By Bill Hirschman
No pressure, but years from now, this may be pinpointed as the week that shaped the future of South Florida theater, even as a referendum on whether the region wanted to be a national or international player in the arts world.
At a minimum, Thursday’s opening of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s fresh spin on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is a watershed event.
This co-production of GableStage, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public Theater of New York lays out a put-up-or-shut-up challenge to South Florida audiences and funders: Is this what you want?
It simultaneously serves as a test for whether the acclaimed GableStage can evolve into a nationally-known regional theater – in the same month that a deal-killing roadblock must be cleared if it is to emerge redoubled in scope at site of the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
For all those reasons and more, the Miami-Dade county government has laid a six-figure bet plus considerable guidance to GableStage on how to expand into a pillar of Miami’s dream as an international cultural destination, said Michael Spring, the director of the county cultural affairs department.
“Our attention is to helping GableStage to become South Florida’s preeminent regional theatre,” said Spring, who has been a prime mover in the Antony and Cleopatra project. But to reach that goal “the company has to grow both internally with its capacity and it has to grow externally in terms of the public perception of the company. That’s what this opportunity does cooperating with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Public.”
That’s because the rarely spoken truth is that while South Florida theaters produce work as fine as their counterparts across the country, it simply does not have the high-profile reputation despite nationally recognized productions by the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Palm Beach Dramaworks, New Theatre, the defunct Florida Stage and, indeed, GableStage. No one comes to Florida to see theater.
Separate from any artistic or box office success, this undertaking has pushed GableStage to strengthen its board of directors and deal first-hand with the demands of a world-class production, a process to prove to the community that it is capable for the coming challenge.
For 15 seasons, GableStage has established itself as one of the leading companies in the state with consistently solid productions of thought-provoking plays often mounted a year or three after premiering in New York. The county has tapped it as its partner with Florida International University to run a professional and educational theater complex to be built on the parking lot of the long-shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse if a deal can be closed on Jan. 15.
The normally outspoken Producing Artistic Director Joseph Adler is pointedly modest about this talk about becoming a “premier regional theater” like Chicago’s Steppenwolf or Sarasota’s Asolo Rep. But he acknowledges, “If we are to evolve… then this has to be one of the cornerstones that will help to forge the kind of theater company that has credibility in the community” at large. “We have to kick it up a couple of notches.”
The financial and logistical demands far outstrip anything GableStage has ever dealt with.
To begin with, GableStage’s $700,000 share of the $2.1 production cost is seven to ten times what it spends on a single show. Learning how to fundraise on this scale was a major element of the project. Considerable efforts won a $120,000 Knight Foundation grant in October 2011 as a step toward the evolution of an outdoor free Shakespeare festival. About $25,000 of it went to McCraney’s Hamlet production last winter at GableStage. A similar amount in county money was arranged by Spring’s department.
GableStage has been aggressively soliciting funds from corporations, foundations and individuals ever since and is still doing so at this writing. A young new employee, Brooke Whitley, was hired as director of development and operations. She expanded outreach efforts into new arenas. She persuaded Adler to try the online crowd-sourcing site Kickstarter last month. Only about half of the all-or-nothing goal of $55,000 was raised as the month-long deadline closed in, but the balance arrived in two or three large last-minute donations.
Adler is aware that GableStage being able to raise significantly more money than it does now will be crucial long term if the Coconut Grove deal comes through. Spring has been helping advise how to do that, as well as how to expand his board of directors and galvanize them as fund-raisers.
This particular production holds special fiscal challenges. One reason for the large expense is that while the RSC and Public use their own venues, GableStage’s 150-seat home in the Biltmore Hotel is insufficient for the project. The company has rented the 415-seat Colony. That means selling a lot more tickets.
Usually tickets sales only provide 40 percent of a show’s revenue with the rest coming from donors, foundations, advertisers and corporate support. But ticket sales will likely provide a smaller percentage this time. At $65, tickets this time cost from $10 to $25 more than usual.
The question is whether Shakespeare is sellable in Miami-Dade County on a large scale. “Will it be a commercial success?” Adler asked. “I can’t even begin to guess because we’re in uncharted territory bringing Shakespeare to Lincoln Road in the heart of the (tourist) season; it’s never been done before.” One edge is the show’s posters are plastered outside the theater in the heart of Lincoln Road where the foot traffic of potential patrons is quite high.
Logistics playing with the big boys underscore the challenges. For instance, the other two companies have massive staffs and resources – illustrated in that Adler dealt with two dozen staffers at each theater. GableStage has essentially Adler and a staff you can count on your fingers.
He and his cadre have coped with everything from discovering that more of the set than expected needed to be built locally, to setting up Internet service for the actors at hotels.
