Open a New Window: The Future of Florida Theater – Part Two

An over-the-top grieving family in a satirical riff on A Raisin in the Sun in AHCAC’s The Colored Museum in 2018 / Photo by Michael Strader Marko

By Bill Hirschman

“White = a blank page or canvas; his favorite; so many possibilities.”
          –Sondheim & Lapine, Sunday in the Park With George

Change seems almost inevitable in the wake of this unique opportunity to reset, reboot and reform South Florida theater, as a score of interviewees said in the first part of this series. But precisely what change audiences and artists will see is uncertain as they stumble around in a dark room, flicking on matches looking a light switch.

In this three-day in-depth analysis, we synthesize what they and a score of others online answered to a central core of questions: What will we see on regional stages at those benchmark periods, what could happen in the ways theaters operate and what should happen on this canvas to fix what is broken?

“You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

Last June, nationally and locally, artists of color picked up the Black Lives Matter banner and delivered an indictment of theater decision-makers.

At first, industry leaders — who saw themselves social progressives who had worked decades to inject diversity into their work — were stung by war stories of unintentional but deeply imbedded systemic problems (detailed in our lengthy June story Accusations ranged from efforts dismissed as tokenism to not reflecting a community that had no voices in decision-making.

In South Florida theaters, like those in many regions, the concerns prompted introspective self-evaluation and multiple conscious-raising seminars attended by leaders of some of the region’s major companies.

Several leaders acknowledged that virtually no one had done enough to address the depth of the problems. The results were public pledges to reforms – not just when traditional theater paradigms resume, but toward transforming ongoing operating philosophies and structures.

Leaders committed in part because it is simply the altruistically right thing to do, in part to expand artistic possibilities, in part to more accurately reflect the total community their patrons live in, and especially to attract a new younger, more diverse audience for the long-term future – for aesthetic, social and purely economic reasons.

Interviews made it clear that short-term, at least, there will be obvious changes.

—-Plays written by, about, directed by, designed by and portrayed by African-Americans and Latinx artists will proliferate inside season schedules.  Perhaps there will be a full season of such titles at some companies in 2022-2023. Expect to see plays more unfamiliar than old reliables like A Raisin in the Sun and Fences. Certainly we’ll be treated to work by Dominique Morisseau, Lynn Nottage and Suzan-Lori Parks, all of whom have had multiple productions here before. But perhaps an adventurous someone will do the Pulitzer-winning Riverside or Katori Hall’s works, although don’t hold your breath waiting for Jeremy O. Harris’ incendiary Slave Play.

—–Non-traditional and cross-cultural casting will increase – not just to make a point about the universality of human experience, but because the actor is a good fit for a non-race or gender-specific role. The latter technique has become so common in British theater over two decades that it doesn’t take their audiences more than couple of minutes to accept that a Nigerian Hamlet’s mother was born in Nicaragua. Few companies explore this other than Thinking Cap Theatre in Fort Lauderdale. Conversely, more attention will be paid to casting analogous to the character’s supposed ethnicity or sexual orientation. These changes don’t have to be unsettling to traditional audiences: Miami New Drama’s 2017 Our Town succeeded when the Webbs spoke the familiar lines in Spanish in the kitchen table scenes and the Gibbs spoke Creole to each other, but spoke English in downtown Grover’s Corners.

—–Expect the reduction of some of the unintentional slights and micro-aggressions in rehearsals such as when a director uses an ill-chosen phrase, thanks to intensive reeducation of some artistic directors.

—–Marketing staffers will invest extra effort making diverse neighborhoods aware of the company’s offerings, advertising in ethnic-centric publications, bringing directors and performers to cultural groups’ meetings.

This is part personal commentary, part reporting based on decades
of covering theater. But insights were gifted, altered and enlightened by interviews
with nearly two dozen Florida-based theater artists, plus many others on social
media over three months.

