Imagination, Determination Mark SoFla Theaters’ Varied Efforts To “Re-Open” — In A Way

Artistic Director David Arisco and Shaun Mitchell edit performances  in Actors’ Playhouse’s online Camelot. / Photo by Alina Mitchell

By Bill Hirschman

With every passing week, the cold hard likelihood comes ever clearer that traditional theater – a group of actors performing before a standing room only audience in a large enclosed space – will be another four months to a year away except in rare boundary-exploring instances.

But in uncoordinated spurts over the past seven months, South Florida theater artists have been preparing and executing experiments online and live, for free, for pay or donations. As many of these efforts are coming into view this fall, they are coalescing into a new if temporary paradigm that holds out hope for the survival of the genre.

For instance, at Miami New Drama, seven groups of 10 patrons will be escorted along a procession of empty storefronts with small playlets being performed behind the glass showcase windows. Slow Burn Theatre plans to produce the Jason Robert Brown’s musical Songs for a New World for an audience spread out around the courtyard of the Broward Center.

While nothing is certain, events are beginning to multiply across the region: online readings, Zoom productions and even live productions. To let audiences know what’s available, we will restart our calendar late next week with the understanding that you must check on details before going.

Island City Stage plans to perform both live on stage in Wilton Manors and cyber-streamed. New City Players in Fort Lauderdale has adapted a new full-length play into five podcast segments currently being unveiled a week at a time. Miami-Dade County Auditorium will produce modest events across the performing arts spectrum on a stage built on the back loading dock with a line of cars in a single row listening to the proceedings on a FM radio channel like a drive-in movie.

The Wick Theatre in Boca Raton has been and continues to produce live in-person cabaret shows with actors on the lobby steps leading to the auditorium and numerous socially-distanced tables across the large lobby. The Kravis Center has slated a live in-person Beatles tribute concert inside the smaller Rinker Playhouse Oct. 17, only offering socially distanced tables for four in West Palm Beach.

Actors’ Playhouse staffers are editing hundreds of pieces of cyber-filmed performances by four actors that will become an abbreviated production of Camelot, the show that was cancelled when the virus shutdown occurred in Coral Gables.

Theatre Lab in Boca Raton is streaming audio readings of plays in development, Thinking Cap Theatre in Fort Lauderdale is offering online three plays about politics and women’s suffrage, and veteran Musical Director Michael Ursua gathers professionals across the southern half of the state to sing a raft of tunes from a different Broadway musical each Thursday in Zoomed performances on YouTube.

And that’s just a sampling.

No one can begin to guess whether these will turn out to be a harbinger of a lasting evolution of alternative platforms or are simply ephemeral stopgaps to keep the art form alive in the minds of artists and patrons.

Indeed, what many theater leaders are betting on is using these half-measures to keep theater-going in the consciousness of their patrons until conditions return to “normal.”

The backyard experiment at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium is meant to re-attract people used to seeing something in three dimensions, said Javier Siut, the director of theater operations. “What it means is you come back, you see it, it reminds you of what a beautiful thing live theater is, how much you missed it. Because there’s so much stuff going on that (it’s) out of sight, out of mind and you kind of forget. So it’s kind of a way to plant a seed back in people’s mind of what a wonderful experience it was and how much you want to come back.”

The projects come as theater after theater in South Florida as well as across the country have postponed their regular season several months – some into the winter and even the spring. But several like Palm Beach Dramaworks and Zoetic Stage in Miami are simply moving their season one entire year ahead because it would be impossible to stay out of the red with social distancing in an enclosed auditorium. Yet, even they are contemplating or instituting online or open air projects in the meantime such as Dramaworks’ online readings of Lynn Nottage plays all month.

