Pay to Play

In 1989, Miami Beach's Lincoln Road was an empty strip of vacant stores, a shell of the lively outdoor mall filled with elegant shops that thrived in the 1940s and 1950s. With serendipitous foresight, John and Maria Rodaz of Area Stage Company rented an affordable storefront there, then set about establishing an intimate theater for showcasing contemporary plays. Six years later, in a testament to artistic pioneers such as the Rodazes, Lincoln Road now teems with restaurants, galleries, and shops, hosting crowds of visitors every afternoon and evening of the week.

Landlords could not help noticing the potential in such a renaissance. Along with the cultural resurgence came higher and higher rents. Two years ago, Area faced a rent increase of more than 100 percent, from $1000 to $2300. After a failed effort by the Metro Dade Cultural Affairs Council and the City of Miami Beach to secure for the theater a new, affordable space, the city stepped in and subsidized the increase (paying $1300 monthly), and the theater remained in its original location. But another increase recently threatened Area, and the Rodazes were worried.

"As of the end of September, the rent may go from $2300 to $4000 a month," Maria Rodaz revealed anxiously just before Labor Day weekend. Unless the city agrees to subsidize such a massive increase, John Rodaz has no doubt about the consequences: "It would be a tremendous blow to the entire organization. We'd have to close right away. And we'd lose so much momentum it might take a year to regroup and find another space."

No one disputes how keenly Area's loss would be felt. The company that Rem Cabrera of the Cultural Affairs Council unabashedly calls "one of our community's most precious cultural treasures" has brought modern drama to audiences during each of its seasons, including the current one. Presently playing in repertory are two sharp-edged offerings: Beirut and a revival of the theater's 1993 success, Kvetch. This coming season's lineup promises to be particularly spicy; it includes Harold Pinter's enigmatic The Birthday Party, Tony Kushner's adaption of Pierre Corneille's The Illusion, and Nicholas Wright's unnerving Mrs. Klein, about innovative psychoanalyst Melanie Klein's relationship with her daughters.

Luckily the company appears to have friends in the right places. Before the Labor Day holiday weekend, it was unclear if Area was even on the City Commission's September agenda. But on Tuesday, September 5, Assistant City Manager Harry Mavrogenes reported that Jack Lubin, the executive assistant to City Manager Jose Garcia-Pedrosa, "negotiated with [Area's] landlord to keep the [rent] increase reasonable." By the next day, Mavrogenes confirmed that "the city is proposing to accommodate Area's rent supplement."

"It looks really good," confirms John Rodaz. "Nothing has been settled, but the landlord will only raise the rent $200, and the city will continue to help us." As of press time, however, nothing has gone through officially.

In the event that the city, the theater, and its landlord come to an agreement, Area will continue with its current season. Miami Beach Mayor Seymour Gelber and the city commissioners will have saved the day, at least in the short run. But reality stretches further into the future. "I can guarantee you the landlord will not hold the rent for another year," John Rodaz asserts, grateful for immediate financial respite but anticipating future struggles.

Indeed, the vicinity that Cabrera terms "the closest thing to a cultural district we have in the city" proves less and less friendly to not-for-profit theaters. Acme Acting Company remains without a permanent space on the Beach since leaving 955 Alton Rd. after Hurricane Andrew. Operating out of offices in Miami's design district as she prepares for the 1995-96 season in various locations on the Beach, producing director BetsyPearl Cardwell still considers Acme a Miami Beach company. "Unfortunately," she concedes, "I don't see the possibility of renting space there without the help of the city itself." Weary from years of dealing with Beach landlords, she adds, "They don't care about you. They're businesspeople. What a businessperson who owns a lot of property doesn't see is how a theater can help increase the value of the property. Theaters are great for restaurants, nightclubs, art galleries. That's the whole idea I've been trying to get them to understand." Cardwell expects she'll have to relocate beyond the Beach or, possibly, outside Dade County.

The solution for small companies such as Area and Acme may lie in the establishment of a black box theater (a small oblong-shaped space with black ceilings, walls, and floors, and without a proscenium stage), to be financed by a half-million dollars in tax monies from the Miami Beach Convention Center. Two years ago, a five-million-dollar reserve generated by the convention center development tax -- the tariff placed on hotel rooms countywide -- was identified by Miami Beach Commissioner Neisen Kasdin as a possible source for building new arts facilities. At the time, notes Kasdin, "There was an expression of intent on the part of the [Miami Beach] administration and the city commission" to allocate $500,000 of that sum to build the black box theater. (According to Cabrera, when Area found itself in its initial rent jam in 1993, the possibility of the city constructing a black box space was bandied about. This evolved into yet another idea, this one for a two-stage theater complex that would house -- were each company to submit acceptable proposals to the city -- both Area and Acme.)

However, since then the city has become embroiled in negotiations to bring an enormous cineplex facility to Lincoln Road. Money originally slated for the proposed black box theater is tied to that project, whose fate remains in limbo. Kasdin explains that the developer who ultimately wins the prize of creating the cineplex will be required to construct a black box theater within the movie complex, using the aforementioned $500,000. Meanwhile, the movie theater project languishes, the half-million dollars remains untouched, Area Stage scrapes by year by year, and companies such as Acme can't get near the Beach.

Maria Rodaz has a suggestion. "The solution would be for Area to receive the $500,000 directly," she notes. "I could then apply for a Kresge Foundation [a private foundation] grant that will match those public funds and put it all toward a new space."

Commissioner Kasdin clarifies that the five hundred grand is intended for the construction of a new theater and not specifically for Area, although he acknowledges Area's importance to the cultural life of the neighborhood. Rather than directly handing over the bucks, the city more likely will return to the pre-cineplex plan of constructing a space independent of any movie house. It's an idea Kasdin says he's has been "tossing around for the last couple of weeks. Let's go ahead, appropriate part of the Convention Center complex extending north of Seventeenth Street on Pennsylvania Avenue," and put up a theater.

What would it take for the city to move forward with such a plan? "It would take a commissioner or an administrator considering it and bringing it up," Kasdin responds. Go for it, Commissioner.

Stage Notes
Disappointing news from Coconut Grove Playhouse: One of the jewels of the company's upcoming season has been canceled. The Playhouse lost the rights to Three Tall Women, Edward Albee's latest play and the 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, to a national tour. Producing artistic director Arnold Mittelman negotiated adamantly but it seems as if regional theaters can't compete with the potential box-office receipts a tour dangles before promoters. A careful search is being mounted for another show, because, as Debbie Eyerdam, the Playhouse's director of marketing and communications, puts it, "It's not easy to come up with a replacement." South Florida audiences will have a chance to see the touring production, which stars Marian Seldes, Michael Learned, and Christina Rouner, when it comes to the area during the 1996-97 season.

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