The five-member panel, led by League President Barry Steinman, included Jerry Waxman, producing director of the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre; Rafael de Acha, producing artistic director of New Theatre; Barbara Stein, executive producer of Coral Gables' Actors Playhouse; and Earl Hughes, director of production at the Coconut Grove Playhouse. All of them expressed optimism based primarily on increased ticket sales at their respective venues. But the audience -- consisting of actors, writers, producers, directors, and educators -- was less content.
Audience members argued that, although outreach and discount-ticket programs already exist, they need to be expanded so that theaters can continue to draw larger and more diverse audiences. The panel members dismissed the need for expansion, saying the next step is to target niche audiences, with productions offering black, gay, and Hispanic themes.
Stein reminded everyone that, bottom line, the product determines the potential for filling seats. She recalled her theater's recent success with West Side "I knew we had arrived when a scalper in Aventura was selling tickets for $75. At its last performance, a person had a sign reading, 'Will pay anything for two tickets.'" But her theater's current production, Corpse! (see review), is a somewhat obscure four-character production that is bringing in smaller houses. "Let's face it," she said, "It's still true: You're only as good as your last production."
The only naysayer on the panel was George Contini, who works for various theaters as an actor, playwright, director, and literary manager. "Each of your theaters has seen tremendous growth, and I have seen great things on your stages," he admitted. "But then why am I so depressed?" He elaborated by adding: "I was flipping [through TV] channels and came upon a documentary on vaudeville and thought, 'This is us; we're a museum piece.'"
Contini had a suggestion for updating theater in South Florida. Forge an identity, he said, just as other regions have. Chicago theater, for example, is recognized for its brashness; Seattle for its experimentation; New York for its cutting-edge, off-Broadway playhouses. So what should South Florida be known for?
"We need to focus on nontraditional casting, and I don't mean simply casting a black person in a white role," Contini said. "I mean throwing out any idea of what a cast should look like and taking advantage of the multiethnic mixture of our community."
While that idea may not be commercially viable, at least it's an idea. The latest roundtable avoided the lengthy gripe sessions of the past three years, but it offered no concrete solution. That's too bad, because the community needs leadership, more loyal audiences, and a distinct image -- not just increased ticket sales. I applaud the League's commitment to fostering dialogue, but, thus far, the roundtables have produced plenty of talk but no action.