The asterisk is some of these new projects are not certain to come to fruition either because they rely on three currently unknown factors. One, will county governments relax or ramp up restrictions if there is a second wave of illnesses? Two, when will the Actors Equity union provide guidelines to allow its members to perform – or at least approve more projects on a case by case basis? Three, Equity and SAG-AFTRA, the film and broadcast actors unions, are fighting about who has sovereignty over the growing efforts in which live shows or in-home performances are filmed and then aired over the Internet.

Island City Stage did surveys of its notably loyal audience and found that about 30 percent were aching to come back with no asterisks, 30 percent they would not come back until there was a vaccine available and 35 percent simply didn’t know what they felt yet, said Martin Childers, managing director.

Its answer is to mount its opening show Dixie’s Happy Hour performed both live in its Wilton Manors stage and available online later for the price of a ticket.

Like most venues such as the Wick that are beginning live performances, the intimate Island City Stage has taken numerous and expensive safety measures: install an ultraviolet air filter system, the venue sanitized for each show, audience members will be required to wear masks (likely through all of next year) and have their temperature taken before they enter, staff will lead audience members in and out of the space from the parking lot to avoid clustering in its a tiny lobby. The seating will be social distanced per the county’s rules, meaning much fewer people can attend each performance. There will be no intermissions and no concession sales.

Here’s an incomplete sampling of the experiments

New City Players, in between theaters in Fort Lauderdale; free access online; https://www.newcityplayers.org; (954) 376-6114 or (954) 358-3671

Through the pandemic, the company continued its significant core efforts of interacting directly with the community in addition to its traditional stage presentations, such as weekly online interviews with a wide range of colleagues online, plus labs creating and workshopping short plays by anyone regardless of experience.

Its newest effort is a podcast of Stephen Brown’s play Little Montgomery offered free on the company’s website in five weekly segments released on Fridays at https://www.newcityplayers.org/littlemontgomery.

The story is described as “Megan and Kimmy are 14-year-old, best friends, and currently planning to commit grand larceny against country music star Rick Montgomery at his concert tonight. As they put their plan into play, songs will be sung, secrets will be revealed, and teenage girls will find out how difficult it is to exact revenge.”

The work directed by company co-founder Timothy Mark Davis is fully produced with music and sound effects and a strong cast: Krystal Millie Valdes, Casey Sacco, David A. Hyland, Gregg Weiner, Elizabeth Price, Laura Creel and Davis.

Davis read the play in the winter of 2019 when he was appearing in Brown’s play at Theatre Lab, Everything Is Super Great. “And immediately it was just like… this is so close to already being audio. There’s songs in it. There’s only a handful of things that would need to be adjusted. And we could even we could do it with sound design or we could just [adapt] the writing a little bit.”

This production took a different kind of preparation, such as mailing podcast microphones and instructions to the actors. The cast rehearsed on Zoom for a week, then a week to test out sound levels on the software that was going to be used—all before recording the actual program.

The project paid its artists from a grant from Funding Arts Broward, Wheelhouse and Broward County that was meant for the company’s stage production of Water by the Spoonful but was authorized to be repurposed to podcast project.

Actors Playhouse at the Miracle Mile, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; beginning Oct. 19; for pay; www.actorsplayhouse.org; (305) 444-9293

The fabled land of chivalry and magic of Camelot could not resist the COVID-19 despite being readied to emerge last spring in Coral Gables. But artistic director David Arisco had an idea.

The company had already gotten the authors’ estates’ permission to use a cutdown version of the legendarily epic-length musical that focused on the tragic triangle of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot and used a bit of narration to bring the running time to about 2 ½ hours using 11 actors.

So, he reasoned, what if we could get permission to video four Equity actors in their New York City residences, cut the script to 60-75 minutes by showcasing the beloved score but with even more narration, freshly arrange the score, throw in some props like the necessary Excalibur, settle for minimal costumes, and edit it heavily to produce something that far more sophisticated than a simple Zoom event, but far less complex than a massive production.

