Sweat Equity

For skeptics who have been predicting the death of theater since the advent of film and television, the rise of virtual reality and the fall of public funding for the arts seem like nails in theater's coffin. Certainly, South Florida experienced its share of attrition this past season: Miami Actor's Studio, Ensemble Stage, Miami Skyline Theatre Company, and Hollywood Performing Arts closed up shop for good; lack of space and money forced the Florida Shakespeare Festival to produce only one show all season; and although rumors persist that ACME Acting Company, under new direction, and Lunatic Theatre Company remain alive and kicking, neither company has been active.

Do not perform last rites for local stages, however. Undaunted by the torpor brought on by summer heat, established venues from Coral Gables to Palm Beach feature full programming through the fall. And four new companies have opened or are planning to open their doors. Apparently the region is not ready to bury the experience New Yorker critic Anthony Lane calls "the spit and cough of live theater."

"Everyone's always crying that the theater is dead," claims John Rodaz, artistic director of Area Stage Company, whose season opens with James Prideaux's The Housekeeper on July 12. "I don't accept that. Theater is always changing, not dying. It may go through different phases that look like dying -- until it's reborn."

Rodaz considers Area's refusal to depend on grant money a survival tactic. "Only fifteen percent of our funds come from grants," he explains. "We raise money, take in cash at the box office, and rely on a strong following we've built up, young and old alike, who are loyal to us and love our work." And he's encouraged by the new companies cropping up this summer. "Any time I see a theater opening up in Miami, I have to celebrate because I hear more about closings than openings. I'm delighted that people are considering staying here to produce shows."

Barry Steinman shares Rodaz's enthusiasm. Chair of the Theatre League of South Florida and the director of Larry Atlas's Total Abandon (opening at Hollywood Playhouse July 7), Steinman attributes the current growth spurt to the increase in film and television work in the area. Young theater professionals now have more incentives to stay. "We had a lot of very good presentations but very few standouts compared to what we've had in past years," Steinman notes. "Everyone was playing it safe with casting and with technical and production values. Young people have more reasons to stay in the area than ever before. Instead of waiting for the Grove or Actors' Playhouse to cast them, they are getting together and saying let's do interesting shows on our own."

Steinman could be describing Kelly Miller. A graduate of New World School of the Arts High School, Miller left Miami to study at Boston University for two years, staying until she could bear the cold no longer. Returning home and finding it difficult to land roles, she cofounded the Trap Door Theatre with Stuart Meltzer.

"I was surprised at how hard it is to get into shows here," Miller says. "Larger theaters don't let young actors get exposed and use their training. So young actors get into the smaller theaters that don't get funded and are only around for one season at most. That's one of the reasons I started my own theater. About seven of my friends who are excellent actors are always given the same type of roles and can never expand and grow. I wanted to give them that chance."Trap Door debuts at Tobacco Road on July 9 with John Patrick Shanley's The Big Funk. Miller contends they chose Tobacco Road "because it breaks the conventions of a normal theater." Then she breaks into a laugh, adding, "And it was free."

Bethany Bohall had a similar experience. Seven years ago, she did what any self-respecting graduate of a local theater program -- in her case, the University of Miami's -- had to do: She left town for New York City. After five years of off-Broadway, off-off Broadway, and film work up north, Bohall met an agent who asked her why she'd left Miami when so much was happening down there. So she returned A to a changed theater scene. "I got my equity card just before I left [Miami]," she recalls. "As far as equity theaters went, there were only two or three houses, so there wasn't that much work. Now everyone's coming back. People are getting tired of New York and are looking for a new place to create. Everyone knows each other in the theater community here. Everyone's very supportive. We go out to see each other's shows. It's not as competitive as New York."

Bohall recently appeared as June in Marisol, the premiere production of New World Rep, a professional theater made up of New World School of the Arts faculty members. She has high hopes for the company. Like Trap Door at Tobacco Road, New World Rep calls downtown Miami its home, and everyone knows downtown rolls up the sidewalks at 6:00 every evening. But Bohall believes that audiences will defy the self-imposed downtown boycott. "When I saw the crowds for Angels in America at Gusman Center," she says, "I thought all we need is to offer great work and people will come."

Across the causeway on Espanola Way in South Beach, the Edge Theater finds itself right in the center of the madding crowd. Edge founder Jim Tommaney opened his theater in April and plans to mount an interactive performance piece by Mark Holt, which will be followed by Michael McClure's The Beard and To Recognize an Orange, a one-act by New World senior Adam Littman, during July. But Tommaney also stresses that he does not consider his company a commercial enterprise. Instead he's trying to establish a cultural hub in the Espanola Way Art Center, a loft space that houses twelve artists. "Theater," Tommaney asserts, "is a temple of truth in the midst of a materialistic culture...an alternative to disco and drugs." Avoiding last year's off-Broadway hits that other area theaters do so well, the Edge plans to stage the work of contemporary local playwrights as well as twentieth- century classics.

Meanwhile up in Hollywood, South Florida theater pros Jerry Waxman, David Taylor London, and Amy Tarallo have worked tirelessly to convert the Hollywood Performing Arts space, gutted after Ed Schiff abruptly closed down the storefront theater earlier this year, into the Hollywood Boulevard Theater. Permit delays forced Alfred Uhry's Driving Miss Daisy, scheduled to open the theater in the middle of June, to debut last week (it plays through July 9). Hardly new kids on the block, producing director Waxman and artistic director London still manage to convey tremendous excitement about their venture, which they've undertaken with some financial support from the City of Hollywood. The newly renovated storefront boasts a three-quarter- thrust stage, with audience seating on three sides. The season's diverse lineup includes Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart and Jon Robin Baitz's The Substance of Fire, as well as Oscar Wilde's classic The Importance of Being Earnest, scheduled for next February and March to commemorate the comedy's 100th anniversary. And Tony Award-winning singer and actress Melba Moore presents a one-woman show this July 27 through August 20.

All this new competition doesn't daunt Marta Garcia, artistic director of Coral Gables' year-old Akropolis Acting Company and midwife to her company's first season. "The more theaters we have, the better it is for all theaters," Garcia insists. "The more theaters there are, the more collaborators we have for raising people's awareness that there are things to do besides go to the movies, watch television, or spend 30 dollars for a night out at a bar." Like the Edge's Tommaney, Garcia believes theater provides not only an alternative to what the culture offers, but also the satisfaction many of us are seeking elsewhere. "People going to clubs waste their time, their money, their minds, and get nothing," she sighs. "For less money they can discover at the theater what they are looking for in clubs -- mystery, ritual, and magic.

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