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Critic's Notebook

After two months in chilly London, I must say that sultry Florida feels good. And propelled by a notebook full of observations from UK theater, it also seems a good time, before the fall season, for me to reflect on the good and the bad in our own scene.

First off, the bad. Like any community, the area's theater life operates on a series of assumptions, some of which strike me as not only false but destructive. Here are three popular misconceptions:

Things will never change here: Ask 20 theater people what they think, and chances are you'll get 25 different opinions. In fact, we did just that recently, querying a few dozen South Florida pros about the local atmosphere. Most everyone appears to subscribe to the premise that the present situation isn't likely to change, even if few will agree on just what that situation is.

The "flag wavers" point to the continual emergence of new companies, to the large number of companies hiring union acting talent (some 35 by recent count), and to the proliferation of script-writing workshops and development programs, many of which lead to full productions on local stages. The "optimists" are happy that Florida theater continues to chug along as it always has, producing recent New York City hits for a tiny but appreciative audience of local fans. The "pessimists" argue that SoFla theater is SoFlabby, with tame, mediocre productions and overhyped talent, many of whom would not find much work in tougher regional markets. The naysayers also claim that the Palm Beach/Broward/Miami circuit is forever doomed because of the massive flight of young talent to other cities and a concurrent influx of tired oldsters seeking theater that's nothing more than nostalgia for a past that never was.

My view is that all of the above is true to the extent that it coexists in the present scene. But none of the above proves anything: The past is not prologue, especially in a place as young as South Florida. England's recent history might be of interest in this debate. The stuffy, traditional London stage has been transformed in the space of only 20 years into a dynamic, forward-thinking community. The South Bank of the Thames River, not so long ago a bleak no man's land of industrial waste and crime, is now a delightful riverwalk packed with cafés, theaters, and art galleries. If an old, rigid city like London can transform itself, why can't an emerging society like Florida do so as well?

The local arts scene is an endangered species, so we should be gentle with it: That's the unspoken agenda for most of the critics, the Carbonell voters (who are those guys anyway?), the arts councils, the acting community, and just about anyone you care to suggest who is arts-friendly.

The accepted -- and false -- premise is that since we live in a cultural wasteland with only small pockets of civilization, all little flames of creativity must be nurtured and that unflagging positive encouragement will raise the standards all around -- of production, of acting, of audience sophistication, of critical and community response.

This is rubbish.

Our scene suffers from low expectations. Things won't get better here until we expect better. Sure, new and struggling theaters deserve a break from audiences and critics, but to overpraise everything results only in undervaluing the real theatrical talent that flourishes here. If everything is outstanding, nothing is.

Only old people go to theater: At first glance, it's hard to rebut this idea. Most established companies here rely on the over-60 set, and younger people are decidedly in the minority. So what? Older audiences should not be viewed as a liability -- they keep these companies going by attending regularly. What we need to do is keep them and attract new blood as well. Again, look at London. You can pay good money for a ticket there, but you can also grab a cheap seat for less than $8 (the price of a movie ticket here). The fact is that theater ticket prices here and across the U.S. are exclusionary (some of our small troupes aside). Young people can't afford to pay $30, $20, or even $15 for a play. But give them the chance to see a production for below that and they will show up in big numbers. They do in London, anyway.

Now for the good:

More is healthy: Some pessimists complain that the scene here is now too crowded, with new companies competing with older ones for a small audience and talent pool. Again, as the Brits would say, rubbish. The more the merrier. Theater-going is a habit; with more choices available, community habits can turn toward stage entertainment. The more people get in the habit of choosing theater for a night out, the more they will go. And more productions mean more jobs. More jobs means a larger, stronger talent pool. Look at Seattle/Tacoma and Minneapolis/St. Paul, two smaller U.S. metropolitan areas with very active arts scenes.

Circulation is healthy: Local companies do seem very insular. Many have their ardent followers but little cooperation or coordination with other theaters. As more than a few local actors have noted, most local producers and artistic directors do not bother to visit other stages to check out what's going on elsewhere. Why not work together to sell tickets instead of thinking competitively? If one theater is sold out one night, why not steer customers to another company down the road? For that matter, why not pool marketing funds to buy collective media space?

To compound this problem, there doesn't seem to be much artistic exchange: Many companies use the same director for each play presented. This may make financial sense, but it's artistically stagnant.

Oh, wait, this was supposed to be one of "the good." Well, there are a few shining exceptions to this theatrical bunker mentality. Florida Stage and the Coconut Grove Playhouse regularly bring in excellent directors who offer a variety of creative visions. But few other companies bother to invite guest directors, even local ones. Call this one an area for improvement.

The performing arts mean good business: Our business and government ought to rethink their prejudices about the arts. Local movers and shakers tend to view the arts as a nuisance with little real-world clout. Yet recent urban redevelopment histories have demonstrated the huge impact the arts can have on reviving urban nightlife -- live theater and music inject direct revenue into restaurants, bars, bookstores, galleries, parking lots, and property values and add to the taxes all these generate. On top of this, arts-generated nightlife lowers personal and property crime rates, another hard-dollar savings for communities. How 'bout if local bigwigs wrap their tiny brains around this concept: Direct, hard money subsidies and rent-free space for the performing arts in specific localities. It works in New York, in London, in many cities. Why not here?

The performing arts attract upscale money and could be a significant draw for tourist and local dollars. Walk London's South Bank and the Miami and Fort Lauderdale waterfronts don't hold up well in comparison. Tourists don't flock to London because of the chain stores and the megaplexes. They come for the nightlife, culture, and live entertainment. We should be thinking similarly. (OK, so here's another area for improvement.)

Real life drama is better than fiction: Local theaters have recently experienced an explosion of new works for the stage. Companies regularly stage readings, some commission new works, and many produce world premieres of plays on a regular basis. That's good. But most local writers seem to shy away from taking on local stories. The rest of the world hasn't looked away, however. Drug wars, hurricanes, murders of German tourists, Elián Gonzalez, the Bush/Gore election debacle, the fight over the Everglades, al Qaeda in South Florida. Where are the plays that tackle such subjects?

There are a number of other ideas in my notebook, but there is no more space in this column. What are your thoughts? Reader reactions are most welcome. If response is strong, we will run your comments in a future column.

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Ronald Mangravite

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