Orlando's Arts, Music and Film Take the Spotlight

Visitors and locals find a flourishing arts scene in Orlando both center stage and a bit behind the scenes.

From theater to indie films, outdoor sculpture to graffiti, classical music to jazz, Orlando is alive with the arts. Most of it is because of two magical words: theme parks. 

Terry Olson, Orange County’s director of arts and cultural affairs, explains, “The parks are an arts industry. Disney has 74,000 cast members—it’s a theatrical term—and brings tens of thousands of trained artists into our community.” 

That’s thousands of creative artists working daily for a steady paycheck and health benefits, all aching to stretch their artistic legs when off-duty. And dozens of independent, local playwrights and producers benefit from that wellspring of talent, feeding a flourishing Orlando arts scene.

Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in Downtown Orlando

In the Spotlight 

Named one of the “World’s Coolest Tourist Attractions” by Travel + Leisure magazine, the city’s biggest artistic attraction is the towering Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts. Its soaring, cantilevered roofline stands out—and above—the downtown skyline, and its state-of-the-art stages call Broadway touring companies, jazz concerts and shows from the likes of Emeril Lagasse and Steve Martin. 

Its Walt Disney Theater seats more than 2,700 people within its bronzed balconies and stained-glass ceiling. Touring productions of “Wicked,” “Finding Neverland,” “An American in Paris” and “Matilda” will grace the stage in the 2016-17 season, along with an evening with science-celebrity Neil deGrasse Tyson.

“The building was always designed to be an invitation for people to come inside and to come together,” says CEO Kathy Ramsberger. “The Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts is an expression of Central Florida with our iconic porch roof, our glass ‘Florida Room’ walls, and our open doors on the DeVos Room and the main lobby. Visiting downtown used to be the best-kept secret, but more and more we’re getting national and international attention for our food scene, our arts and culture scene and the many unique and diverse events—it’s a great place to take a vacation from your vacation.”

Just 10 minutes from there, a 45-acre urban oasis called Loch Haven Park is another cultural center. Among the greenspace and lakefront walking trails are Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Orlando Science Center, the kid-centric Orlando Repertory Theatre, the Orlando Fire Museum and the jewel of “OTown” culture, the Orlando Museum of Art, founded in 1924. From an extensive collection and nationally curated tours, the museum of art presents up to a dozen exhibitions a year. Across the tree-covered road is the Mennello Museum, showing brilliant examples of American art, including the largest collection of paintings in existence by Earl Cunningham.

In the affluent neighborhood of Winter Park are two more visual-arts gems. Bookending the half-mile stretch of Park Avenue are the Cornell Fine Arts Museum on the Rollins College campus, and the largest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s work, from stained glass to jewelry to architecture, at the Morse Museum.

Morse Museum of American Art

Behind the Scenes

Other venues around town are drawing creative crowds, a bit behind the scenes. Music lovers in-the-know head to the Timucua White House, still bubbling under the surface even after 15 years as a prime stop on the jazz, folk and classical circuit. The owner, Benoit Glazer, has been music director of Cirque du Soleil’s “La Nouba” since 1998, yet this is his passion.

“I learned pretty quickly that [for] the musicians here, there’s a lot of work, but it’s always in support of the tourism industry, so they don’t get to play what they would like to play a lot,” Glazer says. 

Acknowledging the need for versatile venues for artists to express themselves freely, Glazer opened his private residence to the public where he hosts concerts in his three-story living room most weekends—for free.What began as a few concerts eventually grew into a full season of events as well as some 70 concerts to a 125-person audience over the course of a year. 

“They were really happy to find a place where they can play what they want, how they want and how long they want, you know, and there are no constraints,” says Glazer. “It’s art for art’s sake.”

While acclaimed musicians flock to Timucua White House, creators of new theater seek out the counterculture of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. Including several off-site and free performances, 2016 Fringe encompassed more than 1,000 performances by 12,000-plus artists. Jugglers and slam poetry join soaring modern dance, thoughtful drama and hysterical comedy, presenting challenging new work and adaptions of everything from “Lysistrata” to “The Lion King.” The oldest American Fringe festival, OFringe may have started as a brash experiment, but, as festival producer Michael Marinaccio says, “We’re kind of getting all grown up. Some shows may be as lowbrow and gritty as ever, but they’re also artistic, fun and accessible.” 

North of town, the Enzian Theater offers first-run alternative cinema, free kids films on the lawn, Saturday matinees and a dandy bar/restaurant that serves while you watch the movie. The theater plays host to several film festivals throughout the year, including the Reel Short Teen Film Festival, South Asian Film Festival, Jewish Film Festival, Brouhaha Film and Video Showcase and the prestigious Florida Film Festival. 

Off-the-beaten-path art galleries are also worth seeking out. CityArts Factory holds several exhibition/studio spaces for a growing cadre of local talents, while Redefine Gallery showcases young visual artists. The new Snap! art gallery, with two area locations, features the slogan “Contemporary. Creative. Spontaneous.,” which also applies to its founder, photographer Patrick Kahn. “It was never my intention to have galleries at all,” says Kahn. “They are welcome, organic opportunities.” Graffiti on faux-brick panels by local tattoo artist Earl Funk, digital art from Mark Gmehling and Hopper-esque photos by Richeille and BJ Formento share equal space. Kahn also curates the annual Snap! festival, bringing new photography and film to citywide venues each spring.

“Orlando is becoming an important destination for artists,” says Glazer. “And a lot of people come here from other places and all walks of life. Dr. Phillips Performing Arts Center has come, but that’s just a symptom of an overall movement for the past 15 years.”

Joseph Hayes
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