By Bill Hirschman
Supporters of Rising Action Theatre are hoping that its sly moniker will add a triple-entendre of meaning, that of a phoenix rising from, if not ashes, then a troubled past.
The gay-centric company in Fort Lauderdale is rebooting its rocky operation as it enters its fifth season this fall with a distinct sense of a makeover in progress.
There’s a new face at its helm and a pointed attempt to improve the company’s hot and cold track record for quality theater with name directors and Equity actors.
Rising Action hopes to move beyond past storms with the hiring of the well-liked Andy Rogow as producing director. In theory, that puts him in charge of the theater’s operation and will allow him to direct some of the productions. Rising Action’s controversial founder David Goldyn will remain as artistic director, but Rogow said Goldyn “wants to take a little break and step back from a lot of it.”
Goldyn did not respond for comment. According to a news release he wrote this summer, Goldyn will remain integral to the theater he founded, but he expects to curb his involvement and be “spending more time in New York this year.”
The “new day” phrase refers in part to the theater’s history of disputes with various parties. For instance, Goldyn struggled with Oakland Park city officials who delayed the opening of a new theater space in 2007 because of alleged code problems with the renovation. Goldyn battled with reporters over whether anyone connected with the theater had alerted homophobe Fred Phelps to the 2009 production of The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. That furor led to publicity about Phelps threatening to picket the show. As is often the case, Phelps did not follow through on his threat. Last season, Goldyn challenged the objectivity of a critic for the South Florida Theater Review who now works for Florida Theater On Stage.
Rogow said, “I think what we have to do is let the past go and let the community know that we’re operating differently. We’re going to be better organized; there will be more planning ahead rather than by the seat of our pants.
“We’re working on developing a board of directors that we might not really have had. The Fred Phelps thing might not have happened if there had been a board to mitigate the crisis,” Rogow added.
Rogow brings a solid reputation to the undertaking. A past president of the Theatre League of South Florida, Rogow has been a freelance director and actor for decades. But he may be best known as the artistic director of the Hollywood Playhouse from 1998 through 2004. During that tenure, he was nominated for a Carbonell as director of a Fiddler on the Roof that starred Avi Hoffman. He has also directed the national tours of Food Fight-A Musical Comedy for Waist Watchers and three Steve Solomon comedies including My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish and I’m in Therapy.
He will helm the second show of the season, a 2003 musical entitled Thrill Me – The Leopold & Loeb Story slated for October.
Thrill Me is another sign of a slight course: the recently-announced 2011-2012 schedule. While the theater is not wavering in its mission to provide “entertainment of interest to the GLBT community,” Rogow said, there is an effort to choose some shows that will also appeal to straight audiences.
For instance, the season opens Friday with As Bees in Honey Drown, an acclaimed mainstream off-Broadway comedy by Douglas Carter Beane that features a young gay writer as its protagonist and a flamboyant diva as the plot’s catalyst. Ratcheting up the odds of a satisfying production, Rising Action hired local theater pro Avi Hoffman to direct and Equity actress Amy McKenna to star as the over-the-top Alexa Vere de Vere.
Similarly, Rising Action’s production of Torch Song Trilogy penciled in for April 6 will be directed by Carbonell winner Margaret Ledford who won plaudits for heading Mosaic Theatre’s Collected Stories last November.
Rogow hopes to spearhead a reputation at Rising Action “as a creative place to work where people feel like they can take risks and explore.”
Although the number of overtly sexual plays with considerable male nudity (what Rogow dubs the “Naked Boys plays”) may diminish slightly, Rogow defends the scheduling of strong scripts featuring unapologetic sensuality and skin.
“We get a lot of tourists and some come from places where there is no gay theater. The (recent) show, Two Boys in a Bed on a Cold Winter’s Night, which had nudity, was a good play done well and no other theater in town would have produced it.”
He points to the coming season’s closing show next May, Jerker – or the Helping Hand (subtitled A Pornographic Elegy with Redeeming Social Value and A Hymn to the Queer Men of San Francisco in Twenty Telephone Calls, Many of Them Dirty) – a ground-breaking 1986 play that depicts the AIDS crisis with a mixture of uninhibited sex and heart-rending tragedy.
That choice dovetails with the initial vision of Goldyn who created the company in 2006 to nurture theater that promotes “diversity and tolerance.” Its seasons have steadily focused on comedies and dramas about homosexuality, were penned by a gay playwright or were of special interest to gay men and lesbians. Many productions have been locally produced and directed by Goldyn. Others were traveling shows booked into the theater.
Since its inception, the company has been housed in Wilton Manors, an Oakland Park storefront and spent the last season in the 75-seat auditorium at Sunshine Cathedral in Fort Lauderdale. The critical reception to its work has varied. It won praise for aspects of Take Me Out and Bent, but reviled for the quality of other productions such as Fit to be Tied.
Like nearly every theater in the region, Rising Action is scrambling to raise money with frequent email appeals to patrons. But it also has some underwriting this year from the Community Foundation of Broward; the Florida Department of Cultural Affairs, and the Florida Arts Council.
The theater temporarily dodged a disaster this summer when the church leadership had second thoughts about continuing to rent out the space for another season. The difficulty in regularly dismantling the theater’s audience risers reduced the church’s ability to use its hall for other events, Rogow said.
The church reconsidered and will allow Rising Action to use the space for its first two shows, but the parties will have to discuss the future in the coming months.
Goldyn is looking ahead as well. His Facebook page announced, “I (am) loving (the) transfer (of) Rising Action Theatre to renewed energy and put my efforts toward teaching and acting. No more theatre business for me. Except for maybe investing as I did in the revival of Promises Promises. Thinking of investing in Zorba with Antonio Banderas, On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever) with Harry Connick Jr.”
Rising Action shows are staged at Sunshine Cathedral, 1480 SW Ninth Ave., Fort Lauderdale. For more information and tickets, visit http://www.risingactiontheatre.com/ or call 954 561-2225.