Ya Got Trouble Right Here in River City: The Challenges

Who are we? Where do we want to go? What’s standing in our way? How do we prevail? The dwindling days before the season gears up are a prime time for us all, audiences to artists, to invest in a tough self-examination of South Florida theater.

We suggest concrete answers in three extensive essays this week. The opinions are ours, but they result from more than 30 lengthy interviews and dozens of shorter ones with professionals in the region and across the country who we will list at the end of each article. In the first part, (click here) we defined precisely what South Florida theater is and can be. The second dissects the handicaps, shortcomings and challenges. The third on Friday offers potential solutions.

It’s unlikely you’ll agree with half of what is suggested. Some observations will seem obvious. Some may even be wrong. Some may get you angry. Good. We’re throwing chum in the water to start an overdue conversation in lobbies, dressing rooms, board rooms and cyberspace. Talk back to us. We want your signed responses in the comments sections at the end of the articles, or in your own essays that we will consider editing and publishing if you send them to  bill@floridatheateronstage.com.

 

By Bill Hirschman

Shakespeare, as usual, got it right. Cassius warned, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” And so it is with the roster of dangers to the future of South Florida theater.

We can excuse ourselves by saying these are “external factors beyond our control”  or  “that would take money we don’t have.”

But the real stumbling block is the confidence, self-esteem and sheer will to engage in a long-term war, not half-hearted scuffles. As Cassius referenced, those obstacles are aggravated by fear, selfishness, laziness, short-sightedness and even a bit of arrogance on some folks’ part, from artists to audience, patrons to politicians, board members to critics.

Yet there are legitimate causes for hope. First, we know some of the answers. The last essay in this series on Friday will examine solutions, some being experimented with right now. Second, as we’ve said, the proven imagination, commitment and drive that created the theaters themselves are assets that cannot be written off.

The task is to identify what hampers the vision of South Florida becoming a regional hub of varied, thought-provoking and entertaining theater as broad, deep and sophisticated as its music and cuisine.

The surface problems are not news: inter-related woes of declining audiences and shrinking revenue from every source in an economy that has curtailed government support, foundation grants, corporate and private patron’s donations.

It’s been clear for the last 30 years that the transplanted northerners and snowbirds who formed the backbone of subscription audiences are dying off or unable to drive to theaters. With a proliferation of entertainment options and limited discretionary budgets, their children and grandchildren are not taking their places in the same numbers. Even those who do attend are not subscribing, instead cherry-picking shows, which makes it difficult for theaters to budget.

But the problems run far deeper and are more complex .

The  Me Nobody Knows: Invisibility

The single most profound problem facing South Florida theater is that almost no one knows it’s here.

It’s not that people are choosing to do something else with their entertainment dollars or their philanthropic resources. Theater simply isn’t on the radar screen for anyone but for a sliver of the population. Theater lovers just cannot comprehend how small their niche is.

Other than Broadway Across America tours, there are few billboards; few feature stories on local television, let alone ads; no daily theater listing in the newspapers; meager mention, if any, in tourism magazines; no presence on those hotel racks of lobby cards hawking attractions.

This cripples not just cultural vitality, it affects the flow of dollars. Theater is invisible not just to potential audience members. It’s absent from the minds of the government bureaucrats who draw up budgets for grants and tourism marketing, the honchos who direct corporate philanthropy, the families seeking a cause to donate toward, the education policymakers choosing where to spend limited dollars. Most South Floridians are ignorant of theater as a major economic engine, an employer, a consumer of goods and services, a synergistic draw to downtown redevelopment, not to mention just unique entertainment.

Of those people aware theater does exist, many simply don’t value it. They haven’t seen any in years, maybe ever. Unaware that today’s offerings are vibrant, challenging and fresh, many people dismiss theater as stale titles performed by amateurs for an elitist crowd.

Actors Playhouse’s Next to Normal

As low-key as Florida theater’s profile is locally, it’s subterranean nationally. South Florida is a destination for leisure not culture, other than Art Basel. No one comes to Florida to see theater as they do when visiting Chicago. With the demise of the Coconut Grove Playhouse and Florida Stage, only the most plugged-in professionals around the country are aware of the opportunities and the quality. The national brush-off even affects the tours: The musical Next to Normal, which later became a success for Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables, never toured here. The national tour of The Book of Mormon won’t come to South Florida next season.  It will play Rochester and Des Moines, but not Florida. Des Moines. Only recently has there been a tad of attention, such as Terry Teachout’s reviews of Palm Beach Dramaworks and GableStage productions in The Wall Street Journal.

