I spent last Thursday night standing outside an over-capacity theater, peering through a net-covered garage door to get a sideways glimpse of a show I'd already seen several times before. Ordinarily, that wouldn't add up to an evening worth writing home (or a newspaper column) about, but I couldn't have wished for a more fitting way to say farewell to the Venue. VarieTease founder Blue Star's beloved black-box theater has been the unofficial home of Orlando's burlesque community, as well as the Fringe Festival's official Black venue, for the past seven years. But even though the Ivanhoe Village building will soon be bulldozed, its spirit will continue to echo in Central Florida's culture, as the diverse audience attending the Venue's closing night last Thursday, Sept. 12, emotionally attested.
Over the years, I've had the pleasure (and occasional pain) of experiencing a seemingly infinite variety of shows at the Venue, from sci-fi stripteases and semi-trained circus kitties to Twilight Zone tributes and post-apocalyptic feminist polemics. As an artist, working at the Venue was sometimes a Mickey-and-Judy-esque "let's put on a show" affair, as scheduling snafus or equipment mishaps weren't uncommon. But it represented a swiftly vanishing breed of small stages that independent theater troupes could affordably rent.
Once, there were a number of low-budget performance spaces scattered around downtown and Winter Park, like GOAT's short-lived Cherry Street theater and the Cameo on Colonial Drive. But with the Venue's demolition and Theatre Downtown's building still sitting empty years after their eviction by property owner Florida Hospital, only Wade Hair's Breakthrough Theatre is left to offer theater producers a practical alternative within the city's core to the Loch Haven cultural complex and the Dr. Phillips Center.
For some, like stage technician Benjamin Dupree, the Venue literally changed the course of their life. "It's the place that gave me courage to quit my day job and chase my dream. It's the place that gave me every person I seriously care about now," Dupree told me as we stood on the lawn under Cole NeSmith's "Tree of Light" sculpture, while waiting for the finale performance of VarieTease's Hammers and Lambs.
"Tech life became my world; that's what I do now," he says, explaining how he ended up quitting his career as a kindergarten teacher after volunteering to run spotlights for a show at the Venue. "I did this on the side while I taught during the day, and now I'm making $25-$30 an hour doing lighting design for corporate shows. It literally was my springboard to finding the job I love going to every day."
On the other hand, prolific playwright-producer Michael Wanzie may never have performed on the Venue's stage, but as a patron and supporter he summed up its impact on our town more eloquently than I could: "A lot of times arts groups and organizations make a big deal in their mission statements, saying that their mission is to bring the community together and find common ground through the arts. That's a common theme that's almost never really realized. I think this little spot on Virginia is the one place where that actually happened. You have people of every station in life here, every wealth status and sexuality and walk of life; they really have come here and found common ground and bonded through the arts."
You didn't have to be a performer yourself to adore the Venue. "My heart is so full," neighborhood resident and self-described "village idiot" Lisa Bates gushed to me before wheeling her light-festooned bicycle onto the stage for a farewell photo. "I'm in love with these kids, their energy. I'm old, so watching these kids ... it's just an amazing place."
Of course, no one was transformed more by the Venue than Blue herself, who has evolved from club choreographer into community leader. Now she faces an Oct. 1 deadline for clearing out the theater she helped build by hand. Despite the support of the city – Mayor Dyer himself attended the closing show – no agreement was reached to relocate into the massive Yard at Ivanhoe development. While Blue promises that "there's something to look forward to," she isn't yet at liberty to announce her next step.
"Nothing will ever be the Venue," says Blue. "However, growth and change are good, and I think I have enough plates in the air to satisfy all of the cravings."
Until then, she's grateful for the turnout in support of the Venue's swan song, but not stopping to mourn. "Tonight was epic, and special ... I think what we put on in the last 12 days pretty much sums it up – 12 days of doom, on to the next!"
– This story is from the Sept. 18, 2019, print issue of Orlando Weekly. Stay on top of Central Florida news and views with our weekly Headlines newsletter.