Feature: The Arts Meld in Miami New Drama’s The Museum Plays

Aurin Squire found some of the inspiration for his play “Maybe Love” in Kehinde Wiley’s 2008 painting “Sleep.” (Photo courtesy of FURIOSA Productions)

By Chrtistine Dolen
For  ArtsburstMiami.com

Michel Hausmann, co-founder and artistic director of Miami New Drama, is an artistic innovator whose mind is often aswirl with ideas about how to get broader audiences even half as excited about theater as he is.

He earned national recognition and a Drama League Award for Seven Deadly Sins, a collection of commissioned short plays presented in Lincoln Road storefronts in 2020-2021. Small masked-up audiences were seated outside to do what they otherwise couldn’t during the COVID-19 pandemic: experience live world premiere theater.

Though Hausmann describes the multi-location show as “very expensive to produce,” the experiment was a smashing success, generating national coverage and critical acclaim. The other Miami New Drama cofounder, Moisés Kaufman, followed up with his own version of Seven Deadly Sins in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

Now Hausmann is again creating theater away from his Miami Beach-based company’s home at the Colony Theatre.  Joining forces with Miami’s Rubell Museum, Miami New Drama will premiere The Museum Plays, six commissioned short works inspired by pieces in the Rubell’s superb collection.  The experience runs through March 31 at the Rubell Museum, 1100 NW 23rd St., Miami.

“When we did Seven Deadly Sins, something in our DNA changed,” says Hausmann, who is directing all of the art-themed plays. “A lightbulb came on. Were we selling tickets to the Colony Theatre or are we in the live storytelling business?”

Hausmann’s collaboration with international art world titans Don and Mera Rubell is also a response to the post-pandemic landscape for regional theaters throughout the United States.

“Something massive has been happening in America’s regional theater, a crisis unlike anything we’ve seen. Some have gone belly up, some have canceled seasons,” says Hausmann.  “Miami New Drama has grown a lot. We’re a regional theater with a $5 million-a-year budget, so we’re more exposed…How can we explore more work outside the theater without breaking the bank?”

He describes The Museum Plays as work being done “in another cultural temple,” and he hopes to continue exploring collaborations with other art forms and institutions.

For her part, Mera Rubell has been enthusiastic about joining forces with Miami New Drama from the get-go.

“Any kind of cross-fertilization of creativity is dynamic and exciting.  Michel is such a creative, open-minded, exhilarating person. He has the spark which can spark more creativity,” says Rubell.  “We have artist residencies, so we understand what it is to have artists in the building.  For us, it’s an extension of what we do – encouraging art.”

The idea this time is that a half-dozen playwrights – some new to the company, others familiar to Miami New Drama regulars – have been commissioned to write 10-minute plays in response to works of art at the Rubell.  Some of the writers visited the museum to find the work that would inspire them, others used the internet to choose the piece that would start their creative process. Each submitted a short list of requests, and Hausmann played matchmaker based on factors including logistics – moving audiences from play to play, whether the sound from one play would bleed through to another and so on.

“I had to take into account the spacing within the museum,” the director says.  “Each performance will be for 150 people divided into five groups of 30.  They rotate among five plays, then everyone comes together at the end in the main gallery for Marco’s play.”

The others, performed five times per night for the rotating groups of 30, are Aurin Squire’s “Maybe Love,” inspired by Kehinde Wiley’s “The Portrait of Charles I;” Carmen Pelaez’s “Waiting for America,” inspired by Glenn Ligon’s “America;” Harley Elias’s “Pump and Dump,” inspired by Alfonso Gonzalez Jr.’s  “Your Ad Here;” Rogelio Martinez’s “Bedfellows,” inspired by Kaari Upson’s “Rubells;” and Hannah Benitez’s “Mousa,” inspired by Jenna Gribbon’s “Scenicscape.”

Each short play is performed by two actors, but all 10 – Renata Eastlick, Jovon Jacobs, Kelly Pekar, Timothy Mark Davis, Carlos Fabian, Caleb Scott, Carlos Orizondo, Margery Lowe and actor-playwrights Benitez and Pelaez – appear in “Body of Work.”

Ramirez, whose 2016 play The Royale (inspired by Black heavyweight champ Jack Johnson) has had more than 30 productions throughout the country (including one at GableStage), most recently wrote the book for the Atlantic Theater Company’s Off-Broadway premiere of The Buena Vista Social Club. He’s also the writer of Hulu’s first Spanish-language limited series, the upcoming La Maquina starring Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna.

