Shining a spotlight on the performing arts community.

Booker Visual & Performing Arts Center: The Triumph of Art

  • December 14, 2020

In challenging times, art can be both a solution and a healer. At least, that’s what can be learned from arts programs like the Booker Visual & Performing Arts Center. 

Part of Sarasota’s Booker High School, the program began in the ’70s as the state’s first magnet arts program. It started at a time when the civil rights climate was far from perfect. According to Rebecca Abrahamson, VPA Director and herself a Class of ‘92 alumna, “In the late 1960s, the county mandated integration, forcing bussing out of neighborhoods as a way to desegregate schools.” Tempers ran high, and Booker High School, which was named after Emma E. Booker, “an educator and, in her own right, civil rights activist,” was closed due to unrest. “Then superintendent Gerald Strickland decided to put an arts magnet program at the school to attract students from all around Sarasota and to foster organic integration.”

Today the Booker VPA draws and educates talented students across a multimedia spectrum of dance, music, theatre, fine arts, film, and digital animation. Currently, the program includes 340 students in our program, about 260 of whom have a concentration in the performing arts (vs. the visual arts). “Our program is a competitive, audition-based program,” said Abrahamson. “Many of our students come from low-income households (the school’s population living in poverty is more than 70 percent). We think of the program as a safety net for our students, a place where they all feel welcomed and like they belong.”

Abrahamson and a colleague, Nick Jones (Class 2010, and Production Manager), are returning graduates. “I graduated from the Theatre Department in 1992,” she said. Returning to Booker High School as a teacher in 2002, she has been with the program 18 years. “In the first 10 years, I taught screenwriting, cinema literacy, film history and other courses in our TV & Film Program. In 2012, I became the VPA Director, a role that involves overseeing the program’s many facets, including curriculum, hiring staff, marketing, grant-writing and fundraising, and maintaining communications with students and parents.

Together with administrative assistant, Nancy Wachendorf, Abrahamson and Jones comprise the program’s support staff. There are also nine full-time teachers and 13 part-time adjunct faculty. Noted Abrahamson, “One aspect of our program that makes us unique among the arts classes offered at a typical high school is the fact that our faculty are all practicing professionals with illustrious careers outside of teaching. 

“The program,” she said, “actively monitors students to ensure their continued progress and success. Classes in each area are offered as blocks, so students are exposed to a range and depth of their discipline that is not accessible in a typical high school setting.” In terms of performance: some are involved in the program because it gives them an outlet for their creativity and expression, but the majority see performance as a part of their life they cannot live without. Many of our performers plan to study performance in college to pursue careers in the arts. We’ve graduated many successful artists, including some popular stars of stage and screen: Syesha Mercado, Charlie Barnett, Jeff Meacham, LaMichael Leonard, and more.” 

The curriculum is demanding and diverse. In terms of performance, Abrahamson said, “Each year is different, but typically, we host 11 major mainstage events (four in Music, four in Theatre, two in Dance, and one Film Showcase), five Senior Showcases, and roughly a dozen smaller recitals, classroom projects, and student works. Each show and performance is a favorite in some way, but a few titles that really remain with me are our Theatre’s performances of “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Annie, Get Your Gun.” Both were unbelievable to me, even after seeing a number of impressive performances at Booker High School. The Dance Department has also done some really innovative, thought-provoking work, often involving unique set and light design and staging; and perhaps my favorite annual Music event is ‘Death by Chocolate,’ which is a concert set up in a jazz-club style, featuring three stages and a variety of pieces performed on number of instruments. 

Recently, the Booker VPA added to its portfolio Phantasmic, a virtual/streamed show that was a multidisciplinary showcase of theatre, music and dance. “Phantasmic explores life’s ephemeral nature, the legacies left by those who’ve departed, and the mysteries of secrets that are taken to the grave,” said Abrahamson. A suitably somber subject for life during Covid. “There are, oddly, pros and cons to the COVID influence on our actual curriculum and program. Obviously, audience constraints, mask mandates, and performance restrictions are limiting what we can do in the classroom and on stage. But, in a weird way, what has emerged in the chaos of our current world context has been a steadfast embrace of the arts: they soothe and settle, they offer the solace of human connectedness in a world that is rife with chaos, division, and fear. This can give us in the modern day an understanding of how the arts have endured throughout history. Far from being superfluous, they are essential to existence. Times like these drive that message home.”

Helping them get the message across is AnywhereSeat by Ludus. “It’s a great tool,” Abrahamson enthused. “We’ve had a few virtual events since the pandemic began, but haven’t had a way of selling tickets or really promoting those events in the way that AnywhereSeat allows. The fact that fees are passed to patrons is great for a small-scale school operation like ours, which can’t really afford to eat fees and expensive subscriptions. Our parent revenue sources are shallow, but we manage to put on incredible productions and create works of wide acclaim.”