2020 SoFla Theater: What A Long Strange Trip It’s Been

“Five hundred twenty five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure, measure a year? In inches, in miles, in laughter, in strife?”

By Bill Hirschman

It sounds like the cliched Pollyanna promo for a hackneyed Hallmark holiday movie, but the sentiment is undiluted reality not scripted fantasy as theater artists and devotees struggled through 2020. To wit:

Yes, South Florida theater was crippled by the pandemic. But its acolytes remained driven to express their artistry, and patrons remained ravenous for their work. Actors, directors, playwrights and designers continued to explore projects, create avenues and seek paychecks. Efforts ranged from filmed full-fledged productions to monologues newly penned in bedrooms to live playlets performed behind storefront windows on Lincoln Road.

To be sure, the first ten pre-pandemic weeks of the year provided some superlative work in the traditional paradigm such as Thinking Cap Theatre’s tour de force of Beckett’s Happy Days starring Karen Stephens and directed by Nicole Stodard.

But after Season Interruptus struck in mid-March – marooning several promising offerings – the theater community curled up to nurse the stun-inducing loss of income and venues for artistic expression. Then within days or weeks, people sucked up the pain and began to create again.

This isn’t the thin unconvincing plot of some second-rate melodrama; instead, it’s what actually played out in a score of scenarios amid paralysis, then fear, then a determination to build their personal renaissance. It likely didn’t feel all that heroic from the inside, but their efforts echoed something like Come From Away.

Within two weeks, Matt Stabile and his cadre at Theatre Lab in Boca Raton sponsored the Original Online Monologue Festival in which 37 artists wrote and/or performed three hours’ worth of new pieces that reflected the New Abnormal. Importantly, the event not only allowed artists a “stage” to express their pent up emotions, but it solicited funds so the participants could pay their grocery bills. With a second edition shortly thereafter, the project attracted 6,603 viewings and contributed about $8,000 directly to participating actors, writers, designers and directors.

“Let’s start at the very beginning….”

So, reviewing in chronological order, first look at what did open and deserves an ovation since the Carbonell Awards won’t be judged for 2020. Here’s some random plaudits – an incomplete list and in no order:

.     *** We don’t even like much Samuel Beckett except maybe, maybe, Waiting For Godot. But the aforementioned Happy Days was a triumph of thought-provoking theater featuring a mouth-dropping impossibly-varied performance by Stephens as the woman trapped in a sand dune, superbly guided by director Stodard.

.     *** We were enchanted seeing the wry musical Groundhog Day on Broadway and recommended it to Slow Burn Theatre in Fort Lauderdale as being in their wheelhouse, so maybe we’re a bit biased. But their own version was thoroughly charming with an endearing ensemble, solid direction from Patrick Fitzwater, inventive set design and winning lead performances fusing humor and sentiment from Clay Cartland and Kimmie Johnson, plus a heart-rending solo from Leah Marie Sessa as the townie who laments that people don’t see past her beauty.

.     ***  After a Broadway bow with Kerry Washington, Christopher Demos-Brown’s American Son finally came home to Zoetic Stage in Miami where it received the electric production it deserved from director Stuart Meltzer and actors Karen Stephens and Clive Cholerton, the couple who mined the work’s promise in its first reading in 2015. The result was an excoriating, insightful dissection of race relations in the 21st Century.

.     *** Impressive set and lighting designs frequently are a regional strength. But a deep bow is due Christopher and Justin Swader for the imploding living-dining room-kitchen in Miami New Drama’s The Cubans. The physical set mirrored the barely visible fissures in relationships in the first act growing into inescapable fractures as recriminations, perceived betrayals and old disputes boil over.

.     *** One of the more reliable predictions now and likely into the future is that any show is going to be worth checking out if it involves Area Stage Company’s playwright, director, sound designer, lighting designer, set designer, costume designer and composer Giancarlo Rodaz. Once again last winter, he exercised his endless imagination and stylistic virtuosity to create a unique fairy tale world in Peter & Wendy. E.g., an entire stage dominated by a slanted hothouse wall of frosty glass panels with errant strands of ivy held in place by a wood frame lattice. There was wry humor as pirates “rowed” their skiffs onto the stage — actually sliding into view sitting atop skateboards.

