In June 2023, Asolo Repertory Theatre’s Producing Artistic Director Michael Donald Edwards, and Managing Director, Linda DiGabriele, will resign from their positions at the end of their contracts. When that day arrives, Edwards will have been a part of Asolo Repertory Theatre for 18 years and DiGabriele for 50. Edwards and DiGabrielie’s shared time together allowed for them to build a professional relationship seemingly unique to the industry: one of untold trust and respect, that propelled Asolo Repertory Theatre to new heights. In Michael, Linda saw an artistic vision on which to build the organization into the largest repertory theater in the Southeastern United States and one of the most established in the country. In Linda, Michael found the freedom and trust to cultivate an artistic presence that brought artists and directors from around the world to the institution.

Together, they have presided over Asolo Repertory Theatre’s latest chapter: becoming an artistic monolith in the arts-centric region of Sarasota and beyond. From DiGabriele’s assumption of the Managing Director position in 1980 until Edwards’ arrival in 2006, Asolo Repertory Theatre went from being an artistically renowned institution that was struggling financially to the calling card for repertory theater in the South East. Since Edwards’ arrival in 2006, the institution has not only transformed the way it produces theater, receiving national recognition for its diverse and relevant repertoire, but it has also transformed the scale at which it operates: Asolo Repertory has seen rises in attendance, operating budget, and endowment; created guest housing for artists, built an entire production facility and rehearsal space, and created The Ground Floor, an incubator program for new play development.


SRQ: In 2023, Linda you’ll have been at Asolo Repertory Theatre for 50 years and Michael 18 years. Can you chronicle from a birds eye view your time here? LINDA DIGABRIELE  I was hired into the marketing department of Asolo Rep in 1973, and I didn’t stay there very long because I almost immediately moved to touring operations. Asolo Rep had significant touring operations. So I was tied up with tours for about 12 years and we were one of the largest of the touring operations in the theater world for that period of time. And then I took on some stage management when we had the theater downtown which was fun because I think we had three women’s stage managers going at one time. Then in 1989, I moved back firmly into management and became managing director of the theater, which has meant different things over time because of different organizational structures.

MICHAEL DONALD EDWARDS  I was invited to direct a show here The Smell of the Kill in the 2004-05 season . I was an associate artistic director elsewhere at the time. Once the show was completed, I was asked if I’d be interested in applying for the job of producing artistic director which at first I was reluctant to do. However, I signed a three-year contract and all of a sudden it’s 18 years later and I’m still here.

I started pretty much as a director, often directing three shows in a season and really wanted to transform the product on stage. There was no history of doing musicals and I knew that I wanted to be working on classic American musicals along with newer productions as well. One of the things that appealed to me about the job was figuring out how to do rep in a world where that is increasingly impossibly expensive to do.
It was a truly unique opportunity to be at the helm of an institution where all of these things come together. The final component that I didn’t expect was the relationship I would have with the community of Sarasota. I was now being asked to lead a beloved institution and the decisions that I was making were not just my own personal passionate choices as an artist or director, but part of a larger dialogue with the community. Every production became an opportunity to deepen that conversation and engagement with the community. The reason I’ve stayed for 18 years instead of three, is because my relationship with the community, the board directors and Sarasota blossomed.

DIGABRIELE  I think another piece that was very important for me was the community of Asolo Rep itself. Prior to COVID, it was a very stable network of staff members and artists who worked so hard for so many years together that it became a meaningful piece of the community. That internal community as well as the Sarasota community has always been so supportive and caring.


How has that relationship with that outside community grown over the years? DIGABRIELE I would start that by saying that Michael has an amazing ability to connect with our donors and our community. And that’s not always the case. Not everybody is as accessible and as comfortable in that situation, but Michael really has a gift for that. And I think that has deepened our relationship with the community significantly and built incredible bridges between ourselves and the donors, different organizations, and foundations. He’s had an incredibly positive effect on building these external relationships and we work great together as a team.

EDWARDS Prior to joining Asolo Rep, I was an itinerant artist, often directing nearly ten shows in a season at different theaters. I knew how to put on a show, but what I didn’t know was that I would really enjoy the other critical part of the job, which is encouraging people to get involved in any capacity that they can: from volunteering to donating and raising money, which enables us to do the work that we do. I also didn’t know that Sarasota was going to become my home, not only artistically, but my actual home as well. The job of any arts organization is to build a sense that this is a community worth living in, raising your children in, and investing in.

 Photo by Wes Roberts.

How has Asolo Rep not only been able to grow exponentially over the course of your shared time, but also weather challenges such as navigating a global pandemic? EDWARDS  Yeah. I mean, it’s like anything. It’s in any organization where people are under pressure to produce. The curtain must go up. Now the two years of COVID have proved to be unrelentingly brutal in the pressure that’s been put on all of us to keep the curtain up. It’s been a challenging thing to steer through, but having already weathered a lot of storms in the past, we had the internal toolkit to cope with this.