Particular thanks to Dave Arisco, Andie Arthur, Nan Barnett, Jamel Booth, Timothy Mark Davis, Christopher Demos-Brown, Patrick Fitzwater, William Fernandez, Sabrina Lynn Gore, Sara Grant, Cary Brianna Hart, Michel Hausmann, William Hayes, Anna Lise Jensen Arvelo, Andrew Kato, Julie Kleiner Davis, Nicholas Richberg, Andy Rogow, Geoffrey Short, Matt Stabile, Nicole Stodard, Marilynn Wick and Kent Chambers-Wilson.

But observers of different ethnicities agree that those steps are not enough, pegging some of them as well-meant but condescending, akin to the annual mounting of Raisin during Black History Month. “They know when you are pandering to their race and ethnicity,” said Tim Davis, Producing Artistic Director of New City Players in Fort Lauderdale.

An evolution in mindset is required. Actor-director-educator Geoffrey Short said, “I think it becomes a hell of a lot more than posts on social media or casting bulletin boards…. We have to cultivate a new culture of diversity. That means that we have to train” those sculpting the future…. “It just requires a little bit deeper dive of thought and consideration (about) racism in the DNA of the country…in the DNA of our arts organizations.”

Most of the needed actions and attitudes will take time to ingrain long after the pandemic is under control — assuming the commitment perseveres once the overwhelming demands of running any company resume, which some local cynics question.

Top of the “to-do” list is to bring diverse people into the decision-making and policy-making processes, specifically as members of the board of directors and as members of the artistic directors’ and managing directors’ teams, perhaps even in those top positions themselves, as is happening across the country right now.

Such moves would provide desperately needed insights into what work to perform beyond titles that the current leaders are aware of, where to find more diverse talent, how to spread the word of the works’ existence to diverse communities. Such moves are a “we’re-practicing-what-we-preach message” to communities that someone truly cares about their culture being depicted.

Recruiting anyone to theater boards is not easy. Further, opportunities to hire diverse executives may be sparse because the decimated paid staffing at many theaters will ramp back up slowly as the theatrical economy staggers back.

But such moves are crucial in the fundamental overarching need: building relationships inside the community at large. It’s a concept that New City Players has made a guiding priority since its inception, although not just focused on race, Davis said. “We have to shift our mindset from (working) for the black community or Latinx community to (working) with,” Davis said. We might discover that the show we wanted to do for them is not the show that the community is interested in…. It’s not a quick fix, not just a change in programming; it comes from authentic relationships which take years to build.”

Miami New Drama Artistic Director Michel Hausmann charged that the status quo for many companies is “excluding some people from storytelling. You’re saying your story is not as important as our story.”

An initiative being floated brings theater directly to the community rather than trying to bring the community inside a separate venue. “We have to go where they are and we have to show them why would it make sense for them to invest their time, talent and energy into our organization. They’re not stupid,” Short said.

The proposed model echoes the education programs theaters have had for years in which productions are taken inside public schools with predominantly diverse enrollments. It might be stripped down mobile “satellite” productions for adults and/or families presented in local parks, movie theaters, community centers and school auditoriums. Or programs might involve the entire community in the creative process, such as inviting and developing playwriting by local residents for one of those satellite productions.

But over and over, BIPOCs say diverse audience members simply “don’t feel welcome” coming to an auditorium where they may be one of the few people of color in the audience. If they don’t see themselves on stage or in the audience, they are loathe to return.

Reforms are underway, but will people come? “Absolutely not to begin with,” but it will happen if the theaters become part of the community, Davis said.

Past attempts to produce programming aimed at a diverse community have brought in diverse patrons for one title but who didn’t come back for the next few shows that did not clearly speak to their concerns. GableStage, the late Coconut Grove Playhouse and especially Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables repeatedly staged shows with themes centered on African-Americans and especially Cuban-Americans with no lasting results.

An exception is Miami New Drama, which has aggressively promoted itself as choosing fare and casting that reflects a county demographic in which about 70 percent categorizes themselves as Hispanic and 16 percent as black.