.     *** If we never see Mamma Mia! again, it will be too soon. But acknowledge that the enthusiasm of everyone connected to Actors Playhouse’s production in Coral Gables was simply, maddeningly irresistible.

.     *** Palm Beach Dramaworks deserves commendation for the development and herding to fruition of Joseph McDonough’s Ordinary Americans, the bio-play about early television and the blacklist, graced by Elizabeth Dimon as Gertrude Berg. The production later moved to GableStage in Coral Gables.

.     *** Sometimes, often in fact, some of the most intriguing work could be seen on small stages. Primal Forces keeps delivering such gifts in a storefront space in Boca Raton. This winter it offered a surprisingly wry, touching and insightful dramedy with the unlikely title of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City. Keith Garsson directed Shelley Keelor and Seth Trucks as an odd couple bonding as their mothers were in the hospital dying of cancer.

.     *** Memorable evenings can be a surprising gift from small companies whose track record is uneven. Example: West Boca Theater Company indisputably scored with My Name is Asher Lev. This tale of a Hassidic Jewish boy maturing into a world-class painter incisively depicts the considerable and specific price of heeding, pursuing and staying true to an artistic calling. The work well-directed by Alan Nash and Holly Budney was blessed with affecting performances by Spencer Landis as Asher (fresh off of playing Usnavi in Measure for Measure’s  In The Heights) and veteran Peter Librach as his authoritarian father who clash in unavoidable conflict.

.     *** Theatre Lab in Boca Raton keeps playing with style and approach. The Glass Piano was a delightfully fanciful and imaginative work that absolutely was not a children’s play – although that vibe was intentionally woven throughout the production helmed by Matt Stabile and brought to life by a quartet who immersed themselves completely in the adult fairy tale.

And then the metaphorical chandelier fell in the opera house.

“It’s the last midnight….”

The shutdown of theaters in mid-March could not have come at a worse time: Troupes were a week or two away, in some cases hours away from opening some of the most promising work of the season. It crushed the hearts of those getting accustomed to the new costumes, still cementing their blocking and undergoing 10 of 12-hour tech rehearsals.

But from audience members’ standpoint, the tragedy extended to experiences denied that we were looking forward to. They include, but are not limited to:

.     *** Slow Burn Theatre’s epic-scaled Ragtime, which is now slated to bow next June.
.     *** Knowing how seriously ill he was, Producing Artistic Director Joe Adler had rearranged GableStage’s season schedule so he could direct what he expected might be his last show, Arthur Miller’s The Price.
.     *** Miami New Drama had bet about one million dollars and invested every bit of its artistic knowhow into the world premiere of a Broadway-bound musical about Louis Armstrong, A Wonderful World. It had a dress rehearsal, six previews and then closed. We saw a late rehearsal with an impressive array of local and out of town talents in every department. We can testify that when this is finally remounted someday, it will likely be impressive. To read a feature about it, click here.
.     *** The Wick Theatre was providing a bucket list opportunity for local dancer-singer-actors with A Chorus Line. It had one performance.
.     ***Zoetic Stage, which has thrived on Sondheim entries, was readying A Little Night Music.

Of course, an even more profound loss was rooted in the deaths of several beloved and crucial members of the community including – but not limited to – musical director Paul Reekie, impresario Zev Buffman, community theater pillar Alvin Entin, and Carbonell judge / Shakespearean scholar Tom Regnier.

But the most eviscerating loss was the passing in April of Joe Adler who changed the fabric of South Florida theater for both artists seeking challenging work and patrons seeking thought-provoking fare. We keep thinking of the courtroom aftermath scene in the film of To Kill A Mockingbird when the preacher says to Scout, “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Theater leaders initially expected the intermission to last four, maybe six weeks. But very quickly, perhaps two or three weeks in, they realized it would be a much longer haul. Managers began furloughing and firing employees, slicing salaries of the survivors. They worked out multiple budgetary scenarios if the lockdown lasted two months, four months, six months, longer. Artists’ survival jobs like waiting tables and bartending evaporated. Even positions at Orlando theme parks like Disney – a frequent second job for artists commuting from South Florida – disappeared.

Some companies like Dramaworks, which has never been in the red during its 20 years, or the Maltz Jupiter Theatre with its generous patrons, or others which just have been fiscally careful, had reserves that they expected could carry them through the interregnum if they were careful – but those buffers could be wiped out in the meantime.

