Bruce Rodgers loves a challenge.
10 years ago, he left Sarasota’s loved Asolo Repertory Theater, where he was associate artistic director, for an unknown future. He became director of a proposed artists’ retreat on a remote Gulf of Mexico key. At the time, the Hermitage (once a nudist colony) consisted of 5 falling down beachfront cottages 35 miles south of Sarasota.
Today those ramshackle dwellings are restored homes for leading painters, musicians, writers and choreographers. These talents come, as the SRQ Herald Tribune recently put it, “to clear their minds and draw inspiration from the sun and sand and wildlife so they can focus on the business of creating.” They’re invited at the recommendation of other leaders in their fields.
Atlanta Symphony conductor Robert Spano, past U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey, 2-time Pulitzer Prize finalist playwright Arthur Kopit, to name drop just a few, are some of the 300+ artists who’ve been guests at the Hermitage Artists Retreat. Recipients have 2 years to take advantage of 6 weeks residence. 5 or 6 artists stay at a time. Each takes part in at least 2 community events.
The Hermitage Artist Retreat also awards the internationally recognized Greenfield Prize. It includes a $30,000 commission for a new piece of work that debuts at a Sarasota arts organization. Winners have included composers Vijay Iyer and Eve Beglarian and artists Trenton Doyle Hancock and Coco Fusco—to name drop a few more.
About the Hermitage philosophy, Bruce says, “We want to remain boutiquey. Because we’re small, we can offer flexible schedules. We don’t have to follow bureaucratic rules. We’ll bring our artists Starbucks coffee in the morning if that’s what they need.”
This artistic nirvana is the brainchild of Rodgers and Patricia Caswell, program director, past head of the Sarasota Arts Council. (You’ll meet Patricia in a future post.) Recently, accompanied by friend/golf buddy/chauffeur/photographer Marcy Klein, I got to know the versatile and determined Bruce Rodgers.
Bruce was a percussion major at the Crane School of Music in Potsdam, NY—first in the US to teach music teachers. (Who knew?) Upon graduating, about to be drafted for Viet Nam, he instead became a drummer with the West Point band. A subsequent MFA from Indiana U., in creative writing and English, led to 30 years as a theatrical producer and playwright.
Bruce learned about artists retreats first hand at the MacDowell artists’ colony. There he learned the value of interacting with artists of varied disciplines. At MacDowell, he says, he “discovered the way into the play” he was writing, The Gravity of Honey.
“Writers write to discover what they’re writing about. I thought my play was a about science. I came to see it was about faith.”
In the 1980s, Bruce received a “distinguished artist” award in New Jersey. That led to his becoming resident playwright at the prestigious MacCarter Theater at Princeton. It also led to a gig with computers. An early computer nerd, he teamed up with Princeton paper physicist Steve Grossman. For several years, he and Grossman worked with Fortune 500 companies as trouble shooting consultants.
“My philosophy is: Say yes to whatever opens up. You don’t always know why you take a road. You only know in retrospect. I love what I do. I’ve always wanted to get paid for what I’d do for free.”
Another example: Bruce took up wind surfing then started a column on it for Wind Surfing magazine.
4 years ago, I saw an unforgettable exhibit at the Ringling Museum. Hermitage resident/Greenfield Prize winner Sanford Biggers reworked historical quilts with his own symbolism. The quilts he used were donated by the descendants of slave owners. On the Underground Railroad, quilts were hung in windows to indicate safe houses for escaped slaves. (Where else do you pick up such interesting trivia?)
An invitation to the Hermitage contains a small shell from the beach. A letter explains that just as the shell was selected from thousands on the beach, so, too, the artist has been chosen among thousands. Who could resist such a pitch?
Bruce’s father was an engineer; his mom had a 9th grade education. I wondered where Bruce got the confidence to go after such diverse pursuits. As a proud mother, I asked if Bruce’s mom had instilled such confidence in him.
“My mother always said I could do whatever I wanted.” But when standard tests in high school showed him to be an “average” student, his mom said she’d be satisfied if he brought home C’s. So he did.
Years later, in a community college philosophy class, he received an A. “My classmates thought I was smart. So I redefined myself. I was no longer average; I was smart. After that I never got less than an A.”
Thousands of Sarasotans are glad you redefined yourself, Bruce. Thanks for all you do to enrich the Suncoast.