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The word juggernaut means "an overpowering force," and appropriately the artistic director of Juggerknot Theatre Company, Tanya Bravo, is tapping into the powerful force of theater by pushing limits -- both artistic and geographic.
On the 67th block of Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, there's more than one craft being fine-tuned: The area is cluttered with pay-by-the-hour motels and strip clubs; the sidewalk is a broken-down runway for Daisy Dukeclad booties, coarsely veined forearms, and hair sculptures reminiscent of the Japanese art of bonsai. But on a Saturday night in early December, senior citizens in neatly pressed pantsuits and dapper sport coats maneuvered their way between the whores and the pimps who populate this opaque underworld. No bother. They're going to the theater.
"Several people said to me, "Why are you going to do a show there? Nobody's going to venture into that neighborhood to see theater,'" says Bravo. But people are coming. In fact Juggerknot Theatre Company's four-week run of Neil Labute's Bash played to consistently full houses. "The last two weeks of the show [were] amazing," Bravo gushes. "Over 80 percent of the audience was over 50. Our mailing list has quadrupled. They came from as far as Palm Beach County. The idea that older audiences want to see some hunky-dory musical is a misconception. If you put good theater out there, people will come."
While it is not uncommon for artists to plunge into the core of a city's urban area in search of renewal, it is particularly notable in Miami, a "city" that is more image than urban. Not having a permanent home, Juggerknot resides for the most part in the Drama 101 space on Biscayne. Juggerknot was both philosophically and geographically inspired by Bravo's trips to New York, where small theater companies abound: "There's something about this atmosphere. It's like when you're in the East Village, and you go down into this alley and then off into a little dungeon. You wonder, Where am I going? This is dark, this is creepy, but there's something exciting about it. We do alternative theater, and this is an alternative space."
But what makes Juggerknot edgy is not simply its locale. From multimedia presentations of Mamet to Beckett evenings to original productions by local writers, Bravo consistently chooses material that is often dark and always challenging. "Tanya has an amazing instinct. Her interests are very specific. This is one of the keys to being a successful artistic director, and few people have it. I also think that it's this kind of energy that draws audiences and actors to Juggerknot," says Michael John Garces, a playwright, actor, and director based in New York whose South Florida premiere of his one-man show, Agua Ardiente, was produced by Juggerknot. Garces recently directed the Coconut Grove Playhouse's Praying with the Enemy and performed Agua Ardiente at Oye Rep's debut.
Bravo's gutsiness and instinct come in part from her own experience as an actress: "When I first started out acting with Counterforce Actors' Studio, we did the kind of shows where the spotlight is on you. There's a bare stage, and you save yourself. It's you and the audience and the energy that you create, and you don't have any fancy lights or fancy set to hide behind. It's just very bare-bones. I think the audience wants to feel that connection with people on the stage." (Since then Bravo has performed to critical acclaim at the Caldwell Theatre, New Theatre, Area Stage, and other South Florida venues.)
Juggerknot was founded in 1998 under the artistic vision of Bravo and Paul Tei (now artistic director of his own theater company, Mad Cat). Bridge Theatre donated the risers and the lights. Ricky J. Martinez, a local actor and playwright, helped Bravo paint the black-box theater space that seats about 50. Martinez's A Bed inHeaven was the first work Juggerknot produced. "We invited several of the artistic directors -- Mario Ernesto Sanchez, Rafael de Acha, Joe Adler," explains Bravo, "and they came. Since then they have been extremely supportive of what we're doing." In 1999 Tei left, and local actress and singer Elda Brauwer took over the role of managing director. Performing the important task Bravo calls "the math stuff," Brauwer has a business savvy and artistic background that have been indispensable to the company's recent success.
One of the most important components of Juggerknot's mission is to serve as a refuge for local actors between shows, a place they can experiment with new roles as actors but also learn new skills. A prime example is actor Ken Clement, who recently starred in Mad Cat's production of Helluva Halloween. Bravo gave him the script for Bash and asked him to direct the show. Bash is three one-act plays by Neil Labute (known mostly for his films, such as In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors): Iphigenia in Orem, starring Chuck Pooler; A Gaggle of Saints, starring Robert Maxwell and Samara Siskind; and Medea Redux, starring Pamela Roza. With themes ranging from gay-bashing to baby murders, the plays gave the cast members the opportunity to prove their ability to push the line between cruelty and vulnerability. "All the actors are incredibly versatile. They have that edge where they can flip like that. One minute you feel sorry for them and the next you hate them," says Bravo.
In October Juggerknot produced an evening of multimedia performances from some of playwright David Mamet's most obscure works, giving local actor Oscar Isaac a chance to direct and show off his films and New World School of the Arts student Brandon Morris to display his thespian talents. "When we showcase these people, we try to mix them with people who have been in the business for a while," Bravo notes. Juggerknot is also becoming a place for local artistic directors to scout new talent. As Brauwer explains, "I know Rafael de Acha is going to come. I know Joe Adler's going to come. Why? Because we do good stuff. They want to see who and what's new, but they don't have the time to go out and look for it. We do."
Theater on the edge is vital not only to local actors and artistic directors but to the community at large. "Juggerknot is doing pieces that are harder to define," explains Garces. "They take an unknown quantity and throw it out there. In New York there are all these small theater companies whose overhead is so small, they don't have subscribers and sponsors to worry about. They can afford to throw tomatoes against a wall and see what pattern comes up. They can afford to produce five out of nine works that suck. This is largely important to the theater community in general because it pushes the limits of actors, directors, and audiences. It keeps things fresh and alive."
In the spring Juggerknot plans to do two new plays by Garces, Landand Audio Video. Land is Lolita-esque, dealing with the relationship between a young girl of 15 and a 45-year-old man. "I've had people walk out of [Bash] saying, "I really don't want to hear about babies being murdered.' Land is similar -- a lot of people wouldn't want to pick it up. But it happens, and it's true, and it's happening all the time. I think it's a good script, and I think it should be heard," Bravo says.
Audio Video is about three 17-year-old boys who make a film with their video camera and when they put it in to watch it, they realize it's been swapped with one of their parents' trip to Yellowstone. And the parents are watching the boys' production downstairs. "These two pieces really contrast each other; Land is a dark, very disturbing play, and Audio Video is hilarious. I can see how a lot of producers would shy away from doing it. I'm sure a lot of people will get up and walk out," explains Bravo.
But fortunately for the fate of alternative theater, more people are walking in than out thus far. Juggerknot's challenging scripts and riveting actors underscore the potential for their setting to be an incomparable site of upheaval, excitement, and ingenuity in this part of the country. If there is one theater company in South Florida that merits the often overused adjective edgy, it's Juggerknot.