We Don't Aim to Please

Live theater has never been a big draw in South Florida, an area not usually recognized as a center for first-class theatrical performances. Independent arts organizations in general have a hard time just staying afloat -- witness the shuttering of the Alliance Cinema's doors last week. Yet several nonprofit local...
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Live theater has never been a big draw in South Florida, an area not usually recognized as a center for first-class theatrical performances. Independent arts organizations in general have a hard time just staying afloat -- witness the shuttering of the Alliance Cinema's doors last week. Yet several nonprofit local theaters not only survive on shoestring budgets, they are doing quite well. (Of course "doing well" in nonprofit arts terms means not having a deficit at the end of the fiscal year.) Still, a number of smaller theaters report increased audience attendance and younger members in these audiences. Who are these people who continue to make intriguing theater, and how do they do it? In a two-part series of interviews, New Times asked four local artistic directors about their dreams for South Florida theater and what keeps each from realizing them.

New Times: If you could produce your ideal season, without financial or logistical constraints, what would it consist of?

Joe Adler of GableStage:Actually, to date, we've done the kind of theater we want to do. I don't sit down and say, "Will people like this?" I say, "Do I like this?" You don't do theater for the financial remuneration. You do what you love, and the people will find you. Theater creates its audience. The audience doesn't create theater.

Rafael de Acha of New Theatre: I love big, muscular plays [classics from the Greeks, Shakespeare, et cetera]. They provide a challenge for the director and the actors that small works don't. University drama departments put on classics, but something we rarely see in South Florida is a professional production of a classic. This season New Theatre will put on Electra. The version we're using is by Irish playwright Frank McGuinness, author of Someone Who'll Watch Over Me. This is a faithful version of Sophocles, but it's a version nonetheless. For example we take the chorus, which should be 12 women, and turn it into a part for one actress. The language retains its stately tone, but it's accessible. We've cut out all of the "forsooths."

[My ideal season would consist of] one major American classic: Eugene O'Neill would be my first choice. We've already done A Moon For the Misbegotten and Long Day's Journey. The others require 10 to 12 cast members. It's a matter of economics. Large casts require large budgets. No can do.

Very close to my heart are the Sondheim musicals, and I would love to do Assassins. I would also like to do some of the new musical theater that's out there, like Adam Guettel's Floyd Collins. I just saw this in Chicago, and it was incredible. There's a whole new wave of people doing amazing new things with musical theater that we don't get here.

Local works: Each season New Theatre does at least two original works by South Florida playwrights.... Our next production will be Michael McKeever's Sexy and Miggs.

Michael Hall of Caldwell Theatre Company: Part of my ideal season is real. In any new season I would include Moises Kaufman's new play, The Laramie Project, a wildly theatrical and totally absorbing docudrama about what happened to more than 60 ordinary citizens of Laramie, Wyoming, when two Laramie boys killed gay college student Matthew Shephard. This is a life-affirming play about all kinds of people, sort of a latter-day Our Town. It closed off-Broadway on September 2, but the all-new Caldwell production opens December 31.... Caldwell's success [and five Carbonell Awards] for Kaufman's Gross Indecency began our love affair with Kaufman's work. This is a play that needs to be seen.

Next I'd do The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov. No one does Chekhov anymore, but Caldwell needs to. It's timeless. Chekhov makes us realize we are not alone on the planet.

Then a Stephen Sondheim musical, probably Follies with a brilliant (and enormous) cast. With money for salaries, sets, lights, costumes, and sound enhancement, we'd make Broadway's greatest composer proud.

Of course Noel Coward gets a slot in my ideal season. I'd hire Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Robert Sean Leonard for Design For Living. This is one of the great plays; it's about men who can't live without women, and can't live without men, either. It needs star power and sex appeal. I'd hire a fabulous costume designer to cut all of Gwyneth's dresses on the bias and form-fit Mr. Law and Mr. Leonard in satin pajamas. We'd shock audiences even though Coward wrote the play in the '30s.

