A Wake-Up Curtain Call

Dougherty's South Florida finale

 [Exit, pursued by a bear]
-- The Winter's Tale, William Shakespeare

Being a theater critic is one of the best jobs ever invented, so it is with mixed emotions that I'm leaving behind my duties at New Times to pursue new adventures in Washington, D.C. With apologies to dance fans, I believe that theater offers more intimacy and immediacy of human experience than any other performance medium, reaching further than the movie screen or the TV tube in drawing the audience in and bringing us jowl to jowl with raw emotion. You can look away from the suffering or ecstasy you see on film or video: It's almost always impossible to ignore a live person in the same room.

In the past two years, I've watched performances so wonderful that I'll remember them for the rest of my life -- and some so awful that I purged them from my mind the second I stepped out of the theater. As a template for theater, South Florida is a fascinating mix of profound talent and missed potential, good ideas and bad executions. A friend once commented, "There's so much to work with here," implying -- correctly -- that the potential is too often not realized. Sometimes compelling stories do meet up with inventive production values, however, and that's what I hoped for every week as the lights went down and the curtain came up.

William Metzo (right) in Quills, a 1999 production by one of Dougherty's favorite groups, Florida Stage
William Metzo (right) in Quills, a 1999 production by one of Dougherty's favorite groups, Florida Stage

If there's no true genius such as Derek Walcott or Robert Wilson or JoAnne Akalaitis working in South Florida theaters, at least we have Joe Adler, whose GableStage is striving to bring fresh works here, sometimes just months after they've closed in New York. Not to mention Louis Tyrrell, of Florida Stage, and Michael Hall, of the Caldwell Theatre Company, who consistently produce provocative plays, often with astonishing production value and great casts. (And I'm sorry to miss the return of Juan Cejas, whose new theater company, Energy in Motion, sounds as promising as his achievements at the old Florida Shakespeare Company.) If there's no South Florida equivalent of Uta Hagen or Maggie Smith, well, the performances that New Theatre artistic director Rafael de Acha gets out of many of his actors, for example, are consistently top-drawer.

In fact, week after week I found the acting to be the most compelling reason to go to the theater -- something I could be excited about despite the dearth of directorial vision or the frequently mind-numbing texts chosen for production. I would happily trot off to any show featuring Peter Haig, Jen Ryan, Viki Boyle, Pat Nesbit, Sheryl McCallum, Dan Leonard, Lisa Morgan, Kim Ostrenko, David Kwiat, Bill Yule, David Alt, John Fionte, Marcia Mahon, Bob Rogerson, Pamela Roza, Paul Tei, Judith Delgado, Kim Cozort, David Forsyth, William Metzo, Elizabeth Dimon, Barbara Bradshaw, or Michael McKeever. I'm sure there are other fine South Florida troupers I didn't get a chance to know.

But acting alone can't sustain the rialto, and for reasons that I can't entirely understand, South Florida is not particularly conducive to a thriving theater scene. Foremost, the choice of material artistic directors pick is often beyond dull, too often banking on star power to bolster weak scripts or hits from earlier eras to draw audiences in. It's not enough merely to entertain. In a perfect world Penn and Teller and George C. Wolfe would raucously coexist with, oh, Tony Kushner and Eric Bogosian. There will always be a place for a magnificent revival such as the Finian's Rainbow mounted last fall by the Coconut Grove Playhouse or the snazzy productions of standards by the Broward Stage Door. But in a landscape in which artistic directors don't take many chances, looking to Broadway's past is not a particularly inspiring way to forge theater's future. (I'd even trade each and every Broadway show that passes through the area for a decent local Shakespeare company.)

South Florida theaters are not alone in juggling the need to present familiar fare in order to sustain subscription audiences with the need to challenge those ticket holders with new works. Theater is supposed to be exciting, terrifying even, not the all-too-comfortable middlebrow fare that shows up in the glut of theaters here. Yet few artistic directors seem to trust their audience enough to thrust something unfamiliar in front of them. How ironic that Miami, where Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot had its world premiere in 1956 -- and which is now a city-state influencing trends and cultural patterns around the world -- is the last place to see avant-garde drama. Major living dramatists from David Hare to August Wilson have rarely had their works performed in South Florida.

