Plays have replaced pizzas in the former Naples Flatbread Kitchen & Bar space in the Westfield Siesta Key plaza, near the CineBistro movie theater. The spot is now home to the Rise Above Performing Arts troupe, which aims to give kids from sixth to 12th grade an opportunity to express themselves through music and theater.
Although the locale is relatively new, Rise Above has been around since 2016, says artistic director Jacob Ruscoe, who grew up taking theater classes in Sarasota himself before becoming an educator at Sarasota County schools. “Basically, we [he and his fellow founders] saw a huge love of theater and a talent base in the young performers in the community,” he explains. “And these kids would be battling for the same roles” in shows produced by other theater companies in town, limiting the odds for each of them to actually appear onstage in the coveted slots available.
So Rise Above created a niche for presenting shows that featured only those young actors and actresses in all roles. So far they have presented 15, beginning, Ruscoe says, with sets composed of movable boxes and rehearsals held at a public library. The theater at the Glenridge on Palmer Ranch senior living community was their performance stage until the pandemic hit and that space had to close. With their new space at Westfield, it’s easier to plan, rehearse and schedule shows like the recently closed musical Carrie, which, with Covid protocols in place, featured 32 performers on stage and welcomed some 60 to 80 audience members a night during a two-weekend run.
But Rise Above isn’t just about putting on plays. Ruscoe says that early on they found they had so many kids auditioning for parts, they decided to establish a show choir as well, so that those who weren’t in a theater production still had an outlet for performance. That choir has sung at venues around town and even tried out for America’s Got Talent.
In addition, “We immerse them in all aspects of the performing arts,” says Ruscoe. There is regular music and dance instruction after school and on weekends—the latter by a choreographer who comes down for two weeks at a time from New York City to put the students through their paces. Rise Above also handles some talent representation for those interested in working in movies and commercials, recently helping to book a print ad in the Orlando area for one young man. “We work with a local agency and provide the outlet and the connections,” for those opportunities to happen, Ruscoe says.
It’s a lot of work, even more impressive because, Ruscoe says, “All of our team is volunteers. We all have full-time jobs. This is our give-back time.” In the future, he hopes they can compensate those working with Rise Above. But in the meantime, the nonprofit does find support from local donors and businesses, along with grants and the sale of playbill ads.
“We have two philosophies,” Ruscoe says. “We love doing shows that people think we can’t do, like when we produced West Side Story. And second, we’re never going to charge our students a dime. I don’t want money to stop a kid from doing what they love.”
After a winter cabaret show set for Dec. 20, Rise Above’s next full scale-production takes place in February, with All Shook Up, set to the songs of Elvis Presley. To learn more about that and the company overall, visit riseabovearts.com.