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Small Wonder

Some people call it the Black Box of Hollywood, a theater so tiny that its lobby consists of a table and two chairs located outside on the sidewalk. So tiny that the actors, working on a stage 27 feet wide by 15 feet deep, virtually perform in the laps of the audience. But downtown Hollywood's 54-seat Florida Playwrights' Theatre was just the kind of place that Paul and Angela Thomas wanted when, with missionary zeal and not much cash, they launched it in January 1993 -- a theater in which the audience was close to the performance. Of course the Thomases, husband and wife, didn't expect patrons to provide some of the entertainment.

"They don't realize they're as much a part of the play as we are," says Angela Thomas. "We can hear them. They'll say: 'She has too much makeup on' or 'She doesn't need to smoke.' At one performance we had a guy in the front row who kept saying to his girlfriend, 'Look at that actress' nose.'" Then there was the time when a woman walked on stage in the middle of an FPT production of David Mamet's American Buffalo and dropped a paper napkin into a garbage can on the set.

Along with the almost identical-in-dimensions Hollywood Boulevard Theatre located next door, FPT brings a touch of off-off-Broadway to South Florida. Florida Playwrights' specializes in seldom-produced plays such as the Tina Howe comedy The Art of Dining (set to open in mid-January) and Peter Shaffer's Black Comedy, a farce that had the actors almost tripping over the audience this past November. Currently at FPT: Mamet's A Life in the Theatre, about vain thespians.

"The thing that's so good about Florida Playwrights' is that they're doing so much good theater economically," notes Deborah Sanchez, a theater professor at Broward Community College. "You have that intimacy and a sense of communion among audience members."

"We concentrate on the actors and the story, concentrate on the play itself, the words and the ideas," 30-year-old Angela Thomas explains as she takes a break from directing Precious Piglet's Perfect Holiday, a new children's play for Christmas written by Aventura author Carrol Mendelson. "I have to have this kind of theater. It's harder, and I like that."

FPT is like an only child for the Thomases, who were married in mid-1992. "I'm executive director," says 31-year-old Paul. "That means I handle all the money. Angela's artistic director. She chooses plays and directs. I'm technical director. I oversee sets and the lighting and the general upkeep of the theater. Angela does all the costumes."

Back in the early Nineties when the still-unmarried Paul and Angela were working toward master's degrees in theater at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, the pair wanted only to own and manage their own playhouse. "We wanted to establish a small repertory company," recalls Angela. "That kind of theater is the most poignant kind of theater." An opportunity to do just that arose in 1992 when Ed Schiff, who at the time ran Hollywood Performing Arts -- it later became the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre -- told Paul and Angela that a place was available next door. After graduating from FAU and getting married, the Thomases signed papers to lease the building. In December they moved in, putting on their first show, North Florida playwright Jack Gillhooly's Dancing to Calliope, a month later.

Gillhooly's play, a world-premiere drama about carnival people, was well received by critics. The more experimental Eli, which followed, was less popular. But FPT's next production, Charles Ludlum's vampire comedy The Mystery of Irma Vep, enjoyed considerable success.

The Thomases poured all of their time, energy, and money into FPT. Paul had won a scholarship to FAU, so he was able to put the money his family had saved for his college education to use in the new theater. Angela helped by teaching kindergarten. After two years their money ran out, and the couple were forced to pull back on their original mission of presenting as many new plays as possible. They repositioned FPT as more of an actors' theater than a playwrights' theater, but they continue to present works that have little chance of being seen elsewhere in South Florida, such as Ludlum's Reverse Psychology, scheduled to be presented this spring. Additionally, in June they plan to produce the Florida premiere of Wendy Hammond's Julie Johnson, one of the works performed at the 1994 Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville.

On Saturday mornings FPT often puts on plays for children, such as the Thomases' own Sleeping Beauty and local writer Marc Mumberger's musical version of Snow White. "Little children go on stage all the time, and we use it," says Angela. "If they want to touch us, we let them. I played a queen in a play, and when I fainted a little girl came up and patted my hand."

But FPT's greatest successes have very likely been associated with its annual summer productions of works by Shakespeare, which often draw full houses. Macbeth, which FPT mounted in 1995, gave its audiences front-line battle experience when Paul Thomas, as Macduff, went into mortal combat with the Scottish king. "Macbeth had a short broadsword, and I had a spear," Paul explains. "I'd lower my spear and charge. He'd move and the audience saw me charging straight at them."

For its upcoming fifth Shakespeare festival, the Thomases plan to tackle Hamlet and The Tempest. "We get an audience that never went before because they never understood it [Shakespeare]," says Angela. "We bring Shakespeare to such a human level." The FPT stage will be crammed to capacity during The Tempest's final scene, which brings together a host of characters.

FPT's smallness is echoed by the almost identical Hollywood Boulevard Theatre (HBT) next door. "We have a nice working relationship," notes Jerry Waxman, who serves as producing director at Hollywood Boulevard Theatre. "We're both similar theaters doing individual type of work. We get audiences that are similar and yet different in their scope." Both houses have employed the services of director James Alexander Bond. After recently staging the U.S. premiere of I Remember You -- a romantic comedy by Canadian writer Bernard Slade -- at HBT, Bond has moved over to FPT to direct Howe's The Art of Dining.

FPT and HBT share something else. The women's bathroom situated backstage at Florida Playwrights' also serves Hollywood Boulevard Theatre's women patrons. HBT women theatergoers get there by going through a door that connects the two theaters. It's an arrangement that has led to some embarrassing moments. A dramatic pause in either theater is often shattered by the door banging shut. But worse things can happen.

"People walk in from the theater next door and right into the middle of a play," sighs Paul Thomas. "A man trying to leave the Hollywood Boulevard Theatre came through the door and found himself on our stage. He didn't know where he was or how he'd got here. He looked around and said, 'I just want to get out!'"

That's the type of moment that could happen only in the makeshift world of a pocket playhouse. "We've never made money out of it, and we knew that we wouldn't," Angela admits. "But we've made it to five years. It's become such a huge part of our lives that we couldn't imagine life without it.

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Peter Hawkins

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