Yes, a hundred thousand theater tickets are sold every year across the region. Florida’s high schools and colleges are filled with ten thousand students volunteering for in-school classes, after-school drama programs, plus summer camps. But question 10 people on the Miracle Mile and find two who know theater is being performed two blocks away. Stop 20 people on South Beach and find one person who has heard of GableStage.

As a direct result of invisibility, audiences are dwindling, grants are shrinking, donations are drying up, out-of-town theater professionals are not opting to work here.

All the World’s A Stage: Geography

As we said before, there is no such thing as South Florida theater. What artists, critics and Carbonell Award voters call South Florida theater is marginally smaller than the state of Delaware (not counting Key West, Orlando or Naples, which the actors do.)

But to the audiences, patrons and business leaders, a theater market is about 10 to 15 square miles. Even adventurous theater lovers rarely venture more than a few dozen miles from their home county.

Florida Stage’s new home at the Kravis

One of the reasons for the demise of Florida Stage was that part of its audience wouldn’t drive nine miles from their “neighborhood” playhouse in Manalapan up to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. The concern will be re-tested this fall when the Fort Lauderdale-based Women’s Theatre Project moves to the Willow Theatre in Sugar Sand Park in Boca Raton.

Geography produces several problems:  One, reaching out to new audiences across county lines with expensive marketing efforts is a risky venture. Two, that discourages innovative ideas like West Palm Beach’s Dramaworks or Miami’s New Theatre taking their shows on the road to, say, the empty Caldwell theater in Boca Raton.

Three, the distances sabotage the producers and artistic directors’ sense of being part of a regional community. Companies’ leaders rarely get in the same room to talk and share solutions, other than for South Florida Theatre League forums, which always lack representatives. With notable exceptions such as GableStage’s Joe Adler, few leaders even see anyone else’s work.

This matters far more than the value of kumbaya brotherhood.  It seriously undercuts the collegiality that leads to mutually beneficial cooperation and the multiplied clout when fighting for common cause. To wit….

Together, Wherever We Go: Poor Cooperation

Collaboration is essential to a show even opening. But, usually, collegiality ends at the edge of the stage.

Various interviewees said, and we quote, “the cooperation is miserable,” “there are small group of piranhas” and “everyone is in their own little kingdom.”

Some theaters do promote a competitor’s show in their e-mail blasts. Some allow companies to leave brochures about upcoming productions in their lobbies. On occasion, a theater might loan a costume or a prop. GableStage frequently donates its digs to small companies and playwrights for a reading. Mosaic’s Richard Jay Simon ends his curtain speeches with a plea for the audience to patronize other theaters. And all of this happens far more today than it ever did. But these laudable efforts are scattered, haphazard and do not go remotely far enough.

Potential joint projects exist that we’ll detail in Friday’s essay including cooperative costume/scene/prop shops, shared administrative operations, on and on. Yet while nearly every theater chief interviewed heartily endorsed the idea of cooperation, each balked at specific suggestions or found a reason that such and such program would not work for them. Two said frankly that they saw little advantage to themselves in ideas such as sharing contact lists.

Some of this, obviously, comes from the terror that a theater only has a finite share of the pot of discretionary dollars. But the success of every theater and Theater in general has a synergistic benefit, starting with increasing Theater’s profile in the consciousness of potential customers. As the two hoary bromides go, “A rising tide raises all boats” and conversely, “If we do not hang together, we shall all hang separately.”

Some of it is ego. Many of these players are independent spirits who persevered to start their own theaters to find artistic freedom. They are no more likely to band together than are, say, journalists. The Theatre League and the Florida Professional Theatres Association have labored mightily to bring groups together, but their limited success to date signals a lack of will from their members.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new. Six weeks after I first drafted this section, I read a July 2001 commentary by the Sun-Sentinel’s late critic Jack Zink that said exactly the same thing.

One side effect is that while these people led others in creating their individual theaters, no single person nor group of people has stepped forward to provide the leadership that could be a catalyst for change community-wide, other than the South Florida Theatre League.

Money Makes The World Go ‘Round: Funding

Money not artistic failure is what kills off a South Florida theater company.

But it’s more complicated than most people realize. For instance, since many non-profits draw 30 to 60 percent of their revenue from ticket sales, a theater can enjoy full houses and still be in financial trouble. Money matters because it’s the fuel for marketing that maintains and grows audiences.

Whereas Europe, Canada and even Chicago are renowned for government support of the arts, here politicians seemingly work against the arts. The idea of a dedicated funding source such as bond issue such as the one passed in Salt Lake City is a hashish dream — unless you want to piggyback on a sports arena without any parking. The arts – and theater in particular – seem to be the path-of-least-resistance target for budget cuts. The slashing dates back at least to 2003 when Governor Jeb Bush’s proposed budget sliced arts funding from $28.8 million to $6.1 million.

