South Florida Theater Companies Plan for Their Next Act

"We're in a zombie apocalypse movie without the zombies."
Actors Juson Williams (left), DeWitt Fleming Jr., and Dionne Figgins finished previews of Miami New Drama’s A Wonderful World before the show was abruptly shut down.
Actors Juson Williams (left), DeWitt Fleming Jr., and Dionne Figgins finished previews of Miami New Drama’s A Wonderful World before the show was abruptly shut down. Photo by Stian Roenning
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In the good old days of early March, South Floridians were still congregating like crazy — going out for dinner or drinks, flocking to sporting events, attending school, working on tans at the beach, packing movie theaters, and planning to see one or more of the height-of-season shows the region's theaters were preparing to open.

Then, like a slow-rolling, invisible hurricane, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Since the second weekend of March, life as we knew it has been on hold. We're social distancing, self-isolating, devouring books, voraciously consuming whatever streams on our screens. But with no clear end to this strange new state of existence, it can also feel like we're trapped in a production of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit.

Michael Yawney, an associate professor of theater at Florida International University and president of the South Florida Theatre League, puts it this way: "We're in a zombie apocalypse movie without the zombies."

The leaders of artistic institutions and companies that make up South Florida's vibrant tricounty theater scene — resilient and creative as they are — can relate.

At the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach's Lincoln Road, Miami New Drama was ready to premiere the $1.2 million Louis Armstrong biomusical, A Wonderful World, on March 14. But after a final preview March 13, the theater went dark. The lavish set is still on the Colony stage, however, ready for its on-hold cast and future audiences.

The Michael McKeever-designed set for Zoetic Stage's production of Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music had been loaded into the Carnival Studio Theater at the Adrienne Arsht Centers in Miami's Arts & Entertainment District. With 200 Edison bulbs strung above the playing area, the technical rehearsal was about to take place in advance of the show's March 20 opening. 

"If we made it through Hurricane Andrew, we'll make it through this."

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As with Miami New Drama's show, the set is still there. But there are no actors or audiences. The plan is to move A Little Night Music into the musical slot for Zoetic's 2020-21 season.

"We have spent the past few weeks looking at every scenario for A Little Night Music and the world premiere of Hannah Benitez's Gringolandia," says McKeever, a celebrated playwright who is Zoetic's managing director as well as an actor in Miami New Drama's A Wonderful World.

"All of the actors in A Little Night Music want to stay with it. It was heartbreaking to stop. It had such promise. It was so beautifully acted, staged, and sung," he adds.

The Actors' Playhouse production of Camelot, which was to open March 20 at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables, was also ready for technical rehearsals. That Alan Jay Lerner-Frederick Loewe classic and the summer solo show ¡Fuácata! by Elena Maria Garcia and Stuart Meltzer are still planned to go on — but when?

"It's a very scary situation. No product means no revenue means no work," artistic director David Arisco says. "Once people know they're safe, they'll desperately want to go out and do things... I don't think we've hit the darkest days yet, but we have a good plan about how to come back."

Executive producing director Barbara Stein estimates that the Miracle Theatre shutdown will cost Actors' Playhouse $150,000 to $200,000. But she's confident that the company, which started in a former twin movie theater in Kendall, will bounce back.

"If we made it through Hurricane Andrew [in 1992], we'll make it through this," she says.

GableStage at Coral Gables' Biltmore Hotel first postponed and then dropped its planned production of Arthur Miller's The Price.
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The cast of the Actors’ Playhouse production of Camelot posed with director David Arisco (top right) on the set before the show was put on hold.
Photo by Brook Noble

"So Many Unknowns"

Producing artistic director Joseph Adler, who was staging The Price, says, "There are so many unknowns. We were able to pay the actors two weeks' salary and pay the staff, which makes closing easier to live with... My goal is to come back to the season we've announced. But who knows when that will be?"

Slow Burn Theatre had to halt work on its production of Ragtime at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. Cofounder and artistic director Patrick Fitzwater plans to slide Ragtime into the same slot the following season (once he figures out where to store the set for a year) and then pick up in late summer with the "more familiar and lighthearted Footloose."

A total of ten shows set to open between March 12 and 21 in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach Counties became temporary casualties of the sudden shutdown. They included Florida Atlantic University Theatre Lab's To Fall in Love, Measure for Measure Theatre's Island Song, Wick Theatre's A Chorus Line, Pembroke Pines' Theatre of the Performing Arts' Urinetown, and Primal Forces' Warrior Class.

Tanya Bravo, founder and artistic director of Juggerknot Theatre, had to shutter the company's successful immersive production of Miami Motel Stories: North Beach, which had been extended through March and was slated for another extension through April.

It was, she says, "heartbreaking putting a team of over 30 actors, crew, and staff out of work without a definite timeline to bring the show back. It meant an enormous loss in revenue and outstanding marketing and vendor invoices to be paid. It meant our internal executive team would take pay cuts in order to make payroll and take care of our Miami Motel Stories family first."

Still, she adds, developer Sandor Scher — who was at the final show March 5 — let her know that he was securing the performance space at the Ocean Terrace Hotel so that the show could eventually go on.

"It was a sense of hope and relief that we would be back," Bravo says.

"Being an artist is walking a tightrope, financially speaking. This is like someone breaking the tightrope."

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Miami New Drama cofounder and artistic director Michel Hausmann estimates that a four-month shutdown with no performances of A Wonderful World or the subsequent production of The Great Leap (a coproduction with Sarasota's Asolo Repertory Theatre) would cost his company $600,000.

