Catch up with Julie Leach, a values driven CPA turned Executive Director at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe who, by raising funds for an impressive theater renovation, is leaving her mark in the Rosemary District. We sat down to talk about the renovation project and were lucky enough to be joined by the organization’s busy founder Nate Jacobs who discussed the troupe’s impact in the local community and beyond.
Tell us, Julie, are you from Sarasota. If not where are you from?
I’m originally from Michigan, but from there I moved around to various places. I spent about 17 years in Dallas and then my husband and I moved here to Sarasota back in 2000.
Why did you choose to move to Sarasota?
Well my husband worked with Tropicana. He originally worked for Frito Lay, a Pepsi Co company. Pepsi Co then bought Tropicana, they asked him to move here, run it and be the CEO.
How did you get involved with the theater?
About 8 years ago the the theater was having financial troubles. Nate Jacobs, the founder, hired on his first Executive Director to try to get the finances under control. She was looking for new members of the board, knew me and asked me to be on the board, because I’ve had a lot of non-profit experience. I was on the board for about 5 years. When it came time for her to retire, she asked me to step in as interim. The board asked me to stay and so did Nate, now I’ve been here almost 2 years.
*Nate Jacobs joins us *
Can you tell us a little about why you wanted Julie as Executive Director, Nate?
Nate: She was an incredible board president before becoming the Executive Director. We had a little situation where we were looking for a replacement for Christine Jennings, the previous Executive Director. But, when I walked into the office one day and she said, “I think I want to take this position” I was so happy. I told her, “You are the answer to my prayer.” I was praying the right person would step in after Christine and I was blessed twice, both myself and the organization. She was very passionate as the board president and very involved. It totally made sense to me that we were going to have her in this office.
Why were you drawn to this organization Julie?
Julie: I love the mission. This troupe has a dual mission— performing amazing shows that are exciting and energizing theater, but also developing young minority artists and providing a platform for them to grow and develop. That’s really where my heart is. Once you get to know Nate and the theatre, you just fall in love. The whole board is like that, very passionate.
Can one of you talk about what the theater means to this area?
Nate: I think a few things. Westcoast Black Theater Troupe has been a catalyst to inspire other arts organizations to be more diverse. Diversity in the arts programming, before I started this troupe, did not exist. This theater has changed the diversity of the landscape, not just in Sarasota, but on Florida’s West coast. There was very little cross-casting before and plays done with African American interests or themes weren’t connecting with people.
Can you speak more on diversity in this area?
Nate: One of our donors said to me the other day, “You know, I don’t know if everybody in this town knows what your company is doing to Sarasota. When has it ever been that African Americans have been over in Longboat Key in some of those homes?” The history of this town is documented— that has never existed. She explained that through the troupe, there is a bridging of the community, one which has always been so segregated. She said, “I can see it after years of watching your company, that you’re making a real effort in bridging this community and we really needed that…”
Tell us a bit more about the focus on youth at WBTT.
Nate: We are a net, catching young talent that would be overlooked otherwise. A lot of arts programs in the area are expensive. Some start at $400 and a lot of parents can’t afford to invest that much in their kid’s arts program. A lot of people tell me when they come in the theater that they see new faces on stage and want to know where we got the kids from, New York? I tell them they’re from Bradenton or Sarasota and they’re blown away. We put them into our organic training program at around 15. Audiences see them on the stage every year and love seeing them grow into themselves before their eyes. Some now are 25-26 years old with careers.
Who are some of the success stories from WBTT?
Julie: Chris Eisenburg is one of our biggest success stories. He started with Nate at 8 years old, local youth, didn’t have a dad at home and Nate became a father to him in many ways. He also became Chris’ mentor and taught him how to sing and helped him with his signing career. He graduated from high school about a year ago and signed a deal with Sony Records. He’s in this new group Next Town Down. Mariah Carey also heard them sing and asked them to open for her show in Las Vegas.
Tell us about the kind of productions you do.
