We Don't Aim to Please, Part 2

Local theater leaders bemoan their most persistent obstacles

The logistic, aesthetic, and emotional challenges of keeping a small arts organization afloat would flummox the savviest CEO. Why do artistic directors struggle to bring live theater to South Florida stages when they could spend half the energy and earn six figures directing deodorant commercials? In the second part of a two-part series of interviews, New Times asked four local artistic directors about what prevents them from acting out their most elaborately staged fantasies. Their responses highlight not only the frustrations and limitations of theatrical life in these parts but the small victories and unique rewards that keep driving them forward.

New Times: What stands between you and your ideal season?

Joe Adler of GableStage: I believe GableStage has produced exactly the kind of work we want. That said, I would like to see the South Florida community dedicate itself even more to smaller arts organizations.

Michael Hall (left) feels right at home at his Caldwell Theatre Company, while Horizon's Ed Saunders is looking for a home
Steve Satterwhite
Michael Hall (left) feels right at home at his Caldwell Theatre Company, while Horizon's Ed Saunders is looking for a home

The big five -- the Florida Concert Association, the Miami City Ballet, New World Symphony, Florida Grand Opera, and the Coconut Grove Playhouse -- are the ones the community will not let fall. They have the heavy hitters on their boards and the commitment of the politicians. You have no doubt that the town will bail out any one of these organizations. There's less attention paid to other arts groups. I wish this town would recognize the fact that some of these smaller groups are just as strong and vital and will have as much of an impact in the long run.

South Florida has come a long way. When you pick up a paper any day of the week and see what's going on here, it speaks to the turn Miami has made as a cultural center. We used to be called a cultural wasteland. Now, when I go to New York and I'm having lunch in [Greenwich] Village, I open up a paper and see "Coming soon: Albita Rodriguez." Our music, our dance, and our food are everywhere. I think we should capitalize on that fact. We have stories to tell here that no one has even touched yet. If we tell our stories in our own way, there's no reason why we can't be one of the most important cultural centers in this country. It used to be New York and L.A. Now it can be anywhere.

Michael Hall of the Caldwell Theatre: I see three major barriers. First, money. I want to do large-cast plays, but I can't afford the salaries, the housing, the union demands. Follies need about 50 actors and a full orchestra. The National Endowment For the Arts and government grants aren't the answer. We've got to make individuals and corporations aware that theater is as necessary to life as disease remedies, and we've got to make charitable giving to theater as generous as it is to hospitals. Anyone want to underwrite?

Second, audiences. Television has made people think they can eat and talk in front of the stage, and it has reduced attention span to about 20 minutes. George Bernard Shaw has things for us to hear, but today's audiences won't sit still and listen. Frequent theatergoing needs to be a part of a child's life from an early age. A computerized generation doesn't know that live and living theater can be more exciting than a chat room.

Third, critics. Too many of them lack real knowledge of the theater and give incorrect advice to playgoers. And too many people believe what they read. We're lucky in South Florida to have zillions of critics (which means zillions of opinions), but theaters in one-horse towns are often harmed by one-horse critics. Publishers and editors need to check credentials and education levels before hiring theater critics. It is not wise to move an obituary writer into criticism.

Ed Saunders of Horizons Repertory:We have already beaten the odds by making it past our inaugural season. As we enter our second season, some of the same obstacles remain. As with any fledgling company, money is always an issue, but with each passing month, as we become more established, develop more of a following, and are more experienced with fundraising, it should become less of an issue. Right now money is still an issue, but it's not an insurmountable challenge.

Creating an audience base was also a challenge for us. We learned many valuable lessons during our first season, including what types of plays appeal to our audience base and the importance of publicity. As we go into the upcoming season, we have already established a following and have even begun to offer season subscriptions.

Rafael de Acha of New Theatre: With a little space and a lot of imagination, we can still do big productions. The bigger issue is economics. What's happening in South Florida is part of a national trend. Just look at the seasons of major theaters with $1 million-plus budgets. They present six or seven plays a season, and out of these, only three or four have casts with more than four or five actors. Even the big theaters are really pulling back in cast size for economic reasons. Unfortunately conservatism exists, which has to do with cast size and sometimes not going out on a limb because of economics.

New Times: What one aspect of theater most inspires you to keep doing the work you do?

Adler:There is no other genre where the audience is such a part of it. If you're in a movie and someone else's cell phone goes off, maybe you are annoyed, but in theater the audience really affects what's happening on stage and vice versa. I don't mean this in the sense of unwrapping a Snickers bar and distracting everyone but in a more mysterious, esoteric sense. There is an intimacy and a nonverbal communication that happens between the audience and the actors that cannot be understood through marketing theories and demographic analysis. Every performance is original and vital. You can't clone it. Two audiences can see the same performance and love it, but one is as quiet as an oil painting and the other is falling in the aisles laughing.

Television and to some extent movies are about maintaining a level of mediocrity. People are going to go to the movies; they are going to watch TV. That's a given, so they often choose the least objectionable thing to watch. This is not the case with theater. It's a much bigger commitment. The audience is a participant. They have a direct effect on the show.

Hall:Working with truly talented people who are also ensemble players inspires me to keep doing what I do. Designing and rehearsing a play with designers and actors who are true collaborators is exhilarating. I live for the rehearsal process when it's with people who are open, innovative, and pleasant.

Saunders: Everything about theater keeps me coming back, but I suppose the one aspect that I am the most attracted to is the "newness" of it. With each new production, there are new challenges to meet and new worlds to explore. Some people might enjoy having a set routine, but I thrive on knowing that no two productions will ever be the same experience. For that matter neither will any two performances of a given production. This feeling of undergoing a never-ending journey, with new challenges and discoveries at every turn, is what most makes the theater exciting and rewarding to me.

De Acha: Theater is about people, with people, to people. It's an immediate and present act. With movies you create something you can put in a can and show months later. Not so with theater. As you are creating up there on that stage, your act of creating is being witnessed simultaneously. This makes it a very vulnerable process with more possibility for anything to happen -- errors, transformations, even miracles.

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