A League of Their Own

As a zesty summer alternative, I'll take a few weeks off here and there from slicing, dicing, and stroking to discuss more important issues in South Florida theater than Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or another revival of Neil Simon. And without a doubt, the new Theatre League of South Florida (TLSF) projects the most promising hint of inspiration in this often-fragmented show community. If nothing else, the Eighties taught mankind that united we stand, divided we produce too much crap.

Until recently, local productions belonged to an almost feudal system, with each lord of the dusty manor viperishly vying for the number-one slot. That's because we don't have any "winners" yet. Unlike Chicago, Atlanta, Seattle, or Minneapolis, no venue stands out as the place to witness great plays, new plays, or even just plays in which the whole cast are trained actors and the directors innovate rather than simply move people around a stage.

Through the years, several smaller houses tried to form theater coalitions, but interest waned after a month or two. Why cooperate with potential rivals? And why give up the absolute monarchy artistic directors crave so much? By choosing all the plays, conducting all the hiring, firing, casting, and creating, these seigniors forget that dramatic art presents its best face as a group effort, preventing one narrow opinion from dominating -- and dooming -- a whole season.

Fortunately, through the efforts of the Metropolitan Dade County Cultural Affairs Council -- your government at work, believe it or not -- and particularly with the help of Rem Cabrera (the Council's Grants & Program Administrator), a legitimate, functioning Theater League arose in November of last year, with members from Dade, Broward, Monroe, even Palm Beach counties. For example, Savannah Whaley of the Coconut Grove Playhouse now interfaces to some degree with her peers, including Eric Fliss from ACME, Maria Rodaz from AREA Stage, Nancy Reichbach from the Community Theater of Hialeah-Miami Lakes, Allen Zipper of the new Miami Skyline Theatre, and Robyn Brooks from the South Florida Theater of the Deaf, among others. Of the 50 venues from Palm Beach to Key West, many now at last support the concept of cooperation as a means to theatrical advancement.

Did I say there were 50 theaters in Our Town? That's one thing the League wants everyone to realize -- that South Florida could easily be reborn as a miniature mecca of drama, not just the coolest place to hang. The League's stated mission (according to Cabrera and cohorts) is "to promote and protect the interests of theater and theater artists in South Florida," partly by emphasizing the growth of live drama in the past ten years and also by detailing how much more of this pioneer road needs paving. Of course, the key to further positive movement always lies in pulling together, especially with so many small theaters struggling to pay rising bills.

"We have to awaken South Florida to the fact that it's a theater town," notes Zipper, emphasizing the group's dedication to "educating the community about the impact, economic and cultural, of the theater arts." League members agree that community leaders should support theater with a similar zeal to their underwriting of other arts.

In a practical sense, three committees -- Education, Resources, and Communications -- divide the goals of this emerging multiheaded beast, sharing knowledge and goods to finally build something of quality. Barry Steinman from the Dade County Auditorium, head of the Resource Committee, correctly points out that theater owners and operators must no longer be competitors, particularly if South Florida craves nationwide respect. "We have no real allies but ourselves," Steinman stresses.

Through the resource branch, theaters gain access to a data bank listing available props, scenery, actors, equipment, and other elements potentially shared. Theaters distribute seasonal calendars of coming shows to the League; some members, such as Rafael de Acha of New Theatre, have already offered to insert these calendars into their own playbills. Holding group auditions maximizes efficiency and makes finding jobs easier for local actors. Group advertising reduces publicity costs, often a back-breaker for small houses.

In a recent meeting held at the Minorca Playhouse -- each month a different theater plays host to TLSF -- ambitious but practical suggestions such as "wish lists" cropped up. Fliss described how the new ACME building received free electrical work by publishing their needs; he was impressed by how many small businesses want to help the arts when told what they can contribute. Requirements of the various theaters -- fax machines, used computers, tools -- listed in local papers and the League newsletter (assembled by Kent Lantoff of UM's Ring Theatre) might bring in donations of services and items. "Just decide what you need first," Allen Zipper (head of the Communications Committee) advised the group, "a toilet or a fax machine."

Iris Acker, from the Shores Performing Arts Theater, calling herself a "professional nag," described her hyperenergized work for the Education Committee, introducing the concepts and contributions of drama to younger audiences. Internships for high school and college students, discounted prices for students on special days, and guest lecturers from the League visiting area schools constitute that division's basic mission.

For mature audience education, a "Stages of the Sun" map -- supervised by Nancy Reichbach and designed by Brian Won Wong (volunteering his services through the American Institute of Graphic Artists) -- shows each theater location with names and contact numbers listed and hopefully will become a standard desk-topper in hotels, restaurants, publications, kiosks, airports, and other tourist magnets.

To educate the League itself, Whaley mentioned round-table discussions on such topics as grant writing, public relations, theater for the physically challenged, and school touring programs. Some of the smaller venues lack the staff and resources to explore all viable avenues; in this case the larger theater acts as a big brother/sister.

While veteran Miami producer Steinman warns the League not to bite off too much at first and then collapse after a string of numerous disappointments, he also feels that "if we're going to commit to this, let's do it." With the data bank almost in place, the League newsletter ongoing, the meetings standing-room-only, and a group benefit planned for October 15-18, 1992, in conjunction with Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, TLSF promises a more focused and community-connected future for the region's thespians.

If the Soviets and Germans can break down walls, so can the old guard here. It'll make my job more rewarding, and your ticket prices more worthwhile. Anyone interested in joining, helping, or just learning about TLSF, contact Rem Cabrera at the Cultural Affairs Council, 111 NW First Street, Miami, 33128, or call 375-5019 (fax: 375-3068).

Next time I take a break, I'll discuss the million-dollar question: What is a repertory theater, and why doesn't South Florida have one? Potentially more outrageous than the muchissimo bucks about to be sunk into another Performing Arts Center, is the idea that a theater rep company (less expensive to launch than a symphony, ballet, or opera) has no place in Miami's future civic plans. If you have any thoughts or information, write. From the British, those folks who inhale and exhale theater, I've learned that critics do more than praise or attack. They actually work for/with the arts, especially when their readership wants positive change. Do you?

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