Amid the chaos of the pandemic, Rise Above Performing Arts moved into a former Naples Flatbread location at an indoor shopping mall.
The pandemic hasn’t been especially kind to performing arts groups. Large-scale performances have been canceled for months, and to keep missions going, some organizations have turned to outdoor performances and streaming past performances online.
One organization, Rise Above Performing Arts, has continued to make bold moves amid the pandemic, reacting to a bad situation with optimism for the future. The group’s new home at an indoor mall could be the start of a brighter tomorrow — if the risk pays off.
Prior to the pandemic, the nonprofit Rise Above held its youth-led performances at Glenridge Performing Arts Center on the Glenridge retirement community campus in Palmer Ranch in south Sarasota. At the onset of the pandemic, Glenridge locked down its facility, and Rise Above had to find somewhere else to perform.
Its solution for a more permanent home is in a somewhat unlikely spot: the former Naples Flatbread restaurant at Westfield Siesta Key in Sarasota. The indoor shopping mall, like many nationwide, has struggled in recent years to keep tenants and gain new ones. But Rise Above thinks the site, which it moved into in July, comes with major advantages. Its location, on a busy stretch of U.S. 41 near high-income neighborhoods, is prime. Plus the recently renovated mall is one of the most attractive indoor shopping plazas in the area. “Our goal all along was to get our own theater,” says Rise Above Artistic Director and Chairman Jacob Ruscoe. “We’re basically getting a multimillion dollar building without having to pay for a multimillion dollar building.”
Rise Above, now in its fifth season, produces Broadway-style shows performed by young people in sixth to 12th grades. The group started with 24 children rehearsing at the public library and has grown to involve dozens more students. Ruscoe, who works with a team of eight to nine volunteers, founded the nonprofit to give children more performing opportunities. “The sheer amount of talent in this community absolutely blows my mind,” says Ruscoe. “We’re not holding back. Anyone who comes to see our show definitely wouldn’t call it a children’s show.”
‘Our goal all along was to get our own theater. We’re basically getting a multimillion dollar building without having to pay for multimillion dollar building.’ — Jacob Ruscoe, Rise Above Performing Arts
Rise Above went dark for several months due to the pandemic, starting in March. Ruscoe used the time to search for a new home, and, despite the pandemic being a particularly precarious time for performing arts organizations, Rise Above decided to go forward with the real estate move. “We thought it was definitely a risky time,” says Ruscoe. “I will say, though, as terrible as COVID-19 is, if COVID hadn’t happened, we wouldn’t have been in this spot today. We would have probably been at Glenridge and played it safe.”
Once Rise Above took over the roughly 5,000-square-foot former Naples Flatbread, it began transforming it into a rehearsal and performing space. “At Rise Above, we’ve always been different, and we can totally do this because we’ve always done theater different, and it’s a perfect space to do that,” says Ruscoe.
So far, Rise Above has invested about $20,000 in renovations. It removed restaurant booths and turned the bar into a premium seating area for performances. (Naples Flatbread closed its Westfield location in January 2019, a little more than a year after it opened.) It added a 32-foot stage that’s about three feet high plus a lighting system, and it’s turning the back kitchen area into dressing rooms. Rise Above also plans to create costume and prop areas and make other facility upgrades. “It’s a matter of just working our way through the list as funds come in based on priority,” says Ruscoe. “Being a nonprofit and in the pandemic, (the mall) gave us a great deal where we could invest the money we needed to invest in getting it up and running.”
Ruscoe says Rise Above relies on donations, grants and ticket sales for operational costs. Students pay no fee, a key goal of Ruscoe’s in founding the group. “I never want a kid to have to pay to do this,” he says. “They come 100% free of charge. I don’t want money to stop a kid doing what they love.”
Rise Above has already held performances of “Carrie: The Musical” in its new space. Audiences were socially distanced and ranged from 50 to 75 people. Its next show, “All Shook Up,” is scheduled for February.
The organization usually does three shows a year, but the new space will allow them to do six shows in the next academic year. A season announcement party is planned for February.
Ruscoe says Westfield Siesta Key wants to drive customers to the mall, and the mall thinks the theater will help. It might also work the other way around. “We absolutely love the location,” says Ruscoe. “Being close to downtown and being next to CinéBistro, we really like it. It’s our plan to be there for a long time.”