This past week, Arisco and colleague Shaun Mitchell were piecing together about 600 pieces of video “film” for the work’s debut slated to be offered through the week beginning Oct. 19. Patrons who bought tickets for the aborted live production will be get a code providing free access anytime in a 48-hour period to the cyber event, plus credit for a full production of another title when Actors is able to resume on-stage projects. Others can purchase access to a 48-hour window for $30.

The four actors originally hired as the stage show’s leads, intentionally cast in their 20s to put a fresher spin on the familiar tale, rehearsed the abridged script for a week and sang to Musical Director David Nagy’s new tracks, then spent a week filming it with different camera angles.

Like many other theaters, Actor Playhouse has been scrambling to cope with the virus’ fiscal damage: laying off staff and losing an estimated $2.2 million in revenue from adult and children’s summer shows, rentals and other sources – what normally would have meant at profit of $300,000 to $400,000.

Miami New Drama; Colony Theatre at 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach; late November to January; for pay; (305) 674-1040; www.colonymb.org

MND’s leaders do not expect to be presenting “traditional” theater events inside its auditorium at the Colony Theatre in Miami Beach any earlier than the Spring of 2021, and are hopeful that full capacity operations could resume by Fall of 2021.

But in addition to weekly seminars on theater arts, some for free, they are planning the considerable logistics for 7 Deadly Sins, a unique project in which seven related short plays will be presented to the same audience seated outside the windows of seven separate storefronts on Lincoln Road.

The exact dates have not been set because Miami New Drama is waiting for the approval of Actors Equity, but it’s penciled in for late November through December and possibly into January.

Separate guides will take groups of 10 or 12 people to sit in chairs in front of each storefront and then move to the next one over 90 minutes, with the sound coming through headphones. For the first month or two, the works will be presented in English and later in the run will be presented in Spanish for a month or two.

“We wanted a way to do live theater because that’s what we do best, and at the same time send the message that it was safe to be on Lincoln Road,” said Managing Director Nicholas Richberg.  But “we wanted to not be stuck in the idea of do we just do things the old way. It’s a new world. And we wanted to approach things in a new way.”

The precise storefronts have not been selected, but the plan is for them to be adjacent to each other or close to each other within a block or two of the Colony. The project, being developed with the aid of the Lincoln Road Business Improvement District and the mayor of Miami Beach, might have pop-up eateries along the route. “We’re really just trying to create like a big block party atmosphere on Lincoln Road,” Richberg said.

The theater commissioned seven new plays, each corresponding to one of the aforementioned sins —  Lust, Greed, Envy, Wrath, Sloth, Gluttony and Pride – and assigned them to an impressive cadre of playwrights: Hilary Bettis, a writer on the Emmy Award-winning series The Americans and MND’s  world premiere Queen of Basel; Miami’s Nilo Cruz, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and artistic director of Arca Images;  Moisés Kaufman, co-founder of the company and co-creator of The Laramie Project; Rogelio Martinez, a two-time Edgerton Foundation New Play Award winner; Dael Orlandersmith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for her play Yellowman; Carmen Pelaez, a Miamian who wrote MND’s Fake, and Aurin Squire, who wrote A Wonderful World, the Louis Armstrong musical that was sidelined by the virus at MND.

The cost of a ticket, still to be determined, will be similar to that for a live event in the Colony because the project “is extremely expensive.”

The proposal seeking Equity’s approval “is unique in its protection for the actors who are literally in a bubble isolated from each other and from the audience.” The production would include bi-weekly testing of everyone involved. Some of the plays are monologues, but where two people are “on stage” the performers will be actors who either currently live together or are willing to live together,” Richberg said.

Miami-Dade County Auditorium, 2901 West Flagler Street, Miami; end of October-December; free but need ticket; miamidadecountyauditorium.org; 305. 547. 5414 ext. 226

Echoing an old familiar paradigm of the drive-in, this county-operated venue will build a stage on its loading dock behind the building and host performing arts events —theater, dance, music.