It has forced GableStage through a long, hard learning curve, but the ebullient Adler is optimistic. “It’s stretched us to the maximum, but we’re in the home stretch and so far I’m proud of what we’ve done.”
The horse everyone is betting on is a “radical edit” of Shakespeare’s 1606 play melding enough raging passions to put Telenovas to shame and dizzying politics complex enough to dumbfound fans of House of Cards.
McCraney agreed to adapt and direct the play for the Royal Shakespeare Company in England on condition that they would export it to GableStage, and later to the Public Theater in Manhattan– three theaters which have produced his work.
McCraney, whose bent skews toward stylistic and theatrical productions, kept Shakespeare’s verbiage – he reveres the Bard’s text. But he cut, reordered, reshaped it and then took one more crucial step. Perceiving a valid analog of an established European power inhabiting a smaller exotic country close to revolution, he moved the setting to colonial Haiti occupied by France in the late 1790s. That enabled him to infuse it with the vibrant visual and aural style relatable to Miami’s Caribbean culture.
The production has a multi-ethnic cast and crew drawn from New York and London including Brit Jonathan Cake as the smitten Napoleonic warrior and American Joaquina Kalukango as an African Queen of the Nile. Former Miamian Gelan Lambert Jr., who danced around the world in the musical Fela!, is choreographer and movement director. Actress/playwright Charise Castro Smith, a fellow New World School of the Arts grad, will play the double roles of Iras and Octavia.
After several weeks of rehearsal, the production played the Swan Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon through November. It plays the Colony Theatre through Feb. 9, including numerous free underwritten performances for Miami-Dade public school students. Then it moves to the Public Theater Feb. 18-March 23.
The project’s roots date back years and McCraney, who trained as an actor, relishes telling the tale, punctuating it with wry laughter.
McCraney, 33, has nursed a dream of creating a long-term theatrical initiative in his hometown which, ironically, had not hosted a professional production of his work until 2011 despite his growing international fame.
One permutation, but not the only one, was a winter Shakespeare festival. Most of his ideas involve exposing local youngsters to the art form for that saved his life. But he expects any undertaking to occur in stages over many years.
As a first step, Adler persuaded McCraney to direct a minimalist, stylistic production for the fall of 2011 of The Brothers Size, part of the trilogy that he wrote that brought him fame. Last January, they joined again so that McCraney could direct his earlier RSC adaptation of a stripped down, driving 85-minute Hamlet accessible to high school audiences.
The most recent step — getting the world-renowned RSC leaders to team up with a Miami company none of them had heard of — was simple: “I tricked them,” he recalled with a chuckle.
While McCraney was a RSC artist-in-residence in 2010, then Artistic Director Michael Boyd pressured McCraney to come up with a “radical edit” of Antony and Cleopatra and direct it for one of the RSC’s smaller productions.
“I never am itching to direct things,” McCraney said. “I think I can put pieces on stage and make them work, but I don’t style myself as a director, just someone who creates theater. So when he asked do you want to direct this piece, I said, ‘Uh, sure, but only if I can take it to Miami.”
But the RSC knew no one in Miami. So McCraney approached Adler who he had met at New World. Once the RSC vetted GableStage and saw the likelihood that Miami’s diversity might welcome McCraney’s vision, the next step was even more audacious.
McCraney was at a Theatre Communications Group meeting in Los Angeles where he spoke with Oskar Eustis, honcho of the Public. “(I mentioned it) to him as if it were a project he might miss out on if he didn’t get on board. And he said, ‘Hey, how do I sign up?’ and I said, ‘Oh, would you like to help?’ and he said, ‘Oh, yes, but only if I could take it to New York.”
The problem, which everyone knew, is that Antony and Cleopatra is a difficult play on several levels. To begin with, it’s not as popular with the casual theatergoing public as Hamlet or King Lear; many people don’t even know it exists. Their frame of reference is the 1963 Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton movie.
Then, although there’s an enticing tragic love story at its center, Antony and Cleopatra is a history play. One of its fascinations is how human passions and power politics affect each other. The play doesn’t work if the Byzantine maneuverings of the Roman triumvirate of Antony, Lepidus and Augustus Caesar (Julius’ successor) are overly-shortchanged.
Shuttling between four or five dramatic arenas, it’s also structurally more complex than the driving narrative of Hamlet. McCraney says it qualifies as experimental for its time as Eugene O’Neill’s early plays were for his time.
So, besides changing time and place, McCraney sliced out and reordered portions of the text. Further, a play with at least 34 speaking parts plus ten or more extras is now being done with ten actors handling about 16 parts. The usual three and half-hour production is now two and half including intermission.
