By Ciara LaVelle
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If you're feeling lethargic, spend an hour with Michael Hall, the artistic director and founder of the Caldwell Theatre Company, one of South Florida's two state theaters. Immense funds of energy, optimism, and creativity fill the room from the moment he steps in. Immediately you understand why Jim Caldwell, the inventor of the rubber dust pan and consequently, creator of Rubbermaid, approached Hall almost twenty years ago when he was running a professional summer stock company in Highlands, North Carolina.
"Jim just walked up to me," Hall remembers, "and told me he wanted this type of theater in his town A Boca Raton A and to give him a call."
It took a while to find the right space, but a few years later Caldwell contacted Hall again, this time when the director was teaching at a small theater department near Gainesville. "Jim told me to quit my job that moment and come down immediately. He insisted that the time was right and we had to do it now."
Hall came, only to find that Caldwell had long ago run out of money. They managed to raise a scant $16,000 and start their company on the campus of the now-defunct College of Boca Raton. In the four years they spent there, before being crowded out of the school, they raised the subscriber base from 16 to 3000 devoted audience members. And when they did need a new home, the community of Boca Raton rapidly responded and forked over a quarter of a million dollars to build another venue.
Success followed success, and now the Caldwell, in its third location, a neat 300 seater, must build a second theater across the parking lot. "We're so heavily subscribed, and there's such a great demand for tickets, we need the new space." In a time when theater companies generally cry ruin and poverty, Michael Hall seems to possess a magical strategy. Besides a solid education at Carnegie-Mellon and a burning love for what he does, he brings to Boca what he regards as a simple solution: "We seem to be doing the variety of plays that keep most people happy most of the time."
Variety and top quality mark the company's season, which typically consists of a broad range of works, from classics like The Little Foxes to cutting- edge drama, such as the current, sold-out production of Sight Unseen.
"Several years ago I started getting bored with all the hoop-skirt classic plays we were doing," Hall explains. "I said in jest to my staff that I was going to produce Sister Mary, Extremities, and Bent all in one year. Everyone laughed along, but then the next day, each one of my staff, one by one, came up to me and told me what a great idea it was. When I realized they were as bored as I was, I decided to tackle the most controversial of them all A Bent A knowing we would either shock everyone to death and close the theater or take a new path."
At first, Hall recalls, everyone was shocked by a play that dealt openly with homosexuality. People demanded refunds prior to opening. But when the production was unveiled, the audience and critics "went crazy." The show sold out and became the Caldwell's biggest hit, solidly expanding its subscriber base. Jim Caldwell originally told Hall that people in Palm Beach county wanted "fluff." Hall found out otherwise.
"The secret is balance," adds Hall. "Flip-flop from a classic to a contemporary work, and always take a few chances each year. In South Florida, the idea is to be brave on occasion, and even when you do safe theater, do it very, very well."
Using Hall's formula and a 1.8 million dollar budget, the Caldwell, winner of 31 Carbonell Awards, manages to present thoroughly professional shows and end up in the black every year. "We all do two or three jobs, we're under-staffed and overworked, but we love it."
With the upcoming Mizner Festival scheduled to take place between April 4 and May 16, the director owns little spare time. This annual event is another brainchild of Hall's fertile mind, and was designed to bring tourists into Boca during the off-season. For the festival, which traditionally celebrates the Roaring Twenties (when Palm Beach county first garnered hoards of visitors), groups of people from other states are bused in to shows at the Caldwell A this time around they'll see Sandy Wilson's musical The Boyfriend, a cabaret highlighting war songs called "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boys," and an evening with veteran actor Roddy McDowell. In addition, some packages include hotel stay, an afternoon at an elite polo club, visits to local museums and other specially planned events. For the past decade, Hall's seen the number of attendees grow impressively. "It truly brought people down [to South Florida]," he says.
But in his indefatigable way, Michael Hall envisions much more room improvement. "What troubles me is that there aren't more theaters doing what regional theater ought to do, which is everything, from original works to classics," he says. "For Florida's theatrical image in the nation to get better there have to be more theaters doing a variety of work, and developing work." When the new 420-seat theater gathers enough funds to take more concrete shape, Hall plans to nurture an original musical or musical revue, commissioned by the Caldwell, and to become associated with several playwrights, financially and creatively assisting them in the process of developing new works. "If these shows work here," he enthuses, "they can move to New York and run forever, because our audience has been going to theater all their lives. Many people came up to me after The Little Foxes and told me they'd seen the original with Tallulah Bankhead."
Unlike some other artistic directors in Actors' Equity houses, Hall prefers to hire local talent, "provided they're good and fit the part." He happily notes that more and more gifted performers are relocating here from New York ("you can't live there A it's awful") and hopes the pool continues to grow. In addition to guiding home-grown casts and supporting new works, Hall hopes to add a conservatory and an apprenticeship program. "It would be easy for us, filling up as we do, to just stay put," says the man whose theater sells 80 percent of its tickets by subscription before the box office even opens to the public, "but we can't because the theater's got to grow. Theater is only going to survive if people like us keep it alive."
Further south, the other state theater in South Florida, The Coconut Grove Playhouse, inaugurates its newly renamed Mainstage (now formally the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Theatre) with that risk-less, evergreen form of entertainment A the sex farce. This offering, Don't Dress for Dinner, has been adapted into English by Robin Hawdon from the huge French hit by Marc Camoletti, which opened at Paris's Theatre Michel in 1985 and ran for more than two years. With the requisite cheating husband and wife, the lovers, the confused cook, all exchanging identities and running back and forth from room to room, this bit of formulaic fluff moves more swiftly and packs more chuckles per scene than most of its type.
The cast exhibits the right degree of high intensity panic, with particularly humorous performances by Reno Roop as the wife's lover, Robert, and Jan Neuberger as Suzette, the cook who must pretend to be Robert's lover, niece A everything but the cook. In my opinion, if you've seen one farce of this genre you've seen them all, but if you're still virginal to the form A or just love sex farces A check this out. Your soul won't be enlightened nor your brain wildly stimulated, but you probably won't be bored. And the exquisite country home created by set designer James Tilton is certainly worth viewing.
If the state supports a theater, it stands to reason that the same theater should serve the state. It's the silent mission of both Michael Hall of the Caldwell and Arnold Mittelman of the Coconut Grove Playhouse to nurture local talent, develop new works, and introduce audiences to a wide variety of drama. So far, Michael Hall's trying to live up to that ideal. His actions, especially with regard to hiring locals, set a perfect example for the Grove to follow.