By Ciara LaVelle
By George Martinez
By Kat Bein
By Ciara LaVelle
By Travis Cohen
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Monica McGivern
By Travis Cohen
Richard Janaro, who has lived in Miami for 35 years, concurs. "There was only Coconut Grove Playhouse and Studio M in the Sixties," he recalls, pointing out that Tennessee Williams wrote Sweet Bird of Youth on a typewriter in the alley of the latter space, located at the intersection of Bird Road and Ponce de Leon, where a Jaguar dealership now sits. "With the coming of age of Miami as a film center, there are a heck of a lot of writers here now," says Janaro. "A lot of them followed the movies and television or followed their friends who were in those media, but they themselves were playwrights. A lot of them come to Writers' Alliance meetings and say, 'We've just been trying to get our toes wet in Miami, and now that we know this wonderful group is here we're going to stay.'"
In 1992, feeling isolated from fellow playwrights and frustrated by an inability to break down what she terms the "feudal-like barriers" to seeing her work produced by area theaters, Susan Westfall started the Writers' Alliance; it's an offshoot of the Theatre League of South Florida, which she also helped found one year earlier. Westfall claims that receptivity to local drama "has been a process of evolution, and I would like to think that the Theatre League and the Writers' Alliance have had an awful lot to do with that. The Writers' Alliance was brought about as an opportunity for writers to help each other in a workshop-like environment. We meet [once a month] and develop our work. We have been doing readings [in various Borders Book Shops]. Local theater producers are seeing audiences outside of Theatre League people coming to enjoy the work. I think it makes them feel a little more comfortable with taking a chance on unknown titles."
Once a theater commits to a new script, it can take months to bang a script into coherent enough shape to play well before an audience. De Acha helped shortcut that process by pairing his chosen authors with eligible directing partners. "I acted as the yenta," de Acha laughs, "marrying playwright with director." De Acha drew from a list in his mind of what he terms "early-career directors." Deborah Mello's intuition, he sensed, would complement Janaro's work about a family confronting a father's terminal illness. Paul Tei would bring a gritty street-smart sensibility to Westfall's tale of a family caught up in politics, race, and property development in Coconut Grove. Roberto Prestigiacomo's experimental bent could balance McKeever's realistic take on three couples in different stages of their relationships who huddle together during Hurricane Andrew.
The collaboration between playwright and director helped give form to each production. Mello, for example, loved Janaro's characters in Youth and Asia, but felt that the modular set the playwright had stipulated (a series of stationary platforms around which the actors would move) did not suit the script's complexity. Accordingly, Mello designed six black-and-white screens that moved on tracks across the stage, carving out different environments. "We did the adjustments together," Mello explains. "[Richard] didn't change the play without me and I didn't change it without him."
A similar fruitful give-and-take occurred between Westfall and Tei. "Paul's instincts have been wonderful," remarks Westfall, who adds that Tei came to her with suggestions for tightening the focus of Pirates. Tei explains: "The main character Liz kind of disappeared in the second act. By the time she came back, there were all these other subplots. The play was really about Liz, and we needed to get back to that." Seeing that her emotional identification with the main character was preventing a deeper development of that character, Westfall returned to her desk for a round of revisions.
Before being picked up by New Theatre, McKeever's That Sound You Hear went through a string of rewrites at the behest of folks at a reading series called Theater with Your Coffee? The series functions as a laboratory for writers, actors, and directors fashioning original work. Prestigiacomo, a driving force behind the Hollywood-based bimonthly Coffee program, knew McKeever's script well. The director had a vision of hurricane devastation in the second act that would illuminate the parallel between stormy weather and the tempestuous relationships at the heart of the script. "The nightmare," admits McKeever, "was actually showing the aftereffects of the storm. Roberto literally wanted the entire setting to shift. I was going, 'This thing isn't going to happen,' and lo and behold, he and Michael [Essad, the set designer] actually figured out a way to make it happen."
Increasingly sophisticated audiences. A high school and college training ground for playwrights. New play-reading series at almost all the major theaters. Networking venues such as the Writers' Alliance and Theater with Your Coffee? All these elements seem to have made local producers sit up and take notice of talent in their own back yard. As Janaro observes, "When places like New Theatre that are tremendously successful want to allow new voices to be heard, local writers are encouraged to keep writing. Without that support, it would be very discouraging.