DIGABRIELE  One of our real strengths is having that internal community, so that when we hit COVID-19, we were able to continue to produce and manage the situation. I think if we hadn’t had that internal strength that wouldn’t have been possible. We were one of the few professional theaters in America that continued producing a season that year. We built the Terrance Stage, which was the equivalent of a touring stage that you’d see for a rock and roll show. The company was able to get the lighting, projection, and sound systems necessary for the stage and our staff had the technical know-how to rig it all together. We performed for audiences of 250 in and did a season of five events, which was unheard of in the rest of the country, but it kept our connection with the public going.

Michael, how have you grown artistically while at Asolo Rep?  EDWARDS What happened at Asolo is that I transitioned from being a very focused director with a particular idea about what theater was and what it should be to being a producer. I’ve given Linda a lot of credit for that, because of the trust she’s placed in me. As a producer, I’m in the position of assembling creative teams, especially other directors and not telling them, not micromanaging them, but trusting them with the institution. When we hire a director, we’re basically inviting them into the family and telling them that we are going to try and realize their vision. I’ve kind of become, what non-theater people would understand as, a sports coach in that I have to push people to do things. And I have an idea of what they think should be, but sometimes my ideas aren’t necessarily the right ones and I have to be willing to listen to the artists I hire and bring on board. I’m also now in the position where I understand and think about the audience. I’m like a stand in for them. I know that there’s a certain tolerance for bad language or sexuality that they will accept as long as there’s a really good story and it’s done in the right context. They have a great sense of safety and respect for the art.

So we’ve done a lot of outrageous things at the theater and our audience has stayed with us. A lot of people say, “I cannot believe you’re doing this play in Florida.” I say, “Sarasota and Asolo Rep, that’s not Florida. We’re Americans. We’re expansive and embracing and inclusive and that’s the kind of art that we have been doing.”

Another part of it is that when you’re a visiting artist, you don’t develop the relationships with the staff, the family that runs everything in the theater. I’m going to really miss that, because there’s a degree of intimacy in an institution which few people understand that comes from making work under such incredible pressure and solving problems together for such a long time.

 Photo by Wes Roberts.

Share with us how the relationship between you and Linda functions? EDWARDS  I feel like there’s not a single artistic choice I would be thinking about making that I wouldn’t test on Linda because I know that she loves art as much as I do. If I ask her to read a play that I’m interested in she is going to give me an honest reaction. I want her instinctive reaction to things. And sometimes I say, “you’re gonna have to suck it up. I really wanna do this play.”

DIGABRIELE: We don’t always agree.

EDWARDS: We don’t. But we’ve always had a good relationship in that way. As Managing Director, Linda’s incredibly good with the technical producing side: the budgeting, logistics and expansive notions of how to think about all our unions and everything else with that. So I have confidence that I don’t have to worry too much about nuts and bolts. She’s always saying to me, “think of your passion as what this is built on. We’ll get lost in the weeds of production, we need your passion for the work.” However, she’ll still bring me into the financial world of Asolo Rep so that I can really understand exactly where our vulnerabilities are, how to address them and how to negotiate with the board (of trustees) so that we are completely transparent. We have to be ready for any questions or challenges coming from our Board, who’s primary responsibility is the financial stability of the institution. We have to inform them at the deepest level about every stress and vulnerability, but they’re only doing it because they’re excited by the vision. Linda and I have to marry those two components.

DIGABRIELE: As Managing Director, I need to make sure that the organization has the capacity to produce the vision that Michael is putting forward. I need to be sure that the staffing and the resources and the governance are in place that gives us the stability and the depth to be able to actualize Michael’s vision. For me to go off and make budgetary decisions without Michael’s input about what’s really important to him would be foolish. The financial and technical aspects have got to ride together with the artistic influence.

EDWARDS: Absolutely. We’re one of the rare examples in our business of a producing artistic director and a managing director that have had a long term positive relationship. Gary, Linda’s husband calls me her professional spouse because we communicate all the time. I feel like we’re a model for this kind of professional relationship, which in turn leads to a healthy institution, a healthy understanding of what’s at stake for everybody and a healthy relationship with the board.

Linda, what is it about Michael that has allowed you to place such trust in him? DIGABRIELE  I think that every good relationship is based on huge respect and admiration for one another. I love his visions and I love the way he thinks about the art, the artists, and the care of the people who come together as a family to do this. From the outset, he deserved all the resources that we could put at his disposal and all the support. When I say resources, I mean, everything, not just money. One of those resources is the incredible skill of our staff and crafts people. Without that, you can’t offer the same level of support. We’ve had artists come from all over the country who have come here to produce work or direct or co-produce and they’re amazed at the level of skill and experience that we have in our people here. And that’s not a money thing, but rather the incredible dedication, professionalism, experience that is there to help support what Michael wants.