South Florida Theater Community Plans For Its Next Act Following COVID-19
In the good ol’ days of early March, people in South Florida 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, planning to see one or more of the height-of-season shows the region’s theaters were getting ready to open.
Then, like a slow-rolling, invisible hurricane, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. From the second weekend of March onward, life as we knew it has been on hold. We’re social distancing, self-isolating, devouring books, voraciously consuming whatever streams to our TVs. But with no clear end to this strange new state of existence in sight, it can also feel like we’re trapped in a perpetual 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 tri-county 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 open the $1.2 million world premiere Louis Armstrong bio musical, “A Wonderful World,” on March 14. But after a final preview on March 13, the theater went dark, though the lavish set is still on the Colony stage, 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 Center for the Performing Arts in Miami. With 200 Edison bulbs hung above the playing area, the technical rehearsal was about to take place in advance of the show’s March 20 opening.
As with Miami New Drama’s show, the set is still there. But there are no actors or audiences. Currently, the plan is to move “A Little Night Music” into the musical slot for Zoetic’s 2020-2021 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 going to be done – but when?
“It’s a very scary situation. No product means no revenue means no work,” says artistic director David Arisco. “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, then dropped its planned production of Arthur Miller’s “The Price.”
'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 Co. had to halt work on its production of “Ragtime” at the Broward Center for the Performing Art’s Amaturo Theater in Fort Lauderdale. Co-founder and artistic director Patrick Fitzwater is planning to slide “Ragtime” into the same slot the following season (once he figures out where to store the set for a year) then pick up in late summer with the “more familiar and lighthearted ‘Footloose.’”
A total of 10 shows set to open between March 12 and March 21 in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties became temporary casualties of the sudden shutdown. These included Florida Atlantic University Theatre Lab’s “To Fall in Love,” Measure for Measure Theatre’s “Island Song,” The 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 Co., 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 on 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.
Miami New Drama co-founder 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 co-production 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.”
Given that a clear 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 in which virtual theater experiences – streaming (difficult, 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 current drama plays out, theater is and has always 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.
So how are theaters and theater artists coping, as well as staying creative? And how can those who love theater stay engaged with the community until it comes back live?
One of the most impressive, quick-response initiatives – the Online Original Monologue Festival led by Matt Stabile, artistic director of Theatre Lab – engaged writers, actors and directors from Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Many South Florida artists work at companies in all three counties, and with theater experiences moving online for the foreseeable future, geographical boundaries for artists and audiences no longer engagement.
On March 22, Theatre Lab put out a call for short plays and stories centered around 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 on March 29, more than three hours of original work – designed to directly benefit actors – 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. 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, has repurposed the $3,000 it would have spent on an after-party for the region’s Carbonell Awards ceremony, which was set for April 6 but is now 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 end point,” 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 down time 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, and the lineup so far includes: actors Peter Romano and Brynne McManimie on March 31; director Christopher Renshaw on April 2; playwright Winter Miller on April 6; playwright Carmen Pelaez on April 8; and actor Lana Gordon on April 10. “A Wonderful World” playwright Aurin Squire has already done a session, which is available on the MasterMiND page.
Later this week, the Arsht Center plans to launch Arsht@Home. Zietsman says the initiative will offer 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 more.
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 to theater in general. Nightly on Instagram Live at 9 p.m., Davis is conducting “Late Show Live” online interviews with actors and others throughout South Florida.
This week’s lineup features: Carbonell winner Jeni Hacker on March 30; Theatre Lab’s Stabile on March 31; actor Krystal Millie Valdes on April 1; Carbonell winner Clay Cartland on April 2; actor Roderick Randle on April 3; and actor Gaby Tortoledo on April 4.
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 down time, Meltzer, who is also Zoetic Stage's artistic director, has plenty to keep him busy: adjusting his company’s lineup and communicating with colleagues; writing a new play; collaborating on another piece with “¡Fuácata!” co-author Garcia; 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 are hoping their patrons will hang tough if they can, keeping their tickets for future use or considering the purchase as a donation to the nonprofit companies. Investing by committing to a subscription for 2020-2021 would help sustain companies. And even something as simple as connecting with individual artists – and not just with 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."
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