Other troupes whose cash flow stay one show ahead of the curve, sometimes not even that, were unnerved.

After a few months of hope, most companies’ leaders postponed the rest of their season until the fall – and later some pushed them an entire year out. Notably, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre is using the time to push ahead with the multi-million-dollar expansion of its facility before resuming productions next fall.

While much of the attention has spotlit the loss felt by artists, long-time subscription audience members saw hundreds and hundreds of dollars disappear into the ether. This did not bode well for renewals for some companies; only hampered them for others. But other than a few places like the Maltz, season-long subscriptions have been on a slow decline as a dependable source of income for a decade as people cherry-pick titles or decide “what to see this weekend” a few days before they actually attend.

Some theaters, but few, actively offered refunds to patrons, further eroding their cash flow. Most asked subscribers that the funds be considered a tax-deductible contribution or the company offered “credit” for whenever live in-person shows resume. Anecdotally, most patrons have agreed so far. But again, since the funds of the latter approach are keeping the company barely afloat today, there will be precious little money to fund the resurrection of the next season.

“No day but today….”

In their efforts at renewal, individual artists tried to take control of their lives while everything around them was so unpredictably fluid. For instance, people created their own projects. On and off since July, musical director and actor Michael Ursua has produced Florida Sings Showtunes, an online-based revue of performers from the southern half of the state singing songs from a single show each week.

Some performers had dabbled in online auditions for a couple of years, but now virtually everyone ordered something called a ring light and learned computerized editing software before videoing varied monologues and arias. Several wrote “that play” they had been promising to create for years. Several amped up their teaching online efforts. Others pursued more dependable part-time careers; more than one actor has become a realtor. And throughout, people whose joy was in-person interaction with colleagues and fans now leaned heavily on social media to maintain their supportive friendships and professional networking.

To read more about their coping, click here.

Similarly behind the scenes, artistic directors and producers across the state began schmoozing regularly in Zoom meetings one-on-one and en masse to compare headaches and possible solutions.

Eventually, several companies published dates for productions in January and February, but no one is pretending that they aren’t written in pencil – with erasers.

This is especially true of the Broadway tours at the three presenting venues. While  dates appear on websites, leaders at those houses acknowledge that they – and the tour producers — cannot mount a large-scale show in an auditorium with significant social distancing because of the economics. Besides, the Actors Equity Association union still has not nailed down the health and safety conditions that it will require of venues before it allows its member to work there.

(Side note: Equity and other unions have quietly upset Florida artists and producers. Everyone appreciates they are in between the proverbial igneous rock and a diamond hard place – their primary mission for their entire existence has been to protect its members. But Equity in particular has been painfully slow in coming up with health safety guidelines and cripplingly slow to deal with requests for special dispensations for imaginative workaround productions.)

“Good times, bum times… I’m still here….”

A key goal for everyone was to continue to stay visible. Actors wanted to stay fresh in the memories of artistic directors who will be casting again someday. Theaters wanted to stoke high-profile vibrant images in the consciousness of their most loyal subscribers and donors. Company after company created weekly online interviews with current and former artists, including New City Players, Actors Playhouse, Zoetic Stage and City Theatre.

Toward that end, while the stages may only be illuminated by the ghost light, companies have been laboring endlessly – with reduced staffs – to stay active. Palm Beach Dramaworks has produced online readings of plays including three by Lynn Nottage, issued a weekly newsletter, as well as presenting those weekly interviews with artists across the disciplines including Nottage and Terry Teachout.  To view them, click here.

Miami New Drama organized and hosted scores of workshops and master classes with expert lecturers from across the country, sometimes two or three a week, exploring dozens of aspects of theater. City Theatre held multiple readings of new works in its City Reads program. GableStage sponsored the writing and production of 12 short works that were posted online at www.gablestage.org/engagegablestage.

The Arsht and the Broward Center delivered a steady flow of online classes and concerts, some live outside. New City Players produced a podcast series of an original work, Little Montgomery. To hear it, click here. Thinking Cap produced an online timely trilogy of election and suffrage-related works.