Finally I'd close with a new play now in the mind or computer of Donald Margulies [Dinner With Friends] or A.R. Gurney [The Cocktail Hour]. Margulies and Gurney are our best playwrights writing today. I know their new work[s] will be about important, relevant things; they'll create characters worth knowing and write literate dialogue that actors can speak.

Ed Saunders of Horizons Repertory: Two of our upcoming seasons' offerings would be a part of my dream season. The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told by Paul Rudnick and The House of Yes by Wendy MacLeod would definitely remain in our season. The Most Fabulous is one of the funniest plays I've read in some time. Rudnick's clever dialogue and hysterical take on history show a playwright at the top of his game. The House of Yes, by turns darkly amusing and disturbing, is a provocative piece of theater.

I would want to include a musical, and no recent musical fascinates me more than Side Show. With its hauntingly beautiful score and fascinating three-dimensional characters, I feel Side Show -- which tells the true story of Daisy and Violet Hilton, conjoined identical twins, and the freak show they joined at the beginning of the 20th Century -- would be an ideal choice.

I would want to include Eve Ensler's The Vagina Monologues. Originally performed as a one-woman show by the playwright, this series of stories about women's experiences involving their genitalia has since become a chance for three actresses to share the stage at each performance for two-week stints. Like the current New York production, I would have a series of actresses perform the show, with a different trio of actress appearing in the show for one weekend each during the run.

My fifth choice would be The Crumple Zone by Buddy Thomas. Currently playing off-Broadway, this acclaimed comedy about five men confronting questions about love and fidelity over a holiday weekend would be perfect for our company.

New Times: If you could create your ideal audience, who would they be?

Adler: I want theatergoers from kosher 16-year-olds to open-minded 90-year-olds. I want them all! That's one great thing about theater. You get a cross section that you just can't get with movies. When you stand in line for a movie, you feel like no one over 25 exists.

We are steadily developing younger audiences, but I don't want to do it at the expense of driving out the older ones. There are elderly people in this community who have more contemporary tastes than younger ones. It has nothing to do with age and everything to do with attitude.

De Acha: My ideal audience would be 50 percent subscription. I long for an audience who is loyal enough to theater that they will commit to a whole body of work. If you are doing a Cuban-American playwright, you will probably get them to come, but whether they will turn around and come to a Terrence McNally play like Love! Valour! Compassion! remains to be seen.

I would like to see more of a mix from all segments of the South Florida population. Even in Miami, which is one of the most diverse cities in America, the majority of our audience is still Anglo and over 50. Many twenty- and thirtysomethings, Hispanics, and African-Americans, are not going to the theater. But things are beginning to change. New Theatre does an audience demographics analysis every three months, and the last count reported 22 percent of our audience members under the age of 25.

I am lucky because New Theatre's audiences do make the journey with us. For example when we recently did The House of the Seven Gables, I thought, It would be nice if it does well at the box office, but this one is for our soul. We ended up doing great at the box office. We often get these kinds of surprises from our audiences.

Saunders: The ideal audience would be one that is open to new ideas and has a thirst to see new and original works, not the same plays that tend to be produced over and over again. We want an audience that is willing to put aside any preconceived notions of what theater should be and is willing to join us on our journey of discovery as we challenge ourselves and our audience to redefine theater's artistic boundaries.

Hall: If I could create my own audience, it would be a mix of young, middle-age, and old -- wildly diverse -- black, white, or sunburned, straight and gay. No one eats candy (or dinner) during the play. No hearing aids or cell phones go off. No one screams, "What did she say?" or explains the plot. No one wants helicopters or flying chandeliers on-stage. No one says Neil Simon's The Star-Spangled Girl is his or her favorite play. When they hear properly spoken Southern and British accents, they don't ask the management, "Why aren't the actors speaking English?"

Next week: What stands between each of these four men and his theatrical pinings?

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