Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Will the Coconut Grove Playhouse "Return?"


The article in today's Herald misleads you with its title:

Grove Headline

You might be led to believe from this title that the Coconut Grove Playhouse is going to come back in some form or another.

But it's not.

One of the first highlights of the "plan" lays it out in no uncertain terms:
The 1,100-seat Playhouse would return as a 300-seat theater with a ''footprint'' set aside for a 600-seat theater, though it is uncertain when or if the larger house would be built.
No matter how you spin it, it's pretty clear that the 1,100 seat part of the Playhouse will have to be demolished to install two smaller theatres. Or at least, to build a small theatre and leave a "footprint" for a larger one to be built later. Further along, we also learn:
...three design schemes were proposed by UM grad students and professional architects. Though differing in details, each included a 600-seat theater, a smaller theater with 150 to 200 seats, underground parking, and a combination of office, retail and residential space.
This shouldn't surprise any Theatre Scene reader, or anyone who is aware of the structural problems that doom the very fabric of the Playhouse to a wrecking ball. And if you're a student of history, you'd know that the board of directors of the Playhouse has been committed to tearing down the building for years. It's likely one reason they allowed the building to decay to the point where a large portion of it has been condemned for the better part of a decade. Why spend money shoring up the structure or repairing the roof when you want to replace it with condos and shops and restaurants and a much, much smaller theater?

So say goodbye to the building, but we should not shed tears; it's like a pet that has languished until it totters into the walls of your home, blind, deaf, and incontinent; it's suffering. The physical shell of the Playhouse is simply too diminished to house anything.

Now you may be saying "but a theatre is not a building; so even though the building is finished, it does not follow that the company is. After all, a theatre is its people."

To which we are forced to reply, "what people?"

The Coconut Grove Playhouse has no people. It has no artistic director, no creative team, and no staff of artisans. There isn't even a stated artistic mission. A company is made up of people, and it's something that the Coconut Grove Playhouse completely lacks. They have a building that's ready to collapse, they have rooms full of costumes that have rotted in Florida's dank humidity, but they have no COMPANY.

All that's left is the Board of Directors.

It's the same Board that let their building crumble, and allowed Artistic Director Arnold Mittelman run up the largest debt of any South Florida theatre company. It's the same Board that watched staff go unpaid for weeks before the Playhouse closed. It's the same Board that took over a year to pay some of that former staff's back salary. They screwed the same staff who had made purchases out of their own pockets to ensure that there were things like paper towels in the restrooms, and costumes onstage. It's a Board that does not understand loyalty.
Two years and eight months after the Coconut Grove Playhouse closed its doors, Spivack says, "Where we are is a point of moving on and turning the corner. This is the future.''
And what, exactly, is that future?
An artistic partner -- with a pool expanded beyond educational institutions to include an existing producing theater company or nonprofit cultural institution -- will be chosen to produce ''quality regional theater'' and operate education programs.
This bears pointing out: the brilliantly mindless plan offered by Board Chair Shelly Spivack and her coterie of clueless cohorts fellow board members is to hire some other regional theatre company to become the Coconut Grove Playhouse!

What's wrong with that, you ask? Well, for one thing, existing regional theatres already have their own boards of directors, and their own artistic missions, and their own identity.

You should also note the wording "expanded from." The Board's original plan was to partner with The University of Miami, Florida International University, Barry University some prestigious university with a strong theatre program. Strangely, it seems that none of our universities want to partner with a failed theatre as part of a program to educate future theatre professionals.

Shocking, isn't it?

Oh, wait, I almost forgot the bribe:
In addition to the $20 million for construction, the new theater partner will get access to several major cultural institution grants from the county, money that has been ''held in abeyance that can help with the ramp-up costs for the theater partner,''...
Money that was "held in abeyance." Hmm. Part of this is probably the grant that was rescinded when it was discovered the Playhouse was using a capital development grant to cover its running costs - a big bozo no-no. More of it may be the funds that were withheld when a local politician was contacted by a developer who claimed that the Playhouse had violated a contract to re-develop the property.

I suppose it's possible that some artistic director or some producer is looking to get mired in an organization that has a track record of poor financial management, massive debt to critical vendors and labor unions, dwindling attendance, a deteriorating physical plant, a re-development plan that is sure to be fought tooth and nail by the inhabitants of the community, and no connection to the thriving artistic community around it.

But they fired Arnold Mittelman already.

I'm not the only one that's doubtful about describing this as a "return": Christine Dolen wrote about it in her own blog:
All of which leads to myriad questions. What about the 1926-vintage building's historic designation? Who could best produce the kind of theater outlined in the board's plan? How important is the Coconut Grove Playhouse to the health of theater in South Florida? Can the theater come back?
The community blog for the Grove, Coconut Grove Grapevine, is trying to be more hopeful:playhouse2
Just the fact that there are serious talks going on is a great thing. Let's hope they can move faster than the three to five years predicted. They still need to pay off the $4 million dollar debt and of course there is the usual talk of changing the structure on the present site. Let's hope some of the facade can stay.

I suspect that the facade will be the only part of the Coconut Grove Playhouse to survive this fiasco. And given the state of the Playhouse, that's oddly appropriate.

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