Many of these offerings were free since their goal was to keep their profile high. But several companies have and are beginning to charge a comparative pittance, trying to keep some income trickling in. One wrinkle has been venues offering impressive shows online under their banner, but actually just getting a cut of the gate, such as Broward Center’s Patti Lupone Live From The West Side concert and Actors’ Playhouse’s A Christmas Carol with Jefferson Mays playing all the parts

Still, the arts as a whole took an economic gut punch. An incomplete survey of some of the non-profit arts groups in Palm Beach County including some theaters estimated they would lose $48 million worth of revenue and 600 jobs through the end of the calendar year. Miami-Dade’s similar survey totaled $112 million lost and 18,000 jobs affected just through August; Broward’s figure for the same period was $60 million and nearly 3,000 jobs through August.

“And I am telling you, I’m not going….”

A few theaters have been gingerly reopening. Island City Stage brought patrons back into their Wilton Manors theater in November for the one-woman Dixie’s Happy Hour – as well as filming it to put online. Actors’ Playhouse produced a “family” version of the children’s tale Madeleine’s Christmas with social distancing across its expansive auditorium. Lake Worth Playhouse opened Annie early in December. The Broward and Kravis centers have hosted a few small events, with the Broward Center selling in-person guided on-site tours of the facility.

The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton has been producing musical revues and concerts in its lobby sporadically through the summer and steadily through the fall – after extensive health-related precautions including overhauling the air conditioning system. Similarly, actor-playwright-producer Ronnie Larsen has produced occasional shows in the smaller venue at the Wilton Theater Factory.

Various companies experimented with filming their productions for their patrons. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre could only hold a preview for its How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. But patrons who bought tickets could view online a four-camera shoot of its dress rehearsal, using expertise Producing Artistic Director Andrew Kato learned producing videos for the Tony Awards.

MNM Theater Company filmed and edited live performances with superimposed pickup shots for the musical Closer Than Ever, which it began selling to patrons online at the end of November.

Like MNM, Miami New Drama is reinvigorating its income stream by commissioning short plays for Seven Deadly Sins and then staging them this month behind display windows in Lincoln Road storefronts, moving the audience from storefront to storefront. Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables offered online a heavily abridged Greatest Hits version of the Camelot it had been planning before the pandemic.

“One day more….”

Besides what was happening on stages, several efforts continued regarding where they were performed. Besides the Maltz project, the $30 million overhaul of the venerable Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale was moving along toward a March 2021 re-opening. Area Stage Company left its home of 12 years at the Rivera Theatre in Miami in exchange for new digs inside the Sunset Place shopping center a few blocks away.

And the epic saga of the Coconut Grove Playhouse – twice as long as the actual doorstop novel of Les Misérables and only half as funny – spent the entire year in court with Miami-Dade County facing off with the City of Miami. And when the county seeking the Playhouse’s resurrection lost a crucial round in July, it went back in again with an appeal that is currently pending. Just before his death, Adler solicited a pledge from supporters to continue the quest for GableStage to be the resident and managing company in a new Grove Playhouse. The county has invested a great deal in the project including architectural and attorney fees, but one of the project’s political champions, Mayor Carlos Gimenez, is no longer in the mix because of term limits; he is now in Congress. The fat lady hasn’t sung, but she has lost a lot of weight waiting.

Even the pandemic could not eliminate controversies engulfing the community. The national concerns about race in all aspects of theater were echoed locally early in the summer. Some artists cited random unintentional micro-aggressions in pressure-laden rehearsals. Others underscored systemic failings whose reform will require leaders, supporters and audiences to prioritize reevaluating everything from what goes on stage to who decides what goes on stage.

Then in August, long-festering concerns about the Carbonell Awards erupted publicly when the leaders of 12 companies signed a letter listing several long-term complaints. That followed five companies withdrawing their shows from consideration. The Carbonell board of directors responded by inviting interested parties to suggest reforms in a series of online meetings this winter and spring.

“It’s only for now….”

Over the summer and early fall, companies surveyed their subscription audiences and return patrons. Generally, the results were similar: About a third could not wait to come back, period. About a third said they would return once vaccines were widely available and availed upon. About a third said it would depend on the health precautions being taken and would not dependably commit.

Which means: Nine months in, everyone agrees that no one knows nothing about anything. Except one thing: Artists and patrons are aching again to be in the same room where it happens. And based on the resilient efforts to date, there is little doubt anymore that they will be – which may be the lasting lesson of 2020.

“There will be light….”

 

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