“It’s the first show I’ve written that my (Spanish-speaking) grandparents can watch,” says Ramirez, whose large Cuban-American family still lives in the Miami area.

As experienced as Ramirez is in long-form writing, he is masterful at short plays, twice winning the Heideman Award (for “I am not Batman” and “3:59 a.m.: a drag race for two actors”) at the high-profile Humana Festival of New American Plays, which brought theater practitioners and critics to Actors Theatre of Louisville from 1976 to 2022.

“We toured the museum once or twice to see if any of the pieces struck our fancy. It was an embarrassment of riches,” he says of his favorite Miami museum.  “I was willing to help in any way. There were no creative directions given to me, but I knew the evening should end with an energetic piece that used all the actors.”

Crafting a rich short play, he says, isn’t so different from writing a short story.

“There has to be a whole world before the play and a whole world after – why these 10 minutes?” asks Ramirez, whose play is the only one not inspired by a piece at the Rubell. “Short plays often have their own rules.  I thought it might be really interesting to do a funeral, an event with a beginning, middle and end.”

And what he came up with for “Body of Work” isn’t just energetic.  On the page, anyway, it’s deeply observant of art world particulars and peculiarities, as well as very, very funny.

Squire’s ongoing association with Miami New Drama has so far led to productions of Confessions of a Cocaine Cowboy (coauthored with Miamian Billy Corben), the Louis Armstrong musical A Wonderful World (Squire wrote the book and planned to open on Broadway in October),Defacing Michael Jackson and the Seven Deadly Sins play “Blackfish” (about cultural appropriation).  He’s working on the fifth and final season of the Paramount+ series TV’s Evil, where he’s co-executive producer, and Miami New Drama has commissioned him to write a dark comedy related to the O.J. Simpson trial.

When Squire said yes to participating in The Museum Plays he was thrilled to discover that the museum’s works by Wiley – painter of President Barack Obama’s official portrait – could be chosen.  An art collector friend had taken him to a Wiley exhibition two years ago, and Squire remembers thinking, “I don’t even have a wall that big.”

Known in part for his paintings of Black subjects posed against bright, ornately patterned backgrounds, Wiley has taken some of his inspiration from Old Masters works.

Wiley’s stunning, massive 2008 painting “Sleep” is one of the works discussed in Squire’s “Maybe Love.” The others are the artist’s 2005 “Equestrian Portrait of the Count-Duke Olivares” (inspired by Diego Velázquez’s 1636 painting with a nearly identical title) and the 2007 triptych “Triple Portrait of Charles I” (Anthony Van Dyck painted his triple portrait in 1635-1636). In Wiley’s interpretation, two of the three perspectives of King Charles I present him with a hoodie partially obscuring his face as he gazes at the viewer.

Squire, a world traveler who has sought out great art all over the planet, wrote “Maybe Love” as a first-date play steeped in discovery.  Regina surprises Terrence with a visit to the Rubell and its works by Wiley.  She is deeply into art. He’s more about nightlife – and food, because he’s very hungry. They verbally fence as they get to know each other, working in some speculative art analysis.

The characters, Squire says, represent the ways he looks at art:  “Part of me is a more serious aficionado.  The other part is free-styling.”

Calling the Rubells “the artistic lynchpin of Miami” in the world of visual art, Squire believes “The Museum Plays” is an example of how theater is evolving.

“Theater isn’t just at the Colony or in a small black box.  To grow the audience, you have to go to different spaces to wake people up.  Theater is happening all around us – on boats, in cargo containers, in museums,” he says.

Hausmann anticipates that The Museum Plays will attract different kinds of audiences, some from the visual arts world, others fans of theater.  He’s a little nervous about his latest experiment in off-site theater, as the location doesn’t allow for sets or theatrical lighting, so “the play is everything.”  He describes the plays as having “very different flavors” and hopes to do productions in unconventional spaces every season or two.

As for Rubell, she’s game for anything the playwrights have created.

“The playwrights were free to do as they pleased.  There were no limits on their creativity,” says Rubell, whose name comes up in the course of the evening.  “It’s exciting to fall in love with a work of art, which I’ve done my whole life. I can’t wait to see how these playwrights responded.”

WHAT: Miami New Drama’s “The Museum Plays” by Marco Ramirez, Aurin Squire, Carmen Pelaez, Hannah Benitez, Rogelio Martinez and Harley Elias

WHERE: Rubell Museum galleries, 1100 NW 23rd St., Miami

WHEN: regular performances 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday, through March 31

COST: $81.50 or $91.50 for premium seating, $45.50 for standing room

INFORMATION:  305-674-1040 or miaminewdrama.org

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.co

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