By John Thomason
By Benjy Caplan
By Artburst Miami
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Daniel Reskin
Rafael de Acha says he's taking a risk. Rather than launch the eleventh season of his Coral Gables-based New Theatre with a classic from the dramatic canon, a piece of proven contemporary theater, or a crowd-pleasing musical, instead, early this month, he debuted the New Plays Project, a showcase of world premiere scripts by a trio of South Florida playwrights. As if finding an audience for new work isn't difficult enough, de Acha programmed the six-week project -- it runs through July 14, with two weeks of full productions given to each show -- during a notoriously sluggish time of the year. All because, the artistic director claims, risks or no risks, he's committed to cultivating local voices.
"You're really going out on a tightrope by doing a new play if the playwright has no track record," de Acha contends. "There's no pedigree with the audience and no pedigree with the critics. But by seeking to do new plays, I'm trying to make an impact that will go beyond the flavor of the month. By bringing a new play by an early-career playwright to life, we not only revitalize whatever else we do at the theater, we also make some long-lasting impact on theater in a big sense, hopefully giving these plays an opportunity to have a life beyond New Theatre."
Since its inception in December 1986, New Theatre has featured at least one new work a year by either a regional or a national playwright; that includes work commissioned from Susan Westfall, whose Pirates of Tigertail (now through June 30) premieres in this year's New Plays Project. (The other offerings include Richard Janaro's Youth and Asia, which just closed, and Michael McKeever's That Sound You Hear, July 3 through 14.)
But de Acha realized that a full-fledged festival of new pieces demanded a more extensive marketing approach than the usual press-release-and-brochure campaign that might sell an original work during the rest of his season. So he sought and eventually received a grant from the Knight Foundation. "We hardly ever do any paid advertising. It's just not within our means," de Acha explains. "Most of what we do is direct mail, and then it's word of mouth and PSAs [public service announcements]. However, because we had a little bit of this funding helping us, we paid for some advertising this time. Also, by concentrating each play into a two-week run, we hope to get more density of audience instead of spreading a production out over five weeks. And to our subscribers we said, 'Hey folks, it's only ten performances, so you'd better reserve early because it's going to fill up.'"
With any luck a number of other factors might help to fill New Theatre's 60 seats. For one thing, audiences are growing increasingly accustomed to new works being presented by major theaters. A glance at schedules from Miami to Palm Beach over the course of the past year reveals numerous world premieres, several written by South Floridians, as well as new play-reading series that bring works in progress to the community. For local talent, think of Geoffrey Hassman's Neal's Garden, which opened this past June at Area Stage Company and went on to win two Carbonell Awards for the 1994-95 season. Coconut Grove Playhouse's Encore Room hosted Mama's Last Waltz by Miamian Rafael V. Blanco in the fall of 1995, followed by University of Miami professor and novelist Evelyn Wilde Mayerson's Marjory this spring. ACME Acting Company recently mounted Hollywood playwright Janyce LaPore's Ferris Wheel, while in April and May, Jim Tommaney presented his play South Beach at the EDGE/Theatre on Miami Beach and then at New River Rep in Fort Lauderdale. Tommaney also produced new works this past summer by New World School of the Arts student Adam Stuart Littman and New World faculty member Roberto Prestigiacomo; he also featured original one-person pieces by New World college seniors at the EDGE during January.
Playwright Rafael Lima knows from experience that Miami used to be infinitely less open to original drama. In fact, he fled Miami for New York City in 1988 because he could not get his work produced here. Lima saw three of his plays presented at Manhattan's Circle Repertory Company: 1988's El Salvador, 1992's Parting Gestures, and 1994's Hard Hats. Additionally, El Salvador was produced elsewhere in the U.S., as well as in Europe. Lured by Hollywood, Lima moved from New York to Los Angeles to write scripts for television's China Beach and Wise Guys, before returning to South Florida in 1994 to work on a novel and to teach play writing at the New World School of the Arts. Next year he assumes directorship of the play-writing program at New World, where students can earn high school and college degrees in the subject. "The difference in Miami from when I left to when I came back is absolutely worlds apart," notes Lima. "Now there are places to go to have your plays read. There are places to go to have them workshopped. There are more writers now in Miami who are actually staying here, living here, and not going to New York or L.A. There's an energy here that certainly wasn't here before."