Because the community is so “young,” few theaters have accumulated the endowments and standing donations that can see them through the tough times, the kind of enshrined contributions common in regional hubs with a tradition of five, even eight decades of financial support.

The loss of donations to the late Coconut Grove Playhouse, Caldwell Theatre and Florida Stage might be assumed to have chilled donations, but some houses report little effect on the ultra-wealthy donors. It’s the hundreds of small and medium-sized donors who have cut back the checks that are unheralded but crucial to survival. The other shortfall is among the new “second generation” of corporate CEOS who don’t think about theater as a place to invest their donations as their predecessors did. International corporations and philanthropists with deep pockets are moving into the region, but they see no need to donate since the arts in their home countries are heavily subsidized.

Ultimately, not a single theater’s chief we interviewed felt financially comfortable. Several employees at Palm Beach Dramaworks wear two or three hats. The Maltz Jupiter Theatre enjoys donations, record-setting subscriptions and sold-out houses, but its focus on stretching a dollar would be familiar to the Depression babies in their audience.

Elsewhere, things are less rosy. One producer said while the company will survive, it has deeply drawn from its endowment for the past two fiscal years to stay out of the red. Another company still in operation was at least $475,000 in debt last fall. Yet another company’s show lost $20,000 this summer.

It’s enough to wear out theater professionals whose heart is in making theater not raising funds. Promethean Theatre co-founder Deborah Sherman said last spring that she closed the Davie company because of fund raising fatigue, tapping the same donors with diminishing returns, raising funds literally show to show. She wanted to exit head held high while the company was still doing quality work and owed no one a dime.

There’s No Business Like….:  Financial Acumen

Money may be what kills a theater, but it’s not always the cash flow. Sometimes it’s how it’s managed.

Few people get into the arts to make money and fewer still know how to do it. In South Florida, nearly every theater resulted from artists who created the structure of a company as a necessary evil to provide a platform for their art. If a company is lucky like Dramaworks or GableStage, their administrators have some business experience. If they last long enough, they accumulate some knowhow like Mosaic Theatre in Plantation. But survival, let alone growth, requires expertise that most artistic directors lack. It’s instructive that the much-envied success of Dramaworks is due not just to their artistry — others have had that and collapsed – but to their long-haul fiscal discipline that resulted in never once ending up with a deficit.

Further, the intense conflicting demands can be overwhelming when one person is the artistic director, producer, managing director, marketing director, budget guru, grant application writer, donor developer and janitor. Some of this consolidation is necessitated by budgets. But to some degree, these people court burnout because they are accustomed to and seduced by total control. Only in recent years have some of these visionaries taken on tiny support staffs – and even then some find it hard to delegate.

Aggravating the situation, when the tide of red ink rolls in, few companies ask for help or expertise from colleagues or the county arts departments.

To Dream The Impossible Dream: Planning for the Future

In any business, there is one crucial element in ensuring a long-term future — someone needs to be thinking about it. Few theater companies do that. Most leaders say they are just trying to get through the next season or two. Other than at Maltz and Dramaworks, strategic planning is limited at most theaters to spit-balling over a couple of pitchers after a show.

Even if companies wanted to adapt to trends, their raw data is sketchy or non-existent because reliable market research costs money and time that most companies don’t have. Most county-wide data is no help because it’s not broken down by different artistic disciplines. That “hundred thousand tickets sold” figure quoted earlier is a rough guesstimate; it might be less but it’s likely far more. Aggregating apples and oranges data from grant applications is daunting, as we found out personally. Only the three largest presenting houses and a couple of other theaters have significant data about their audiences, and no one is sharing their data with anyone like the South Florida Theatre League even to have it aggregated.

Another oft-ignored issue is how a company would survive if its charismatic founder retired or got hit by a car. With exception of artistic directors Michael Hall at the Caldwell Theatre in Boca Raton and Rafael de Acha at New Theatre in Coral Gables, no one had or has succession plans that have been made public.

On the Boards: Fiduciary Oversight

If such a tragedy occurred, survival would depend on the commitment of the board of directors. In many cases, that’s hardly an encouraging prospect.

There have been and are hardworking, conscientious, generous people on virtually every board of directors. These altruists volunteer their elbow grease, financial expertise and resources to enable the arts to flourish.

But more than few are dead wood. They join to bolster their status, to stave off boredom or a dozen other bogus reasons that translate into writing a large check and then sitting back.

