StageBill Blog: Looking Back At The Year of the Sea Change

By Bill Hirschman

In real life, we rarely have the clarity of identifiable watersheds as heroes discover in dramas. But five years from now, you’ll likely look back on the past 12 months and recognize not a turning point, but an unmistakable moment within a slow sea change in South Florida theater.

An adolescence of dinner theater warhorses has been left behind in favor of contemporary adult, if stubbornly mainstream fare – illuminated by intermittent flashes of daring artistry. The past year was strewn with demonstrable evidence that standards are tougher, expectations are higher, ambitions are loftier and enthusiasm (no matter how battered) has survived economic tragedies.

Florida Stage’s closing was a body blow and several theaters are teetering financially. But a half-dozen fledgling companies are emerging while the foundations of a handful of troupes laid more than a decade ago are withstanding the fiscal maelstrom.

Critics rightfully contend that much local theater is loathe to take artistic chances, unable to grow younger audiences and rarely demands more from actors, directors and producers who have become too comfortable doing “what works.” But encouraging trends are emerging. Thus, our year-end review is not a best-of list per se. Rather, specific shows are points on a somewhat straight line being drawn on cultural graph paper.

First and foremost, the overall level of quality has ratcheted up several notches. It’s unlikely that we would have seen a past season with so many points on the same graph as Actors Playhouse’s August Osage County, Palm Beach Dramaworks’ All My Sons, Mosaic Theatre’s Side Effects, Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s Crazy For You, Infinite Abyss’ The Pillowman, Broward Stage Door’s The Light in the Piazza, Alliance Theatre Lab’s Brothers Beckett and the Arsht Center’s The Sparrow.

Even some companies with spotty track records came into their own intermittently or returned to their former glory. Notably, Alliance Theatre Lab posted a string of artistic successes with Brothers Beckett, ‘night Mother and  Lobby Hero. Women’s Theatre Project scored with Karen Stephens’ one-woman Bridge and Tunnel and the shattering tale of sisterhood amid African genocide, Eclipsed. But the most welcome resurrection was Caldwell Theatre which mounted strong productions of Next Fall, Clybourne Park and God of Carnage.

Second, even with the demise of Florida Stage, South Florida continued to be a crucible for new work. An incomplete list includes Michael McKeever’s Stuff at the Caldwell Theatre Company, the tragi-comedy about the ultimate hoarders; Paul Tei’s so my grandmother died blah blah blah at Mat Cat Theatre Company, a mashed up fantasia on pop culture; the Maltz’s original musical Academy; David Michael Sirois’ Brothers Beckett, a report from the trenches on Generation Y, and Christopher Demos Brown’s Captiva at Zoetic Stage, a chance for the audience to look in the mirror and see their own dysfunctional family dynamics.

For much of the year, one theater or another held free public readings of embryonic plays in progress, several hosted at GableStage.

This trend toward new work is not an aberrational blip. Mosaic, Caldwell, Zoetic, Mad Cat and New Theatre are among the companies planning world premieres in 2012.

It’s not clear to observers without access to attendance figures just how receptive audiences have been to such work. But it’s encouraging that companies find reason to believe the audience is there. It was always a wonderful mystery how Florida Stage’s subscribers came back season after season without a clue about the untested titles on the schedule, even after sitting through plays that needed additional development. Only a severe audience rejection of the new space (and a lackluster season) made audiences desert Florida Stage in such droves.

Third, while audiences clearly prefer a realistic style that mirrors mainstream theater for the past six decades, local troupes kept nudging the naturalistic boundaries – again with varying popular support. A few theaters like Mad Cat Theatre and The PlayGround Theatre have always employed stylized techniques. But the trend found a fragile foothold with critically acclaimed productions of 4:40 Psychosis under Paul Tei’s direction for Naked Stage in 2008, Blasted helmed by Joseph Adler at GableStage in 2009 and the wacky summer musicals by The Promethean Theatre directed by Margaret Ledford.