Up to 20 cars will be arrayed around the stage, so that everyone has the equivalent of a front row seat. The sound will be broadcast on an FM radio channel. Each performance will be about 15 to 20 minutes long in three performances a night, likely Thursday through Saturday.

The venue had planned to try out the logistics in July with a mini-concert from a popular jazz musician. Tickets for the five performances sold out in two hours. But when the county instituted a curfew, the event was cancelled – but the public interest was clear. The group filmed the event anyway. A video of one of the sets can be seen by clicking here.

The venue leaders hope that when they announce dates and performers, the multiple performances each night before cars with multiple occupants will serve 200 people a night.

“We hope it’ll make you tell others what a wonderful experience it was and motivate others to come back to the theater. And if you don’t like it, it was 15 minutes. You were always safe in your car. You didn’t pay a penny. So the worst that can happen is that you are stuck in an extra cycle at a red light. You lost nothing,” Siut said.

He wants to avoid Sunday matinees because he wants to make the most dramatic use of the nighttime. “My idea was once everybody is in their cars and in their position, that we would turn all the lights off, parking lot, security lights, the whole thing. So it’s all pitch black. And then all of a sudden there’s this one magical point of light, which is the stage (which is) symbolic in many ways. It’s the point of light that art and culture can represent in our lives. And it’s also sort of magical. Right out of the darkness comes this one bright light and suddenly music starts to…beam that into people’s cars.”

Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Highway., Wilton Manors; Oct. 30-Nov. 8; for pay; islandcitystage.org; (954) 928-9800

The first production, the world premiere of the one-woman comedy Dixie’s Happy Hour, will be available online and in the company’s house now reduced to 35 seats. The live version begins Oct. 30 for six performances, more if the demand rises.

The virtual experience will start to be available Nov. 15. Patrons buying tickets for the pre-recorded version will be sent a private link to a website page, good for a week. The video was filmed with multiple cameras and professionally edited.

Currently, the rest of the season has been revised to small cast shows. The first entry will be online-only termed A Christmas Spectacular. The rest will be both live and online.

Arts Garage, 94 NE 2nd Ave., Delray Beach; for pay; artsgarage.org; (561) 450-6357

The space literally built into a parking garage once hosted a procession of theater works. But several events including a change of leadership in 2016 resulted in a venue primarily for concerts, dance and other arts-related events.

Since the pandemic, the venue has hosted about 55 different in-person events, most of the musicians’ performances, with social distancing, but also broadcasting them through YouTube. Most of those involved donated time.

But on Oct. 24, the theater will begin to host one theater show each quarter in one-night-only staged readings with minimal sets but a live audience. The readings will simultaneously be live-streamed.

The inaugural piece is Bunker, a one-act play written by Sharonda Eccentrich Richardson, a spoken word poet from Pompano Beach, and starring Shanteala Mash. The participants are paid.

Promotional material describes the play as “story of Khalan and his mother as she finds herself becoming the very thing from which she is trying to protect him. This story of love reveals how wars may unintentionally start at home and the journey back to peace. Playwright Richardson asks the demanding question: ‘How do you raise a Black Boy with no manual?’

All seating is only sold by the table which can accommodate two people to six people at the same single price.

The social conscience aspect of the play reflects the venue leaders’ philosophy said, Marjorie Waldo, president and CEO. “We want to provide relevant programing for people. We believe the arts are healing even though it’s not food, it’s not shelter, it’s not healthcare, but it is something that can have an impact on people’s state of mind their emotions, their mental state and we wanted to produce things that would make people feel happy and give them an escape from the pandemic.”

To read about the Theatre Lab project, click here. To read about the Thinking Cap Theatre project, click here. To read about the Palm Beach Dramaworks project, click here.

Latin Grammy Nominee José Negroni plays on a stage built on the loading dock of Miami-Dade County Auditorium in a test of its new setup.

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