Exhibit one: Florida Stage, Coconut Grove and Caldwell each have a dozen reasons for their demise and each case has unique factors. But they all share one: A majority of their board of directors/trustees couldn’t, wouldn’t or didn’t challenge the good faith decisions being made by an artistic director. When the debts mounted in quarterly reports, did they say anything? Did they seek or propose solutions? Did they even look at the reports? Doubtless, some did. Obviously, a majority didn’t.

IRS 990s tax returns, interviews and other documents show financial hemorrhaging existed at all three institutions for years prior to the meltdowns that board members could not or would not put a halt to. Perhaps they trusted the artistic director’s judgment, perhaps they were run over roughshod, perhaps they didn’t care to invest the time in oversight, perhaps they didn’t know how, perhaps they liked the prestige but not the workload.  In a few cases, dissident board members were pressured to resign because, as one artistic director said, we weren’t on the same page.

Let Me Entertain You: Audience and Programming

A decade and a half ago, artistic directors founded companies by identifying the work they wanted to do and hoped that “if you build it, they would come.” But now several are seeking a balance between staying true to their vision and the survival game of guessing an audience’s druthers.

That’s easier in one respect. The audience that does come has splintered into niches as if theater was FM radio. Seeking more comforting fare in these tumultuous times, a large segment of patrons seek out precisely what they want – the familiar or self-validating. They aren’t eager, although sometimes willing, to court adventurous, challenging material. Therefore, companies terrified by half-empty houses strive to program safely within that “mission.” Leaders at the Maltz hope they are not pushing its audience past their boundaries with its upcoming production of Doubt.

GableStage’s The Brothers Size

Several artistic directors said patrons complain when they stray outside expectations. Actors Playhouse’s superlative folk opera Floyd Collins drove out its conventional audiences even before intermission in 2003. Some people contend the Caldwell imploded because it changed its fare too abruptly, even though it was doing some of its best work ever. GableStage took a huge chance with the unsettling Blasted in 2010, but it took a financial beating with Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s imagistic The Brothers Size.

As a result, several types of show simply aren’t seen anymore because they don’t fall in someone’s mission statement. Who is doing Cyrano de Bergerac, Major Barbara, Moliere, Odets, Genet or the pre-Neil Simon light comedies? The only companies doing large cast classic plays like Inherit The Wind are community theaters like Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts which just closed The Best Man.

If the audiences are diminishing, then the mandate is to grow and attract new ones, especially young ones. Such efforts exist virtually everywhere, but they are limited and sporadic because that usually means costly marketing. Most of the big theaters have summer camps and conservatories to cultivate the audience of a decade from now. But aggressive outreach to younger audiences has to happen inside the schools. While there are a handful of programs, especially in Miami-Dade, the efforts are a hundredth of what is poured into other youth programs in the community at large.

All I Want Is A Room Somewhere: Space

Theater mythology contends all you need to put on a show is a clearing in a crowd and maybe a soapbox. But the reality is that a stable, affordable, easily accessible, easily found location is crucial. It can’t be too big or too small if you want to stay solvent.

There simply is not enough performing space in the three counties that fits all the criteria. It’s not that there aren’t empty stages all over the region, especially considering the crop of new government-sponsored halls from Cutler Ridge to Miramar. But many are too large and too expensive for even the more established companies. What is desperately needed are 99-seat and 149-seat houses.

This need came into crystalline focus in the past season when Women’s Theatre Project, New Theatre and Rising Action (now Island City Stage) lost their homes and spent months looking for a place to land. The last two are still looking for a permanent berth although they have temporary quarters. Outré Theater Company was seeking a home until just days ago when it landed temporary digs in Boca Raton. In Miami-Dade, Actors Playhouse is the only operation to own its own home. Even the renowned GableStage is on a month-to-month lease with the Biltmore Hotel.

Slow Burn Theatre’s Rocky Horror Show

Some are located in the wrong place. Slow Burn Theatre Company is building an audience at the West Boca Community High School. But it’s located almost in the Everglades, one of the factors that helped sink the predecessor tenant, New Vista Theater Company.

Size does matter. Florida Stage’s demise was partly due to its audience mourning the loss of the Manalapan facility’s intimacy when the company moved to the colder, expansive Rinker Playhouse at the Kravis Center with 289 seats.

Cost matters, too. Lynn University has a gorgeous 750-seat theater, but its rental is between $1,635 and $2,045 a night. The Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in Miami has generously hosted Zoetic Stage, City Theatre, Alliance Theatre Lab and Mad Cat; but the companies have to use the Arsht’s union-scale stagehands and incur other expenses. The receiver currently overseeing the former Caldwell Theatre space charged Entr’acte Theatrix $5,000 a week rent plus other expenses to use its 333-seat theater in July.