But the approach was to imbue everything with a visceral feel in the way the language is delivered, in the way body language was used, “to do it with race and ethnicity,” he said. “There is something that changes when you see, oh, here is a colonial power of European descent over a people of mixed and various races. The politics become much more immediate. You do not need to know all of the maneuverings and which ship sailed when in order to know that there is a stranglehold these people have.”
On the boards
The production opened two months ago in the Swan Theatre. Its run received a range of reviews, from several critics mildly intrigued by the production to one scathing pan.
As with any co-production with multiple stops, the offering received considerable constructive criticism from the three artistic directors and their staffs during and after the Swan run. McCraney has made changes, but the real challenge between productions is physical. The Swan has a stage thrust into the auditorium with the audience on three sides; the Colony’ stage sits behind a framing proscenium arch. This required restaging physical movement, reconfiguring the lights and a dozen other details which have kept the cast and crew in technical rehearsal mode most of their time here.
An added task has been that McCraney has had to streamline the text and the production even more for the student productions in Miami. He also had to prep his cast for an audience “of screaming teenagers,” he said wryly.
A Long Way Down
All this is just the latest chapter in the oft-told saga of the Miami street kid who pulled himself out of a nightmarish circumstances with the help of several mentors to become a theatrical road warrior so busy that he really has no permanent home.
The short version is that he is a third-generation Miamian, likely of Bahamian descent. He had a Dickensian childhood in Homestead, Liberty City, Overtown and Coconut Grove. His father left home early on. His mother fought a lengthy and eventually fatal battle with crack addiction. The family struggled with poverty while McCraney served as a surrogate parent to his siblings. Hurricane Andrew wiped out everything they owned. When his mother checked into rehab, he moved back in with his devout father who rejected the boy’s incipient homosexuality. He was bullied for being “sensitive.” He watched neighbors sink into lives of drugs and crime.
His lifeline was a fascination first with dance and then theater in magnet schools and a teen program called Village South Improv run by multi-disciplinary mentor Teo Castellanos. When McCraney entered the New World School of the Arts, he also found a lifelong champion in guidance counselor Sylvan Seidenman.
From there, he attended DePaul University in Chicago and then moved on to the famed playwriting program at Yale University, making contacts with major theatrical figures at every stop.
National attention came with the creation of his Brother/Sister Plays, a trio of works set in modern day Louisiana, notable for their highly imagistic approach, lyrical language and an infusion of diverse influences including the West African Yoruba tribal mythology.
Since then his work has been mounted by major regional theaters around the country including Steppenwolf where he was inducted as a company member. He has received several awards and grants, most notably in November, the prestigious MacArthur Foundation’s so-called genius grant — $625,000 spread over five years.
As for the future, McCraney is famous for having more projects in progress than planes circling a snowed-in airport. But right now he is laser-focused on success for Antony and Cleopatra.
Measuring this production’s success – artistic, financial, popular or in developing the region as an arts center – may take months to assess. But “success” is a bit different for each party.
McCraney wants to increase the depth, breadth and character of theater in the region. “The hope for me was to add more color to that palette in Miami… My personal ethos is that public works like Shakespeare should be used as tools to engage the public. It’s something I held dear from the time I was doing street theater here on South Beach to the times I was in school and studying about (founder of the Public Theater) Joe Papp, just understanding what theater can do.”
But his main goal is to create something with staying power “to find a way to install something in South Florida for young people and people in general to be in contact with theatre in an accessible way and find the experience rewarding.”
He’s encouraged that a teacher friend recently asked how he could bring his students to the show. “That’s the kind of overlap we were hoping for… as far the longevity, to continue to maintain and grow that kind of interest.”
But to some degree the very existence of the project is a triumph to the participants. For such a project and GableStage to receive an endorsement by the RSC, the Public, the Knight Foundation and county officials serves as a gauntlet thrown down to the rest of the community.
McCraney speaks with a wary optimism forged in a calling where nothing is certain.
“At the end of the day, we can only bring so much to the table. We’re nearing the point where the community has to give us a sort of head nod or acknowledgement that they want to this to continue. There may be a resounding yes, there may be a marginal maybe or a resounding no. I don’t know, we have to see.”
Antony and Cleopatra runs Jan. 9-Feb. 9 from GableStage performing at the Colony Theater, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. Public 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday (except Jan. 11). Other performances reserved for high school students. Tickets $65 plus $1 facility fee at the Colony Theater or $7.60 fee added through Ticketmaster. For single tickets, visit Colony box office in person or call Ticketmaster (800) 745-3000 or visit www.ticketmaster.com. For group sales or more information, call (305) 445-1119 or visit GableStage.org.
For a photo gallery of the RSC production, click here.
To see a RSC trailer of the production, click here.
To see a video interview with McCraney at the Public , click here.
To see a video of a scene in the last act of the RSC production, click here:
Earlier stories about the project and McCraney can be found at