Filling up the mason jars

Live theater is alive and well in Hernando County. This is evidenced by the fact that Live Oak Theatre is celebrating its eighth year entertaining local audiences and has ambitious plans to expand.

With more than 150 people in its company, most of them young people ages seven to twenty-two, the troupe performs three shows a year. Its last show Annie was such a hit that they held eight performances. This was both a blessing and a challenge.

Vince Vanni, Vice President and Marketing Director of the not-for-profit 501c3 company stated, “This made us realize that we can no longer grow unless we had our own building. We maxed out at Faith Evangelical Presbyterian Church, [our current venue].”

Part of Live Oak Theatre's troupe holding donation jars

Now, the group is raising money to purchase an 11,500 square foot two-story building on Cortez Boulevard. The building itself once served as popular restaurants, then was purchased by the county for $500,000 to become the Utilities Department headquarters. With the Utilities Department now relocated to the former Tampa Bay Times building on Cortez Blvd, the building was placed on the county’s surplus properties list. The sale of the building to Live Oak Theatre for $500,000 was approved at a recent county commission meeting.

Following that meeting, Sonny Vergara, the President of the Hernando County Arts Council remarked in an email to County Administrator Len Sossamon, “ I am beyond words. This is incredibly great news. Congratulations to you for the leadership you provide and to the BOCC for its wisdom and foresight in moving the County forward out of some very tough economic times and appreciating the fact that art can, and does, play a very important economic role in the future of Hernando County.

“And, just as important, congratulations to The Live Oak Theatre as well. The fact that this successful organization believes in the City as a permanent place for its home is testimony that its charm and beauty offer a unique opportunity for the successful growth of all the arts here. We fully believe this forward-thinking action of the Live Oak Theatre will prove to be a harbinger for a better future for the City and County. It’s a courageous undertaking to be commended which we fully support. Our best wishes for a successful closing.”

Far left - Randi Olsen (founder), Middle - Vince Vanni (vice-president), Back row - John Masterson (director), "Miss Jane" - choreographer with young theatre members

The building will not only give Live Oak Theatre ample rehearsal space, a stage and room to store costumes and other items, it will also serve as a place to hold their annual week-long summer camps. Live Oak Theatre also plans to rent the ballroom and other spaces for events and meetings in order to offset operating and production costs. There's plenty of room for parking on the 3.4 acres and an additional 1,500 square-foot partially enclosed area that will be ideal for outdoor performances.

“The advantage for us with this building is that most interior renovations will be done with sweat equity,” Vanni added.

With the new building, the group plans to expand to five shows a year, daily classes in various forms of the arts and a minimum of two weeks for summer camp.

While most of the people in the acting company are under the age of twenty, parents and other adults are also involved in various roles, such as directing and mentoring. Eighty-two-year-old John Masterson has had fifty years of stage experience – from Broadway to dinner theater. He is currently directing the upcoming production of ReUnKnighted.

Masterson stated, “They get my experience and I get their energy. The best thing about working with Live Oak Theatre is that besides having talent and inspiration, this theater has love, respect and understanding of each other's feelings. There's no self-importance here. Everybody helps each other.”

The two month long rehearsals require commitment on the actors' and the parents' part. However, it's worth it.

One parent who has three children involved in the theater stated, “It's a safe environment for kids and it has boosted my oldest son's self-confidence immensely.”

The young people enjoy the experience. They also learn valuable lessons.

Twenty-two-year-old Kyle Staley remarked, “This is my first season with Live Oak. What I like best is that the people [associated with the organization] are really nice.”

“I love the acting, but I like how it's a big family. We can have fun even when we're doing the work part of it,” commented eleven-year-old Allanah Allocco, who has been with the troupe for four years.

Although this is only the first season for ninth grader Elyck Walters, he has been inspired to go into the acting profession when he gets older.

“I want to work for Disney. What I like best about being in the group is that we have good music and stage productions. It's a loving cast and the directors are good to us.”

All of Live Oak Theatre's productions are “family-friendly.” That doesn't mean that they are juvenile, only appeal to a small segment of the population or that the acting is amateurish. Their first production eight years ago was Anne of Avonlea based on the Anne of Green Gables series of novels. Since then, they have performed such plays as Fiddler on the Roof, The Secret Garden, Peter Pan and Around the World in Eighty Days.

Purchasing the building will not be an easy task. Live Oak Theatre's goal is to initially raise $100,000 for a deposit. They have already raised $30,000, much of it small donations deposited in mason jars at local businesses. Raising the balance, along with funds to renovate their new home will require community support.

Randi Olsen, founder, President of the corporation and Artistic Director stated, “Place our change jars in your businesses, spread the word about our fundraising efforts and support our productions and events.”

And, of course, volunteers to help with renovations on the building once it is purchased will be welcomed also.

Shakespeare said, “All the world's a stage.” Live Oak Theatre is teaching its actors about the world, providing wholesome, top-notch entertainment and serving the community in many ways.

For more information on Live Oak Theatre call 352-797-9199 or log onto Go to to “Like” their Facebook page.

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