Stability is key, too. A few struggling companies like Ground Up & Rising move from venue to venue, making it impossible for a neighborhood audience to latch on or loyal audiences to know where they are going next.

Not owning your own home poses other problems. Companies based in schools or houses of worship, no matter the fiscal advantages, must avoid straying into material that will upset parents, if not their children. Renting space also limits a company to minimal signage alerting passing motorists that a theater even exists on the spot, notably Mosaic Theatre and GableStage.

No Place To Be Somebody: No Theater District

Times Square, The Loop, Washington, D.C., even sections of Boston and Seattle, have geographic concentrations of theaters. Exit one show and a marquee a block away spurs you to consider attending another next month if you’re local or tomorrow night if you’re a tourist. The energy and synergy encourages other theaters to locate there, restaurants and retail shops to open there, and the entire economic ecosystem to grow. Its very existence reinforces the arts in the public consciousness as an entertainment option.

Not here.

True, we’re an automobile-based community with minimal mass transit; nobody walks much. But the obstruction is the reticence of government and business interests that cannot be persuaded to see the exponential economic development benefits of even creating a proximity space for three theaters. Specific opportunities were knowingly passed up in downtown Hollywood, the Miracle Mile in Coral Gables and Andrews Avenue in Fort Lauderdale.

Conversely, the loss of Florida Stage and Coconut Grove Playhouse also means fewer tent-pole theaters that attract national attention and provide steady high-paying jobs. Even the remaining major “large” theaters cannot carry that load themselves. As The Miami Herald’s Christine Dolen wrote recently, South Florida has nothing comparable to Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage which attracts the best actors, directors and playwrights – and most importantly, audiences – to an operation that exports thought-provoking new plays and crowd-pleasing musicals such as Next To Normal.

Start Spreading the News: The Media

The news media is the one pervasive and free venue for big and small companies to implant their existence in the community’s awareness. But as the dead tree media’s finances cratered, the space and staff devoted to the arts shriveled. Advance feature stories – the items that producers really want more than reviews – became less frequent when newspapers started sharing stories about the arts cut down on the number of voices.

As a result, theater’s shaky place in the public mind took a body blow in the second-most far-reaching mass medium. For the most pervasive mass medium, television news, there is no local theater except the multiplex, unless they donate an ad.

While websites like this one have emerged to target precisely the people interested in the arts, the wider if less efficient reach of the legacy media has irised down along with its commitment.

Several people interviewed added one other concern that we won’t endorse or dispute: Arts journalists and critics, including this one, have not been as tough and demanding on the work as they might. These people argue that the quality of theater won’t improve and the local problems won’t be addressed if the news media coddles the industry they are covering.

It’s A Hard Knock Life: The Talent Pool

Anyone who sees even a handful of shows knows that South Florida is blessed with skilled actors, directors, stage managers, designers, stage crews and support staff committed to making their artistic stand here.   For the moment.   Like every other resource, it’s imperiled.

You cannot call South Florida theater an industry because only a few score people in any job description make their full-time living connected to theater or even the arts in general. Most people in the audience wouldn’t consider raising a family on what local actors and designers earn.

If not for voiceover work and teaching, a huge portion of the pool could not pay their bills. Many travel around the state and to North Carolina to stay out of crippling debt. A few have better-paid spouses who subsidize their ambitions. The paltry smattering of TV, film and commercial jobs that L.A. producers deign to give locals are cruel taunts. And the dirty little secret is that several self-styled “professional” companies not only pay poorly, some barely pay car fare, if that. They exploit the artists’ need to practice their art.

The shaky finances of many theaters and the paucity of financially worthwhile work discourage potential recruits from out of town who are looking for more than one gig. The relatively healthy pay scales at the belated Florida Stage, Caldwell and Coconut Grove once meant local actors and designers also could take lower paying jobs with smaller theaters here. In fact, those three theaters, plus the defunct Royal Palm Dinner Theatre, meant that middle-aged actors indeed could thrive once upon a time.

Similarly, it’s hard to keep ‘em here in the first place, even though the competition for leading roles here is far less than in markets where talented actors would be carrying spears for many years. Journalists love to conjure Florida’s image as a petri dish for talent by citing Mark Kudisch, Katie Finneran, Raul Esparza, Janet Dacal, Nilo Cruz, Tarrell Alvin McCraney, etc. But the nasty truth is that most worked here only briefly in professional companies, some not at all. All went elsewhere to develop their talent and find fulfillment.

