Summer Stock Market

Regular readers of this column may have noticed I've been writing more about ideas and trends lately than reviewing specific plays. There's a simple reason for this. Unlike the past two South Florida "off-season" seasons (which were packed with new and unusual work), this year's torrid temperatures seem to have melted artistic ambitions. In other words, there's hardly anything worthwhile to review. Longtime locals assure me there's no need for worry. "Audiences are always soft in the summer," says Kent Lantaff, director of the Ring Theatre. Rem Cabrera, of the Dade County Cultural Affairs Council, agrees: "Seven years ago the idea of presenting any cultural event during these months was risky."

Perhaps. But then again, seven years ago I wore a size three dress and lived up North. Things change, and one of the things that has changed in South Florida is the demand for drama during the summer. The population has grown younger, more tourists have arrived, and the arts have boomed. In fact, during the past couple of years, the dog days of June and July turned into the perfect time for companies such as the Lunatic Theatre to try ambitious experiments like Mouthpiece, a spontaneous form of performance art. Or for companies from New York City and elsewhere to mount intimate productions in South Beach clubs and bars in an effort to try out offbeat, camp, and original material. ACME Acting Company was known for its ambitious new play festival; the Actors' Playhouse had a major hit with The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe; new local groups were calling me nearly every week to announce their formation and invite me to a summer premiere.

But this year the scene has been markedly quieter. Two companies -- the Miami Actor's Studio and the Ensemble Stage -- have closed their doors temporarily. ACME mounted one successful play, Jeffrey, but the piece was neither new nor daring. It was carefully selected to appeal to hip and/or gay year-round Beach residents. On the other hand, New Theatre planned three musical revues but was forced to cancel each because of poor ticket sales. Actually, I had suspected that prior years' bursts of off-season activity had been an encouraging but fleeting phenomenon.

"It's hard to get people to come in the theater when it's still light outside," remarks Lantaff, who adds that this year was "also the second summer after Hurricane Andrew." (I'm not clear on the relevance of the weather, since last summer was the first one after Andrew and it was just as light outside.) Lantaff does admit, however, that the Ring did "fantastic" business during their fine July production of Lend Me a Tenor. "For the right vehicle," he says, "there is always an audience at any time."

While many members of the theater community duck the question of this summer's drought, others are more forthcoming. Actors, in particular, and some artistic directors agree that a diagnosis of the past couple of months has revealed dismal results. "June is the month from hell," acknowledges New Theatre artistic director Rafael de Acha. "I've rethought my whole strategy." Next summer, de Acha plans to produce a series of new plays, to be presented in repertory on alternating weeks using modest production values, and thereby cutting costs. Right now, he's opening one of his most ambitious productions -- Terrence McNally's A Perfect Ganesh -- to replace the light revues he was forced to cancel. "The only reason I'm doing the McNally now is for survival," de Acha says. "It was a God-given gift that we landed rights to this play, since bills have to be paid."

A more optimistic assessment of the current summer shutdown comes from Blaine Dunham, artistic director of the Lunatic Theatre Company. She says that her group is using this time to plan their fall, winter, and spring shows. "We're tired of doing college kids' favorite plays," she states frankly. To rectify the situation, Lunatic is launching a one-act play search, as well as developing several original pieces within the company. "I believe what you're seeing is the evolution of South Florida theater," Dunham says. "At first we had nothing in the summer, then we threw up any old thing, and now we're starting to think." De Acha agrees. "Our growth is an ongoing process, discovering which plays say the most, which fit our company members, and which work artistically within our space," he says. "I read 100 plays to find one."

The Florida Shakespeare Festival also is planning ahead, taking the summer off to work on new digs at the Biltmore Hotel. "Even if we all fall flat on our faces," announces Dunham, one of many people who are helping out the festival, "at least we're trying to grow."

The more I investigate, the more I find that the theater community is not melting under the brutal sun. They're planning promotions in advance, carefully surveying possible new locations, hunting for exciting material, and collectively brainstorming on how to cultivate bigger audiences. "We are definitely adjusting our approach," says the cultural affairs council's Cabrera. "Our arts council is one of the best in the country," adds de Acha, "but where the state is concerned, the financial pie is getting smaller and smaller." He explains that theaters are now awarded grants on the basis of administrative practices as well as artistic ones. Obviously, it's time to realize that business matters must be nurtured along with more aesthetic goals.

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