Saturday, September 22, 2007

Measuring Theater; Size versus Influence

A couple of weeks ago, Christine Dolen at the Miami Herald did a story about South Florida's "smaller" theaters. In three decades, the South Florida Theatre Scene has grown from about a half-dozen theaters spread from Jupiter to Coconut Grove to nearly thirty companies of various sizes.

She discusses the many difficulties facing our region's theaters, particularly the smaller ones. Problems I know too well, having worked at a large number of them. I now work at a "larger" theater, the Actors' Playhouse. We produce 13 shows a year in our two performance spaces with combined seating for 900, yet our budget is nearly identical to the "smaller" Florida Stage, whose total capacity is 250. I was on staff at Florida Stage many years ago; a small space, it's certainly not a small company.

This got me thinking about the relative sizes of theaters. The last two theaters I worked at were undeniable larger than Florida Stage; but Florida Stage raised the bar for theater in the way the other two didn't.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse (or "the Grove," as it's know in the theatre community), was unquestionably a large theater: at 1000 seats, it sits more than any other theater Its budgets were also far higher; what they spent on a single large-cast musical could have financed a year of production at Actors' Playhouse. At the same time - in spite of all the hype - it became fairly insignificant in its artistic influence on the local theater scene by the time it closed. That's not to say that it had NO influence - it did - but not the kind most people think it did. Not one theater in South Florida was measuring itself against the Grove. We weren't looking wishfully at their season line-up. We certainly never wondered who they'd cast, because it would invariably be someone from out of town.

The Grove's artistic influence began fading when Arnold Mittelman took the helm. Why? It might have been the programming choices; certainly the plays it produced were much more commercially oriented than its previous fare. Oh, sure, it mounted new musicals like Jimmy Buffet's "Don't Stop the Carnival" and the Broadway flop "Urban Cowboy." But neither of those shows were intended to change the way we view the world: they were produced because it was believed that they'd be huge commercial successes.

Another factor that might have contributed might have been the choice to invest in celebrity casting. It's undeniable that a famous name can pack a house. But relying on star power instead of insightful casting can crush a show, and that happened fairly regularly at the Grove. Sure, a number of truly great, well-known actors graced the stage; but there were almost as many well-known and horribly miscast stars that got mis-cast. Certainly the use of big stars contributed to the Grove's huge debt. There were certainly times when the star was being paid more than the rest of the cast combined. Sometimes the star's salary was nearly half the production budget.

But I think the biggest factor, and the real reason the Grove became artistically irrelevant to South Florida Theatre was the lack of involvement with the people working in the local theater scene. I can count on my hands the number of South Florida actors who appeared in shows at the Grove in the last 15 years.*

Are there "famous" South Florida actors? There are certainly respected ones: Christine Dolen mentions three of the workingest actors I know in South Florida: Ken Clement, Stephen G. Anthony, and Tod Allen Durkin. I do know for a fact that there are people who will see a show if Ken's in it, and a lot of people get excited when they see Stephen's in it. Durkin is another actor that people remember. There are others. Many others. Famous? Maybe not FAMOUS. Maybe their names don't fill a house. But their presence always brings an air of expectancy, and isn't that really better than mere fame?

Dolen also touched on another point of these Florida actors; connectivity. Clement, Anthony and Durkin were all appearing in THE LIEUTENANT OF INISHMORE at GableStage when Christine interviewed them. But they all also worked at OTHER South Florida arts organizations; Anthony at Actors' Playhouse, Durkin at Palm Beach DramaWorks, and Clement at the Grand Opera. And they appear in theaters all over South Florida.

A few years back, you could walk into a certain bar (now defunct) in Coral Gables and have drinks with actors working at New Theater, GableStage, and Actors' Playhouse. On a Friday night, they'd drag tables together in the courtyard and catch up, and talk and gossip. Stage Managers would have names to drop in the ears of their Directors during auditions. I play cards with Clement and Anthony; Durkin sat in at least once, and Paul Tei used to be a regular. The casts of shows at MadCat, New Theater and GableStage often sing karaoke at another local watering hole. Irene Adjan arranges sporadic softball games in Broward County that lure actors from Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.

Theaters in general support one another: no theater has enough people on hand to load in their sets, or re-hang and focus all of their lights. They have to hire in extra people when they are putting together their shows. And who better than the technical staff from another theater? New Theater, GableStage, and MadCat often hire designers from Actors' Playhouse to help them put up a show; even Actors' Playhouse lured in Grove staff to help with load-ins and the occasional fabrication. Stephen G. Anthony isn't the only one to moonlight at the Actors Playhouse; various members of The Promethean, MadCat, New Theater and GableStage have all worked on AP shows. And vice-versa.

This interchange of talent and personnel add vitality to each and every theater involved; we learn new techniques, we gain new insights, we get fresh approaches to problems. And it's this infusion that the Grove lacked. Sure, at the level of production staff, we shared ideas back and forth. But artistically, the Grove stagnated. They lost touch with what was going on around them.

Let's look at some SMALL theaters.

MadCat is certainly among the smallest, with a $15,000 annual budget and no full-time staff. MadCat's audience tends to be younger than everyone else's. They are reaching a crowd the rest of us simply DON'T. They rent space from Miami Light Project; it's a room with a dozen or so lights, no permanent seats, a sound system that DJs would frankly frown at, and no fabrication resources. My lighting designer, with a large inventory of state-of-the-art equipment run by a computerized lighting board, is still sore that MadCat's Travis Neff beat him out for best lighting designer using only 12 lights and a manual fader deck. I saw that show; Neff's lighting was brilliant. It HAD to be. The show was Ivonne Azurdia's adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe's Portrait. It was the most chilling thing I've ever seen live.

GableStage is doing a lot of the hottest stuff out there; edgy dramas and biting comedies from Off Broadway and Off Off Broadway. This is theater at its best. You simply can't walk out of a GableStage performance unaffected. Sure, you might have hated it, or found it too violent, or too sexual; but you come out affected.

Promethean, like MadCat, produces a lot of new scripts by local playwrights. But these are productions skewed at a slightly more mature audience; if MadCat is a hit with GenerationY, Promethean is a GenXer favorite. Where MadCat pushes the audience to the edge, Promethean lures them there.

New Theater; a mix of new plays and classics, they are the only professional theater producing Shakespeare on a regular basis. They frequently produce new works by Mario Diament and Michael McKeever. And they also commissioned Nilo Cruz to write Anna in the Tropics. You might remember that it went on to win the Pulitzer Prize, the first time a play NOT yet produced on Broadway has won that award. You might also know that the the Grove produced it a couple of years later - with a new cast.

I think the best measure of theatre isn't its budgets, or the number of seats, or the fame of its actors/designers/directors, or even the beauty of its productions; the TRUE measure is in the number of people who are changed by it. And by that measure, the smallest theaters are actually the largest.

* This is not to discount their production staff; costume designer Ellis Tillman, Sound Designer Steve Shapiro, and Properties Master Steve Lambert were all well-known and well-connected in the region. But most of the plays were in fact co-productions with other theaters, and so the shows were skewed towards THOSE audiences by their out-of-town directors.

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