Another sore spot en route to increasing diverse fare — only acknowledged quietly — is the local talent pool itself. Some artistic directors claim the pool of BIPOC artists – indisputably containing some terrifically talented people — is just not that deep. As a result, when a theater needs an African-American director or BIPOC performer not already booked, they often find themselves consulting colleagues to identify unfamiliar untested candidates from across the state and beyond. One artistic director of a mainstream house has said for years that local BIPOC actors simply do not show up for the company’s auditions.

But the truth is there is a deeper and broader pool. In the future, artistic directors only have to attend works by smaller ethno-centric productions to find talent. Notably, in 2018 the African Heritage Cultural Arts Center’s The Colored Museum with a cast of ten solid experienced performers directed by a superbly talented newcomer – few of whom have been hired subsequently by mainstream theaters.

The immersive Amparo in 2019 needed a steady stream of replacement Latinx performers because the Miami show was extended repeatedly. Producer William Fernandez has said he proved sufficient talent exists locally; he only needed to take proactive outreach to find them, especially networking.

The reason some don’t come to auditions and some even leave the region is because, again, they don’t “feel welcome.” They doubt they will be cast for non-ethnic specific roles, let alone leads. So when they weigh issues such as whether anyone in the company speaks Spanish, they often step away.

Even among leaders supportive of expanded equity efforts, some worry that the driving emphasis may outweigh the extent of the problem compared to other issues.

A well-respected white artist with unquestionably progressive attitudes said, “If there is any sector of the private or public world that I’ve ever been part of that has less of a race (or) gender bias problem than theater, I don’t know what it is. So to have theater narcissistically sitting around trying to solve a problem that it doesn’t really have — and if it does have it, it’s way down the list of problems — then we strangle quality in the name of solving this problem.” A Black artistic leader interviewed also agreed.

Others predict the change is crucial for survival in South Florida as the older predominantly white audience shrinks and disappears. “At end of the day, (theaters) will find themselves without an audience,” Hausmann said, “If they don’t see a trend, Darwin will do what Darwin does.”

The younger and middle-aged movers who have become the leaders in the region’s theaters “fear (that) once the machine starts up again that the machine itself will overtake the good intentions and the thoughtfulness,” said Matt Stabile, artistic director of Theatre Lab in Boca Raton said. “But once you’ve seen something, you can’t unsee it.”

“… and those wonderful people out there in the dark.”  

Who will be sitting in the seats 12 months, two years, five years from now?  Will they all be well-heeled white retirees? How will theaters build the younger, diverse audiences they’ve sought for decades?

This moment provides an opportunity to challenge limiting pre-conceptions.

Unlike most other art forms, theater cannot be the navel-gazing self-sufficient venting of the soul in a garret. It requires an audience in a 2,000-seat venue or around a campfire. It’s not simply a one-way expression, it’s an interactive dialogue with people perceiving and processing.

The really good news is that most of the existing audience is ravenously eager to return (most with asterisks about masks, vaccines and the like) but with a stomach-growling hunger, said every artistic director who has done surveys or aggressively reached out to subscribers. The vacuum of social bonding, the isolation of the pandemic, and the realization of what has been lost has stoked their desire. Some companies report that 90 to 98 percent of their subscribers have agreed to have their 2020-21 ticket purchases applied to 2021-2022.

For instance, Island City Stage in Wilton Manors has begun producing live plays socially distanced inside its small theater and immediately needed to extend the run of its most recent production, Competition.

Artistic Director Andy Rogow expects two possibilities to coalesce: “One is that there’s this dam burst and everybody’s going to want to get back to being at live performance…. The other possibility, though, is that people have gotten so used to being home and watching series on Netflix… they’re going to say, ‘You know what, we kind of like this more relaxed lifestyle…’. And then it will take us much longer to build back up the audiences we’ve all built up over the years.”

Uncertainty prevails. Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director William Hayes said his supportive subscribers aren’t asking for their money back, but he estimates 30 to 35 percent will not actually sit in seats for some time to come. Rogow and Keith Garsson of Primal Forces in Boca Raton are antsy about audience reaction the first time someone has a coughing fit in their intimate spaces.