Alliance Theatre Lab’s Brothers Beckett starring its playwright David Michael Sirois

Still, pockets of local actors and playwrights are courageously trying to tough it out, like those affiliated with Alliance Theatre Lab in Miami Lakes, Slow Burn Theatre in Boca Raton and tiny companies like Outré Theatre and Infinite Abyss. South Florida is, in fact, a rich training ground for young actors without family responsibilities; they can work at nurturing roles they won’t get elsewhere. But more young and even middle-aged artists are quietly leaving town for New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington ,D.C., returning occasionally for special projects. South Florida is certainly not seen as a permanent artistic home like Denver, Seattle, Minneapolis, Philadelphia or Atlanta.

Competence aside, it’s not an Olympic-size pool of local talent to start with.  Depending on how you define the region, Actors Equity Association reports about 282 members living here and the Theatre League lists about 300 actors as members, including non-Equity. But that’s deceptive. You haven’t seen the names of a huge swath of them on any playbills here. Most aren’t working. And in looking at this season’s casting, the names of the same reliable hands come up over and over.

Artistic directors complain about the thin bench of candidates able to handle leads and complex parts for young women, older men, African Americans in general. You can count the number of people who truly can nail Shakespearean verse on the fingers of one hand. Those who can handle those roles are often booked months in advance. But if the acting pool is shallow in places, the corps of freelance directors and designers is anorexic as anyone can tell from the repetition of names in Carbonell nomination lists. Some designers are so overloaded with assignments that they are not always as timely or thorough as the companies would hope.

This leads to the furor over hiring out of town actors. Some actors charge that a few directors believe if someone is local, how can they be that good? Some actors said they go to New York auditions for local companies.

Every artistic director and producer interviewed said they preferred hiring local talent where possible. But they stressed that serving the audience and the art absolutely comes first.

Besides, if a Miami producer hires a Palm Beach actor, he has to pay lodging and per diem; it’s not that much of a financial stretch to pay for a plane ticket and get someone from Chicago or New York who is the exact match of their vision rather than a compromise.

Occasionally, you can question the judgment call. Could Actors Playhouse have found someone local to play Violet in August: Osage County? They need have looked no further than two actresses they cast in other roles in the show, although Annette Miller gave an unique, stellar performance.

But some local actors say that as serious professionals, they should compete with out of town actors head to head. If they lose roles, they need to perfect their skills in supporting roles until they can prevail. In fact, the demise of tent-pole theaters has undercut the farm team structure for professional development in which a young actor would work at a small theater, then a larger one in minor roles, then a larger one with better roles, and so on. But even the best professionals don’t have enough work here to improve their chops. Additionally, in between jobs, very few local actors take classes to improve their skill set. As a result, most acting classes offered locally are for novices. Few actors can perform Shakespeare because there are few courses in speaking verse.

Making it even harder to cast locally is that locals don’t always audition, some directors said. One local actor was nearly assured of a supporting role in a show recently, but he never showed up for the audition. Again, some actors don’t believe they have a chance with certain companies. Some have day jobs that make traveling to another county problematic. Some don’t want to travel one or two counties for a minor role. But they don’t audition. Several say they will come to callbacks but see no point to auditioning for directors who know their work.

And then there’s the attitude of a percentage of those in the pool. Some young actors (not all, by any means) have poor work habits, at least two artistic directors said. They don’t come ready to work, they don’t know their lines, they show up late to rehearsals, their attention is all over the place. Meanwhile, young actors hired from out of town are more focused and create no drama other than what’s on the page, they said.

The real third-rail issue is just how good local talent is in the first place. Obviously, there is a range from incompetent to incomparable. There are actors and directors here who can hold their own anywhere. But some people interviewed said South Florida partisans have a parochial blindness that, frankly, artists here are better than they are. They contend that an A level director here is a B level director in the major theater hubs; that a strong actor locally would be up against scores of marginally better actors in a theater metropolis. That hypothesis can be debated for hours.

One last piece of the talent puzzle: Audiences, critics and directors simply don’t demand enough of casts and designers. Granted, abbreviated 2 ½ -week rehearsal periods are not long enough to adequately explore and experiment. But anyone can cite actors, directors and designers allowed to rely on favorite techniques that produce similar results. Directors don’t insist actors stretch themselves, dig into other portions of their soul or, worse, they cast them to repeat what they’re best known for. It’s a cause for celebration when Joe Adler courageously casts an actor with a considerable range like Avi Hoffman as the disillusioned hippie in Superior Donuts rather than safely pigeonholing him in his genial Too Jewish persona.

Finale Ultimo

The list of challenges may be longer than The Iceman Cometh and more daunting than King Lear. But our next essay will explore how the theater community can evolve, adapt and grow where it wants to go.

