Friday, April 4, 2008

Coconut Grove Playhouse; The Incompetent versus the Clueless

Part I: The Incompetent.

Two years ago, the board of directors of the Coconut Grove Playhouse were forced to close its doors when their failure to oversee its fiscal management resulted in $4 million dollar deficit. They owed money to everyone; suppliers, the unions, their own employees. There was an attempt to cover their payroll and few critical bills with a grant intended for renovations of the condemned building.

They had to return that grant. They had to borrow more money to do it. They closed down, and not only did they put their employees out of work, they owed many of them back pay and reimbursements made on behalf of the Playhouse.

That same board said they had a plan. It took over year before they'd tell anyone what it was. And when they finally told us the plan, it was underwhelming.

Their plan was to raise money by seeking corporate sponsorships and private donors and a partnership with a University theater program. Which ain't much of plan, considering it's what every theater in South Florida works on.

So on April 1, they presented "three plans" to "save" the theater. Well, actually, no. April Fools! What they presented plans to re-develop the site of the theater, which happened to include theater spaces.

This incompetent board continues to demonstrate their absolute ignorance of the difference between a "theater" and "theatre." A theater company is not a room with chairs facing a stage, it's not a building. To succeed, a theater needs an artistic direction, it has to have a purpose, and the means and will to give voice to that purpose. Theater requires leadership, a guiding force with a clear sense of artistic mission.

The Grove's board of direction hasn't provided that. And judging from the "scenarios" presented, they haven't done one damned thing that will result in a viable theater. The Coconut Grove Playhouse was an entity that created the shows that played on its stage. It once stood for something; it brought something unique and valuable to the community. It brought vision and insight.

This board of directors has sold their souls to a developer. There's no other word for it. Aries Development Group may have the best of intentions, but you can't have theatre without an artistic purpose. And nothing put out by the board indicates that it's working towards that goal. Instead of theatre, we're getting more redevelopment. Instead of defining an artistic mission, they point to proposed shops, condominiums, and parking spaces. That's not theatre, that's development.

Part II: The Clueless

Mayor Manny Diaz and Commissioner Marc Sarnoff recognize that something's not right and put forth a solution, but they also miss the mark - badly; they suggest the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts manage the building.

Recognizing a lack of leadership, they suggest we turn from an organization that took twenty years to run up a 4 million dollar debt to one that ran up nearly twice that in its first year of operation.

I'm sure that Manny and Marc are looking north at the example of the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The Broward Center not only runs its own facility, but handles the nearby Parker Playhouse, the Miniaci Theater, and a facility in Miramar still under construction. But it's foolish to throw more responsibility onto the management of the Arsht Center while that company is still trying to learn how to run its current facilities efficiently and profitably.

One area pundit, the Coconut Grove Grapevine, sees this latest idea as a step in the right direction:
" least people are starting to think in new ways about saving the institution."
But that's not quite true: what is being saved is the idea of a performance space on that location. There has been no move to save the institution at all.

But at least Diaz and Sarnoff recognize that the Playhouse needs new management. They haven't yet realized that while the Playhouse has received hundreds of millions of dollars over the last twenty years to make improvements to the building, that building is structurally unsound, and parts of it are outright condemned as unsafe. Its safety systems are failing - the theater was required to have a Fire Marshall on the site during plays its last few years of operation. The roof leaks badly. What did the board do with all that money?

I've said it before, and I will say it again; saving the Coconut Grove Playhouse requires a galvanizing leader with great artistic vision and real business savvy. Their current board of directors hasn't even started the search, and the current board hasn't displayed any leadership of any merit.

In fact, two years since they closed the theater, the less than inspiring chair, Shelly Spivak has the gall to blithely claim:
"...the Playhouse board is early in the process of developing a recovery plan for the theater..."
It's about two years too late for "early plans," Ms. Spivak. And so far, the only plans you've shown us are architectural.

It's time to admit it: the Coconut Grove Playhouse is dead.


  1. Why doesn't Actor's Playhouse run it?

  2. Honestly, Actors' Playhouse can barely run itself. They are short-staffed for their existing operations, they are in absolutely no position to take over a theater that not only is $4 million in the hole, but has to be knocked down and re-built from the ground up.

    I'm not knocking Actors' Playhouse, understand; I was their Production Manager until very recently. I know what they have to work with. They are stretched very thin; and thinner since I left.

    I don't know of anyone in Miami-Dade county that could take on the disaster that is Coconut Grove Playhouse and turn it around. At this point, they have to bring in someone with national prominence and a big backer.

    The problem is daunting; first, you have to settle the debts, second, you have to instill faith in the community (patrons, donors, and vendors) that you have a viable business plan and worthy artistic mission, third, you have to raise money to tear down the old building and replace it with a space that makes sense for the market AND raise funding for the first year of operations, and finally, you have to assemble the creative team that will put butts in seats.

  3. thx for the response Chris.

  4. What is the latest..have just come across this site.. I worked in this wonderful theater for 2 shows in the early part of this decade and would love to see it come back to being a theater..and presenting wonderful shows..what has happened lately in the community and the board and the city to help it of 2008

  5. Chris, is it? Could you get in touch with me about this article as soon as you get a chance?

    Many thanks
    Jason Ferguson

  6. Thanks for this article. As a former employee of the Playhouse for 16 years, I can tell you all of the former staffers have kissed this place goodbye years ago. After paying us what they owed us (though a year late) the board has been very silent. Some of us, myself included, still have personal items still under lock and key inside the building. Though I have tried to contact them time and again, they have been silent.
    I can just imagine what all the state of the art lighting and sound equipment looks like. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gear are probably covered in rust and unusable by now.
    The last days of the Playhouse were heartbreaking times for all of us. Watching the building crumble around us while the administrators did nothing but spend more and more money on projects that didn't sell (though I don't remember the fire marshal being there).
    One thing you DID leave out, once the debt is paid back and the board is financially solvent again, I believe there is still a 20 million dollar bond still waiting for the renovation of the property.

    Steve Shapiro
    Former Audio Engineer

  7. Steve- Thanks for your comments. Yes, the bond is still floating around out there, and it can only be applied to a capital project; such as renovating the building, or constructing a new one.

  8. This breaks my heart. I have worked for theaters (and theatres) that have suffered to due incompetent BOARD oversight, and I too, have been devastated by organizational closure, despite advice from professional staff on what was needed, to either save the place, stave off fiscal disaster, or preserve what was there for future leadership, pursuant to a closure. It's an all too common story, and one for which I can only say, I agree with CLJ and need major backing, time, community support and a brand new board or you will be simply paralyzed by the sins of the past and unable to move forward.