Obviously, the essential factor in rebuilding old audiences and attracting new ones is what is put on stage. For years, the short-shift shorthand has been that Florida’s subscription-buying theatergoers are white retirees, tristate transplants, snow birds and tourists seeking out familiar titles or at least tropes that reaffirm the values in which they have invested decades of their lives. Insiders ask will mainstream audiences subscribe to or repeatedly buy single tickets to a season of stagings inspired by the avant-garde deconstructionist Ivo van Hove.

But this assumption contains so many fallacies that, in themselves, point to what is possible during this reset. Additional options exist besides simply going back to safe, comfortable, status quo reaffirming fare as Americans did choosing movies during the Great Depression.

First, there is no monolithic audience. Most regional theater communities have many companies that have thrived by steadfastly producing identifiable niche work for a receptive audience with emphases covering the entire spectrum of performing arts’ themes.

Second, artists tend to underestimate or pigeonhole audiences. Yes, some partisans will walk out when the work violates what they have come for; but frankly, many of these audiences have much wider tastes than they are given credit for and their preferences overlap other companies’. For instance, the ultra-mainstream audience of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre embraced the social commentary of Disgraced, the politics of Frost/Nixon, the surreal rant against classism of An Inspector Calls, but were underenthused about the peppy well-produced musicals The Mystery of Edwin Drood and Will Rogers’ Follies.

Before complex reasons caused it to close in 2011, Florida Stage’s heavily subscription audience remained loyal year after year, even though the company only did world premieres and second or third productions of new work. Audiences supported titles they had never heard of from playwrights most had never heard of. They came for quality work that was entertaining and/or thought-provoking.

Further, most of the audience that companies relied on for 40 years were raised when theater was one of a few primary entertainment and cultural options. People of varied economic strata attended. Certainly, many cherry picked, but a huge percentage went to see new work that they knew nothing about other than from reviews and word-of-mouth, offerings like that unsettling Death of a Salesman or that strange Cabaret. Insightful work that was groundbreaking at the time only became warhorse classics decades later. But audiences came for both laughs and ideas in an experience that cannot be duplicated in any other paradigm.

And then there is a more radical prognostication: If much of the pre-pandemic audience is dying out, some professionals question why pander to an audience that won’t be here in five or ten years?  If the core audience may be slow coming back, isn’t this a convenient time to experiment with work to attract the new audience? Regardless, why not take the opportunity to devote a larger slice of the limited – and now smaller – resources to attract a new audience while never abandoning the current core.

To reach the hoped-for younger audience, companies need to look forward, not backward to a golden era. Scrolling through Instagram or Tiktok illustrates what attracts their time and ATM withdrawals. Just as diverse audiences don’t feel welcome in theater because it’s not their lives up there, the same goes for audiences under 50 years old. But potentially, just look at the fourth-time repeat audience at any Wicked or Hamilton tour or the thousands of students involved in the Cappies high school program. A future audience exists.

“It’s not that young people don’t go to theater, it’s that they are not aware it is happening through the channels they are listening to,” said Andie Arthur, executive director of the South Florida Theatre League. The trick is exploring ways to reach to where they are.

If theaters do morph to new shows, new material, new themes, they must prepare their core audience with extensive marketing and education. Tell them what you’re doing, push at the envelope gently. Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables delivered an unparalleled Floyd Collins in 2003 but their mainstream audience walked out in droves because they expected the upbeat Oklahoma! and saw a folk opera like Porgy and Bess.

If theaters do take chances, again, the audience that claims to love theater bears responsibility, too. If they don’t want the “same old, same old,” then they have to support companies with their donations and their attendance, even when the program might not slip easily into their comfort zone.

The most mainstream audiences have to remember the pleasure and excitement that resulted when their minds and spirits were invigorated by work that they had never heard of or had shied away from by such cutting edge sources as Edward Albee or Stephen Sondheim.

(Tomorrow, we’ll  examine how the finances of theater may change and how this may affect the careers of theater artists. On the third and last day, we’ll examine how the finances of theater may change and how this may affect the careers of theater artists. To read the first part of the series, click here.)

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