Then, this year, several companies triumphed with experiments in stylized staging. The most laudable was The Sparrow, the Arsht Center’s import from the House Theatre of Chicago. The cross between Wicked, Carrie and Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a stunning meld of all the theatrical arts touching the audience as naturalistic storytelling never could. More homegrown, GableStage’s production of The Brothers Size marked the first time any South Florida professional company mounted a full-length play by Miami’s Tarrell Alvin McCraney. The playwright, accustomed to the less restrictive styles prevalent in Chicago and London, created a surrealistic mesh of speech, movement and visuals to depict a cross of urban domestic drama with epic African mythology.

Fourth, for all the supposed uncertainty in the future of the performing arts, many theater artists, producers and even governments doubled down their bets. In the past two years, South Florida celebrated the opening of the South Miami Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay, Aventura Arts & Cultural Center and Miramar Cultural Center/ArtsPark. While most depend on music and dance bookings, all offered theater pieces as well. These government-operated facilities may be joined by plans on the drawing boards for similar sites in Lauderhill, Pembroke Pines and Weston. Government money has also been pledged for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, which has dovetailed its 20th anniversary with plans for a multi-million-dollar expansion and upgrade.

The quasi-public Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts expanded its commitment to locally-produced theater projects by hosting productions from City Theatre, Mad Cat, the University of Miami theater department and M Ensemble as well as becoming the ongoing home for the new Zoetic Stage through the Theater Up Close series.

Expansions among non-profits included the Miami Light Project opening its new Light Box at the Goldman Warehouse in the Wynwood District, providing a home for Mad Cat as well as M Ensemble, which was priced out of its old quarters. GableStage announced that it will use a Knight Foundation grant as seed money for a winter Shakespeare festival. Broward Stage Door expanded its operations from its Coral Springs home to produce work at the Byron Carlyle Theater in Miami Beach, although advance ticket sales have been meager.

And Palm Beach Dramaworks crowned 11 years of maintaining prudent financial management, pursuing artistic excellence and hewing to a vision by opening its new home in downtown West Palm Beach – a project enabled by government cooperation.

In the believe-it-when-you-see-it department, the campaign to reopen some kind of theatrical endeavor on the site of the Coconut Grove Playhouse continued to inch forward as the shuttered theater’s board of directors offered to sell the operation to the county government for $1 (as well as its multi-million-dollar debt).

Perhaps even more telling commitments came from a crop of small companies that have sprouted up: Zoetic Stage, Slow Burn Theatre Company, Andrews Living Arts and Infinite Abyss entered their second year; Parade Productions opens its inaugural work Brooklyn Boy in a Mizner Park space next month, and Outré Theatre Company is raising money with readings in hopes of a full production next season.  Even Louis Tyrrell, the artistic director of Florida Stage, has resurfaced with plans to reopen a much more modest company at the fledgling Arts Garage in Delray Beach.

Boca Raton Theatre Guild felt solid enough to go pro this year, which brought a welcome return to the stage of Iris Acker in The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife.

This isn’t to ignore disasters such as Florida Stage’s stunning collapse or to pretend that some companies have not produced seriously disappointing work. It doesn’t ignore persistent rumors about some companies drowning in crippling, even fatal economic straits.

But most theaters have pledged to prevail. New Theatre in Coral Gables finally got the eviction notice it was warned about for years, but succeeded  in finding temporary housing at the Roxy Theatre Group about nine miles to the west. Rising Action Theatre, the leading producer of gay-centric works, is closing, but artistic director Andy Rogow and some of its board members plan to reconstitute the operation as Island City Stage in the Wilton Manors area next fall.

Other companies like Dramaworks and the Maltz Jupiter Theater have thrived financially by finding their niche audience and consistently delivering high quality productions.

These are unquestionably tough times for the arts and theater’s future is precarious to an unprecedented degree. But that’s pretty much what Will Shakespeare said to his buddy Richard Burbage. If the local theater community can capitalize on the momentum of this period to carry it through what will likely be another year of uncertainty, cultural historians will look back on this past season-and-a-half and dub this as that elusive watershed.

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