and choreographer Joey McKneely, who had become one of the go-to people to restage Jerome Robbins’ work in “West Side Story,” to try a new approach.
“He was very resistant. He knew what worked,” said Edwards, who introduced McKneely to designer Lee Savage, who had new ideas of what the sets could be like. “It was two people not seeing it the same way. Joey was very successful doing revivals all over the world. He was plugged into the American system that could do ‘West Side Story’ at a high level and I had to take him on this journey. I was proud as a producer at getting them together. My job was to get them on the same page. I think it made them better as directors and designers.”
He questions why production manager Vic Meyrich, the longest-tenured Asolo Rep employee, “let me do ‘Grapes of Wrath’ in rep. We had a complete, graded stage, water, a rain storm. We did that whole thing in rep. I don’t think I’d make that request now, now that I know how much is involved, but I’m very proud of it.”
They both cite Edwards’ staging of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Life of Galileo” as another achievement. It’s about the astronomer’s clashes with the Catholic church over his scientific discoveries.
“That was at a time when people were extremely nervous about our doing it,” Di Gabriele said.
They saved money by doing away with a lot of scenery.
“It was one of the least expensive things we’ve done,” Edwards said. “The theater itself was the set. It was an unexpected show that made the board confident of doing work that was substantial. It was Brecht’s ‘Galileo’ in Florida. It was kind of lunacy, but it ended up being standing room only.”
They expressed hope that Rothstein and Egan will find a way to work together successfully as they step into their new roles.
Edwards is confident in the selection of Rothstein, who co-founded Theatre Latté Da in Minneapolis, which he has been running for 25 years as artistic director. “He has had a lot more experience producing than I had when I started. He’s on a creative high. He’s more established as a director of opera and new work and musicals than I was when I took this job. I was a musical naif in a way.”
In addition to “Man of La Mancha,” Sarasota audiences saw Rothstein’s work on “Ragtime” and “Sweeney Todd,” both of which featured reduced casts. Edwards said he was initially unsure that “Ragtime” with just 14 actors.
“It was one of the most successful of our spring musicals,” he said. “He is a wonderful director, a very sensitive smart storyteller, and a beautiful sense of design. He is unafraid of economy. He doesn’t need huge spectacle to be satisfied.”
What’s next for them
DiGabriele said she was advised by former Associate Artistic Director Bruce Rodgers “that when you retire you have to take a trip right away to get out of the routine” of going to the office every day. So she is joining her husband on a cruise to Alaska followed by a family gathering in Vancouver.
Her final days have been hectic trying to make sure that every last detail has been handled before she leaves.
Edwards is taking a different approach. He was planning to travel by train to see sights and people, but now everything is up in the air. After talking to one of his sisters – “they all have a way of speaking the unvarnished truth,” he said – he realized he didn’t need to make any plans.
“I want to know what it feels like on July 1 to wake up for the first time since I was 17 and have no responsibility, no plans, nothing that must be done,” he said.
They will then figure out what happens next. DiGabriele said it is “difficult to imagine having that calendar and agenda empty. I think that’s one of the reasons why I tried to resist the idea of planning what comes next. I need a time of reflection in there before I just jump in and figure out where do I fit in now.”