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After Hurricane Ian damages Venice Theatre, playhouse leaders say the season will go on

Damaged building with large hole
Cathy Carter
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The 95-year-old theater in downtown Venice was heavily damaged after Hurricane Ian’s strong winds and rain moved through the area.

A collapse of the rear wall allowed winds to rip open the roof and water to flood into the building's mainstage theater space.

Venice was struck particularly hard by Hurricane Ian.

Winds and rain from the Category 4 storm caused devastating damage to the Venice Theatre, one of the city's oldest and best-known cultural institutions.

Initially called the Venice Little Theatre, its first production took the stage in the 1950's in a borrowed building and had no paid staff.

Today, Venice Theatre is per capita, one of the largest community theatres in the United States with an operating budget of almost $4 million dollars, a professional staff and an army of community volunteers.

WUSF's Cathy Carter recently spoke with Murray Chase, Producing Executive Director of the theater, about where the arts organization goes from here.

Murray, how did you first hear about the damage to the Venice Theatre?

At about 3:15 on that Wednesday, I received a text from a board member and the text said, 'What has happened to the theater?' And then about two minutes later, a text following said, 'We will find a way.' And I thought, that's not good. He said, 'I have a picture and it's devastating,' and I said, 'Send me the picture.' A few minutes later, it came in and I saw the extent of the damage. The picture was taken from an apartment building nearby, and the rain was so thick that you could barely see the building through that rain. And I just thought, this isn't going to let up anytime soon. There's going to be a lot of water in that building by the time it's done.

People with brooms and mops stand in a parking lot.
Venice Theatre
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Volunteers gather to help clean-up the debris at the Venice Theatre.

Now that you've been able to assess and speak to some of the engineers, can you talk to us about the damage?

The wind with those 115 miles an hour gusts, for as long as they were blowing, had finally caused the oldest wall in the building — the north wall — the 1926 construction, to buckle. And when it did, one of the braces had nowhere to brace and it swung in and created a big hole because all of that wall fell away — the back wall. That left the big open structure plenty of room for water to pour in. So, the damage was, of course, catastrophic to the stage house of the theater, the backstage area, the stage itself, the area above the stage and the front of the theater house, the auditorium. And as torrential as that rain was, it caused severe damage to other parts of the building.

Right, as we've learned wind, of course, can cause a lot of damage during a hurricane. But it really is the water that can be so destructive.

One of the few things that I remember from science class is that water is the most corrosive compound in the universe. It will always go where it's going to go. Well, it did.

Murray.JPG
Venice Theatre
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Executive Producing Director Murray Chase gives an update to comminity members about the Venice Theatre with a megaphone, since electricity was not yet available on site.

Do you know yet how much this will all cost to repair?

We don't know yet, quite frankly. We do know that it's going to be north of $4 (million) or $5 million. The insurance people have been here twice and we expect them several more times before we get the totals on a settlement. We've had offers from a number of organizations, foundations, so forth, to help with the total cost. And of course, we're already contacting people and we've put out the word to everybody that if you can give, please do. And we'll be doing most of that from private individuals who I really do believe will step up because they want this to continue and to be back better and stronger than it was before.

Well, let's talk a little bit about the company. The Venice Theatre is much more than just a building.

We're fortunate because we have such a great artistic community from Venice to Sarasota, Bradenton, and onward towards St. Pete and Tampa, and people volunteering from all of those areas. We have a professional staff and about 100 professional contract artists and teachers that work with us. But we have 1,500 plus active volunteers. In terms of community theaters around the country, that is far and away the largest, most active volunteer force of any community theater.

People in line for food under a tent in a parking lot.
Venice Theatre
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Venice Theatre’s annual volunteer appreciation party was not canceled due to Hurricane Ian. The party was held Monday in the parking lot of the damaged theatre.

We should note that there are some buildings as part of the Venice Theatre campus that were not damaged. So, tell us about the theater company's next steps.

Our mainstage theater, the stage house, is going to be we're guessing a year to repair. Hopefully that soon. So, Venice Theatre will be performing in alternate locations. We've identified at least three. The education building that we had bought three years ago to renovate was just about to be renovated. Well, it's going to wait for a little while, while we do some performances in there on a temporary basis. The Pinkerton Theatre, which cannot be accessed now because of the building damage so far, is undamaged. So as soon as we can get the go ahead from the engineers and the city, we'll be back in there performing. Several places and organizations have offered us use of their space for classes, for rehearsals. Anything that they have available, they said we're welcome to use. We’re just gratified by how many responses and how many gestures of goodwill that we have received from all of our colleagues.

As a reporter, my goal is to tell a story that moves you in some way. To me, the best way to do that begins with listening. Talking to people about their lives and the issues they care about is my favorite part of the job.