"Being an artist is walking a tightrope, financially speaking," he says. "This is like someone breaking the tightrope."

On the flip side, adversity can lead to opportunity and reinvention, says Nicholas Richberg, Miami New Drama's managing director.

"This will be defining for the theater community... No two boats are exactly alike, but we're all navigating the same waters," Richberg says. "I think it will change us and all companies forever, for the most part, for the better. We have to face realities about the world, about habits, about new ways of doing things."

Because a definite end date to the pause in live performances is impossible to predict, a host of questions follow. Among them: How can performers, designers, and theater staffs, like so many others, pay their bills and keep food on the table? How can companies keep their audiences engaged, supportive, and interested in coming back when it's safe to start gathering again? Are there ways that virtual theater experiences — streaming (challenging given restrictions by licensing agencies and the Actors' Equity Association), online performances, or classes — can foster connections now and be used to enhance the live experience in the future?

Johann Zietsman, president and CEO of the Arsht Center, notes that "crises have a way of forcing us to rethink, reshape, and be extraordinarily creative... We are having to think about business not as usual, in creative ways. Some societal changes are already happening, and this will accelerate some aspects of our ever-increasing virtual life. 

"But human beings are social animals, and the need to physically gather to enjoy a shared experience will always be part of our DNA. This is a moment to reflect on what our shared experiences in the future might look like — to meet the post-COVID community where they are."

However the crisis plays out, theater is and always has been a collaborative, collective experience.

"This is separating us. But theater involves community. We are people people. We like to be live in front of other people," says Margaret M. Ledford, artistic director of City Theatre and its popular Arsht-based Summer Shorts Festival.
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Elena Maria Garcia plans to perform her acclaimed solo show — ¡Fuácata! — for Actors’ Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre when live performances resume.
Photo by Justin Namon

Quick-Response Initiative

So how are theaters and theater artists coping as well as staying creative? And how can people who love theater remain engaged with the community until it returns live?

One of the most impressive quick-response initiatives — the Online Original Monologue Festival, led by Matt Stabile, artistic director of Theatre Lab — engages writers, actors, and directors from Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach.

On March 22, Theatre Lab put out a call for short plays and stories with the theme of hope. Stabile and Jill Carr, the company's director of education and community outreach, led online sessions about crafting the pieces, and more than 50 were submitted by the March 27 deadline.

On March 28, the selected monologues were assigned to actors and directors who worked together virtually. And the next day, more than three hours of original work — designed to benefit actors directly — premiered. Though technical difficulties scuttled a plan to livestream the event, it was recorded and is now available on Theatre Lab's YouTube channel.

"I wanted to rush this. I waited tables, then was a working actor, then a teacher for seven years. I knew how that life worked," says Stabile, who will star in To Fall in Love opposite his Carbonell Award-winning wife, Niki Fridh, once Theatre Lab reopens. 

"Very few of our artist friends make their living only in the arts," he adds. "It's supplemented with service industry jobs and teaching. I tried to prioritize people who need help. I've wept a couple of times. These are dear friends."

The South Florida Theatre League, led by executive director Andie Arthur and Yawney the FIU associate professor, has repurposed the $3,000 it would have spent on an afterparty for the region's Carbonell Awards ceremony, which was set for April 6 but has been postponed.

Now the League has launched a relief fund to provide grants to theaters so they can pay artists and laid-off employees.

"This is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. It's not a hurricane, where there's an endpoint," Arthur says.

Adds Yawney: "Our individual members are financially devastated. Equity actors are concerned about having enough performance weeks to qualify for insurance; most of them need it now when it's the most unstable."

Miami New Drama is using its performance downtime to offer a free online master-class series dubbed MasterMiND. The two-hour sessions, from 3 to 5 p.m., are available to anyone who registers.

This week, the Arsht Center launched Arsht@Home. Zietsman says the initiative, which offers a weekly featured music playlist, will soon include tutorial videos from about 25 teaching artists, as well as "Miami Monologues" by theater artists and companies, intimate musical performances by local artists dubbed "Couch Cabaret," and other content.

"We're trying to figure out a way to get the community excited again."

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Tim Davis, producing artistic director of Fort Lauderdale's New City Players, has always made community engagement part of his company's mission via its City Speaks seminars on topics related to its plays or theater in general. Nightly at 9 on Instagram Live, Davis hosts Late Show Live, where he interviews actors and others throughout South Florida.

New City, Davis says, is committed to reaching audiences in myriad ways and knows that connecting online is vital. Yet, he adds, "As the streaming market continues to saturate our lives, I'm convinced that we'll still want things that are locally crafted, locally sourced, live, and communal. It's the organic farming of art."

During this sudden downtime, ¡Fuácata! co-author Meltzer, who is also Zoetic Stage's artistic director, has plenty to keep him busy, including adjusting his company's lineup and communicating with colleagues, writing a new play, collaborating on another piece with ¡Fuácata! co-author Garcia, and thinking about the inevitable yet unpredictable return to live performances.

"All of us are unsure about how to start back up... We're trying to figure out a way to get the community excited again. I think that will happen incrementally," he says.

In the meantime, the region's theaters hope their patrons will hang tough if they can and keep their tickets for future use or consider the purchase as a donation to the nonprofit companies. Investing by committing to a subscription for 2020-21 would help sustain companies. And even something as simple as connecting with individual artists — not just through donations — can help.

City Theatre's Ledford says. "If you know an actor or a writer you like, reach out to them and let them know their artistry is important to you."

– Christine Dolen,
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