What's more, politics mixes uncomfortably with art as it does with so much of life in South Florida. The fact that Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz can't get a production of his exceptional works south of the Palm Beach County line is an outrage. (His most recent play, at the Florida Stage in January, is about the fate of rafters who leave Cuba for our shores and certainly of great interest to audiences in Broward and Miami-Dade.) Cruz's dilemma serves to bring an even larger issue into relief: Very little of the theater presented here is created by South Floridians or comments on the experience of living here and now.

By necessity playwrights such as Cruz and Carmen Pelaez (whose work Rum & Coke, a phenomenal hit for Area Stage in 1998, dissected Cuban-American life in Miami) make their homes in New York, the nexus of the theater world in the United States. What's tragic, however, is that the most provocative theater about South Florida in the last decade was created by outsiders. Not people who left here to live in Manhattan but people who have no connection to the area whatsoever.

I'm thinking of Drummin', the 1997 piece commissioned by the Miami Light Project and Miami-Dade Community College but created by New York-based composer Tania Leon and New York choreographer BeBe Miller. It chronicles the history of Miami and the ways its many immigrants forged the city it is today and remains one of the few theater pieces that has ever attempted to explain or dissect or comment on South Florida.

The other work of Zeitgeist that comes to mind is Radio Mambo, the brilliant, self-titled 1994 work by the Los Angeles group, who wove a spellbinding theater piece from oral histories of familiar and obscure Miami characters. As a newcomer, I used this work to help navigate the strange place where I had landed and still find it to be an emotional and psychological touchstone nearly six years later. The truths that Radio Mambo stirred up and the stories it told are vital ones, hardly secrets to native South Floridians. Why leave it to outsiders to write our legacy?

I often didn't know what to make of this contradiction, just as I couldn't understand how a community of South Florida's size, much less one that is perched in the middle of the international cultural radar screen, could allow premier artists such as Lily Tomlin and Mark Morris to pass through without delivering more than one night's worth of audience. Or why the local theaters that seem so afraid of offending their subscribers can't capture the attention of the huge audiences who did turn out for Robert Wilson and Philip Glass last spring or Bill T. Jones a few years back. Or why the most accessible theater -- from local gems such as the M Ensemble to the international array of performers brought here last year by Miami-Dade Office of Cultural Affairs for the "Inroads: The Americas" festival -- often has the smallest audiences.

I blame everything from a dearth of funding to a lack of effective marketing. (Better information about innovative groups from the daily papers' critics wouldn't hurt, either.) Cultural gaps, language gaps, and audience inertia are also partly at fault. As is South Florida's geographic isolation from the rest of the United States, which has historically hampered visits by innovative theater groups and performers that might stimulate theatergoing. (Ever see Karen Finley perform here? How about a Peter Sellars opera?) If young people are exposed only to warmed-over David Mamet, obscure Tennessee Williams, and overhyped Broadway shows, why should they be enthusiastic about other, more exciting forms of theater? How would they even know these things exist?

When theaters and audiences fail to connect, both parties lose. When I first came here five years ago, a Miami Herald editor told me that I'd probably go see fewer movies, spend less time in the theater, and read fewer books than I had in New England, all because the weather is so alluring in South Florida. As anyone who lives a life of the mind knows, that's a ridiculous presumption. I'm just as thirsty for cultural stimulation as I was when I lived in the cold, dark Northeast -- and so are the many people I encounter each week in the theater aisles and at dinner parties. Note to artistic directors: Your audience is out there. Go find it.

As for you audiences, take some initiative. Discover the small but growing amount of provocative theater that does exist here. A good place to start is at the International Hispanic Theatre Festival, helmed each year by Mario Ernesto Sanchez. It is one of South Florida's cultural highlights, featuring cutting-edge artists from all over the Spanish-speaking universe. Or Summer Shorts, City Theatre's annual festival of one-acts by national and local playwrights. Or by supporting the Miami Light Project, which brings in up-to-the-minute new works by performers from around the globe. Buy a subscription to GableStage or to the Caldwell. Just don't sit there passively. Demand more. Don't settle for less.

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