To read Monday’s essay, On the Wheels of a Dream
South Florida Theater: What It Is And What It Can Be, click here.

Friday’s essay: And Make Our Garden Grow: Solutions
Acknowledgments

 

Acknowledgments

The opinions here are mine except where noted, but they were informed and synthesized from ideas generously shared by many people over the past two years.

Among those who spent 1 ½ to 2 hours speaking for this article this summer, we thank Joe Adler, producing artistic director and co-founder of GableStage; Antonio Amadeo, actor, director and co-founder of Naked Stage; Stephanie Ansin, artistic director of Miami Theatre Center; Andie Arthur, executive director of the South Florida Theater League; Nan Barnett, consultant and former managing director of Florida Stage; Mary Becht, former director of the Broward County Cultural Division; Sue Ellen Beryl, managing director of Palm Beach Dramaworks; Rena Blades, CEO of  Palm Beach Cultural Council; Linnea Brown, director of public relations, Maltz Jupiter Theatre; Anne Chamberlain, actress; Mark Della Ventura, actor and playwright; Christopher Demos-Brown, playwright and co-founder of Zoetic Stage; Todd Allen Durkin, actor; Arturo Fernandez, actor and co-founder of Ground Up and Rising; William Hayes, producing artistic director of Palm Beach Dramaworks; Andrew Kato, producing artistic director of Maltz Jupiter Theatre; Ann Kelly, executive director/business manager of Mad Cat Theater; Margaret M. Ledford, president of the South Florida Theatre League; Amy London, director, stage manager, actress, producer and executive director of the Carbonell Awards; Robin Reiter-Faragalli, philanthropy consultant and arts advocate; Kelley Shanley, president and CEO of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts; Deborah Sherman, actress and co-founder of The Promethean Theatre; Scott Shiller, executive vice president of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts; Richard Jay Simon, executive/artistic director of Mosaic Theatre; David Sirois, actor and playwright; Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs; Barbara Stein, executive producing director of Actors Playhouse; Louis Tyrrell, former artistic director of Florida Stage and current artistic director of the Theatre at Arts Garage, and Savannah Whaley of Pierson Grant Public Relations.

During  the past two years, we’ve also had informal and email conversations about these topics with scores of people including Derelle Bunn, executive producer/artistic director of Broward Stage Door; publicist Charlie Cinnamon; Matthew Korinko, co-artistic director, Slow Burn Theatre Company; Rebekah Lanae Lengel, managing producer of  Miami Light Project; John Manzelli, co-founder Naked Stage and artistic director of City Theatre; Michael Peyton, director of corporate sponsorship and underwriting for WLRN; Jennifer Sardone-Shiner, director of marketing at the Maltz;  Larry Stein, president of Actors Playhouse; Paul Tei, co-founder of Mad Cat Theatre Company; Tricia Trimble, managing director of the Maltz; and many members of the Carbonell judging panel and the American Theatre Critics Association.

We also have conferred about the issues and gathered data with artistic and managing directors and other staffers at Actors Equity Association; Actors Theatre of Louisville; Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.; Chicago Theatre League; Broadway Theatre Center comprising Skylight Opera Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Renaissance Theaterworks; Steppenwolf Theater Company; Chicago Shakespeare Company; Milwaukee Repertory Theater; Goodman Theater; Lookinglass Theatre (Chicago); Theater Wit and Stage 773 (Chicago); Black Ensemble Cultural Center (Chicago), DC place; Oregon Shakespeare Festival; Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

We looked at IRS 990 tax returns as well as grant records for many companies with the help from Adriana Perez of the Miami-Dade County Department of Cultural Affairs, James Shermer of the Broward County Cultural Division and Jan Rodusky of the Palm Beach Cultural Council.

Once again, our thanks.

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11 Responses to Ya Got Trouble Right Here in River City: The Challenges

  1. Howard Rogut says:

    Bill, this is a superbly accurate and smart piece (alas, one exception being Michael Hall’s lack of a real artistic succession plan at Caldwell, and witness the result). It is indeed troubling here in South Florida. I retired to Boca five years ago after over 30 years in Manhattan, where I was a Broadway general manager and adjunct professor of theatre management at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. I searched for volunteer involvement. I did not seek a job. I met resistance and a sense of turf insecurity and paranoia. Indeed, professional theatre administrators are greatly needed here, but I don’t see it happening. The potential is exciting. The current state of affairs is grim and alarming.