Nate: When you think about black theater, it’s very limited. You can only do The Haven so many times or Dream Girls. I always saw a need to keep something vibrant, interesting and entertaining on stage. I don’t want our patrons to come sit in this theater and see anything I feel that I would not want to see. So, I work very hard when it comes to our artistic product, I put stuff on that stage that keeps them excited and keeps them guessing. We’ve become really known for that. When Christine was here she showed me ticket sales and said, “This community loves you writing these shows.” Then Julie came on and said, “Your shows are always the first to sell out, people love the cutting edge new shows.”
*Nate leaves interview to instruct students*
Julie, do you think there is a new found interest in diversity in the arts in this community because of WBTT?
Now that we have an established base here, other theaters are calling us looking for talent. They think they can put on a show that has actors of color, because there are several in town. The Venice theater has a great diversity program. They’ve been doing diverse plays for several years now. They did Fences recently, so they found someone to play the lead from across the country. But the son in the play is someone from our summer camp, who’s actually here again now. And the gal who plays the wife, is a long time person that was in Nate’s early shows in town here. Its a tight knit community here, so I think having a core group in town inspires other theaters to do some diversity.
Tell us about the diversity within your patronage. What does it look like right now?
We actually did a survey recently so we know. About 11% is African American. It’s not that much, but the county is 5% and city is about 15%, so its not bad. We reach out to groups like the Links, the Boulay, and different social groups here in town of retired African Americans. We reach out to schools and different church groups, so some nights you see a much larger percentage. Overall throughout the season you see usually 11%. We’ve grown that. When Nate first did the reboot about 8 years ago we had about 2 or 3%, so we worked really hard at growing relationships.
I know you are in the midst of a renovation project. Can you tell us about that?
We have 2 buildings on our campus. When Christine was on board, her and Nate looked for a permanent place to perform. For the first 6 years it was a vagabond, they went around town renting space from other theaters. They were tired of that, so they looked for a permanent place and they found this. We rented it for about a year and then it went into foreclosure. After renting it from a bank however, we were able to buy it in foreclosure and get the entire property with both buildings. It was really a huge gift. So we have the two buildings, the front one will become our education building. It’ll have 3 education class rooms, an entertaining space, administrative offices, and a finished rooftop terrace.
What can you tell us about funding?
We just got $250,000 from the William G. and Marie Selby Foundation towards the project so that really pushed us along. The Duckwall Foundation has really stepped up and a lot of individual donors as well. Gerri Aaron most specifically, gave us our leading donation of a million dollars at the start of the fundraising. It’s a great story, because initially she gave us a million dollars and then the board together matched that million dollars. I’ve now raised another million-nine from the community foundation. Its just been really great support from the city on this project.
What do you want for the future of this troupe?
Well the board and I share a vision that this will be the best black theater in the country and we’ll be well known. We’re trying to grow to that. There are a lot of black theaters in the country that have a longer history than us, but we’re very financially successful and critically as well. We got 3 Wall Street Journal Reviews in the last 3 years. Those were for August Wilson dramas, we’re well known for those, but also for our energizing musicals that everyone loves. So I would like to have that and the education program grow. I’d like to see our young people become successful adults, lead fulfilling lives and practice their art and experience it.
We know you’ve run programs for kids before, been the president of endowment boards and have done social justice work in your past. It seems like you’ve done so much for other people, you’re always giving. Where does that come from?
I’m lucky to be in a place in the world where I can do that. So it’s partly privilege. I’m a CPA by background and had my own CPA business for a while. But my husband worked a lot and once I had my kids, I wasn’t able to work full time anymore. So I figured out what I could do with my time that’s meaningful. I am a values driven person and that comes from my faith as a Unitarian Universalists. We have diverse beliefs, but we all believe that your place in the world is to make the world a better place.
When does next season start?
October 11th with In the Heights, then we have Motown Christmas, one of Nate’s shows its kind of secular somewhat religious piece, but theres a lot of Motown woven into a funny script. Nate has a funny nature, you can really see that in his plays.
What’s your favorite play the troupe has put on?
Well last season I loved what we did with The Wiz. But I also really enjoyed when we put on Little Shop of Horrors. We weren’t really sure how it was going to work out, typically the cast isn’t African American unless its back up dancers. So we put on the play and I really enjoyed what we did with it.
WBTT will be having a groundbreaking event for their renovation project on Monday, July 10th at 10am.