  2. Pingback: On the Wheels of a Dream South Florida Theater: What It Is And What It Can Be | Florida Theater On Stage

  3. Buddy Nevins says:

    In his exhaustive study of the theater’s troubles, Bill Hirschman lists many causes.
    He says, “The single most profound problem facing South Florida theater is that almost no one knows it’s here.”
    I agree. It is not enough to know how to identify and perform great theater. Every theater – like every other business, and theater is a leisure business competing for peoples’ spare time — needs a comprehensive marketing plan. They need to tell people they exist and they need to tell them that again and again. If they have a comprehensive marketing plan, they will generate an audience.
    Hook up with the marketing departments in local colleges. Give college students a marketing internship at your theater. Have representatives of your theater speak at local condos and civic groups.
    Do something!
    Or watch your theater die as other leisure-time activities with great marketing plans steal your potential.

  4. Cyrilla Baer says:

    Wow. This is a brave, brave piece. I loved my time working in the Florida theatre community, but I understood the limitations. This wonderful community deserves more than just bare-bones survival, but may I point out that ALL Arts communities around the country are suffering right now. NYC has gotten actors up in arms about its pandering to the star system and hit-movie-based products, as opposed to new works of quality with polished stage actors instead of TV stars.

    A place like Theatre Building Chicago could be helpful. It was a rental house with 4 stages of varying sizes (it got sold to another company and I don’t know its current status). Some local theatre companies used that space for every show they presented, so audiences knew where to find them.

    Also Barbara Bradshaw and I were talking about missing the days when Rep Theatres abounded. Actors did large and small roles, plus tech and house duties. You could have a reliable paycheck and all shared in the work. I wish I could be in one right now.

    The Florida theatre community is filled with heart – I’m sure it will continue to push on and find ways to work together to become stronger and more viable.

    - Cyrilla
    http://www.CyrillaBaer.com

  5. Rafael de Acha says:

    Hello Bill! Greetings from Cincinnati, Ohio! A South Florida friend forwarded to me your two insightful articles about the state of theater in South Florida. Now I look forward to the third one. It saddens me to read about some esteemed S.F. theater colleagues still struggling to make ends meet and keep the bad old wolf from their doors, and that nearly five years after I withdrew from my directorship of New Theatre and moved up North.
    If you look outside of the theater community in South Florida but for a moment and cast your eyes in the direction of the opera, classical music, visual arts and dance scenes in the tri-county area of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach you will likely see an equally dismal state of affairs. Look at the number of (non-theater) arts organizations that have gone under in the past few years. A random list would include Judy Drucker’s Concert Series, Florida Ballet, Florida Philharmonic…
    If you expand that list to include troubled organizations in the midst of financial or identity woes – often one and the same – you will be looking at Miami City Ballet and the still-to-be-born Miami Art Museum.
    The patients are very ill because the doctors who should be looking after their health – the much-needed board of directors that must be the backbone of any healthy arts organization — are for the most part self-serving, clueless micro-managers with big egos and small purses. If it were otherwise, why then do you have the demise of so many theaters, dance companies, orchestras, concert series, museums and galleries? While the artists were doing and making their art, who was minding the shop at Florida Stage or at the Caldwell, to name but two examples?
    The saddest part of it all is the brain-drain that bleeds talents on and on as so many actors, directors and designers flee the Promised Land of South Florida for greener pastures.
    One more thing… Why the poor response to such a compelling article? Where are the comments from the rank and file of South Florida theater people? Do they read? Do they care? Or has apathy finally overtaken them?

  6. John Manzelli says:

    One comment on the space issue:
    Barry University has allowed 4 different companies (Naked Stage 7 shows, Alliance 3 shows, Blue Dog 1 show, and The Project 1 show)to use the Pelican Theatre free of charge. It has never taken a penny from these companies and has developed symbiotic relationships with them that has lead to multiple internship and networking opportunities for it’s students and valuable space for small companies.
    Great article

  7. Pingback: And Make Our Garden Grow: Finding The Solutions | Florida Theater On Stage

  8. Pingback: And Make Our Garden Grow: Finding The Solutions… | Florida Theater On Stage

  9. Jack says:

    Bill Hirschman, Just discovered Florida Theater On Stage, and I have to tell you that your crystalline, no-punches pulled articles have given me much-needed insight into the future of theater in South Florida. And did I mention that they are beautifully (sometimes bitchily so when deserved) written? And those paragraph headers? Love ‘em! What a talent you have. Bravo!

  10. Newbie says:

    Great article! I am an aspiring African American actor who recently moved to South Florida – directors, here I am! Cast me, please:)

    The scene here is very encouraging, and I am looking forward to being involved!

  11. Pingback: Our Special Series On The Present And Future Of South Florida Theater | Florida Theater On Stage

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