By Monique Jones
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By Liz Tracy
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By Michael E. Miller
The word juggernaut means "an overpowering force," and appropriately the artistic director of Juggerknot Theatre Company, Tanya Bravo, is tapping into the powerful force of theater by pushing limits -- both artistic and geographic.
On the 67th block of Biscayne Boulevard, there's more than one craft being fine-tuned: The area is cluttered with pay-by-the-hour motels and strip clubs; the sidewalk is a broken-down runway for Daisy Duke-clad booties, coarsely veined forearms, and hair sculptures reminiscent of the Japanese art of bonsai. But on a Saturday night in early December, senior citizens in neatly pressed pantsuits and dapper sport coats maneuvered their way between the whores and the pimps who populate this opaque underworld. No bother. They have people to see and places to be. They're going to the theater.
"Several people said to me: “Why are you going to do a show there? Nobody's going to venture into that neighborhood to see theater,'" explains Bravo. But people are coming. In fact Juggerknot Theatre Company's four-week run of Neil Labute's Bash played to consistently full houses. "The last two weeks of the show [were] amazing," Bravo gushes. "Over 80 percent of the audience was over 50. Our mailing list has quadrupled. They came from as far as Palm Beach County. The idea that older audiences want to see some hunky-dory musical is a misconception. If you put good theater out there, people will come."
While it is not uncommon for artists to plunge into the core of a city's urban area in search of renewal, it is particularly notable in Miami, a city that is more image than urban. Not having a permanent home, Juggerknot resides for the most part in the Drama 101 space on Biscayne. Juggerknot was both philosophically and geographically inspired by Bravo's trips to New York, where small theater companies abound. "There's something about this atmosphere," she says. "It's like when you're in the East Village, and you go down into this alley and then off into a little dungeon. You wonder, Where am I going? This is dark, this is creepy, but there's something exciting about it. We do alternative theater, and this is an alternative space."
But what makes Juggerknot edgy is not simply its locale. From multimedia presentations of Mamet to Beckett evenings to original productions by local writers, Bravo consistently chooses material that is often dark and always challenging. "Tanya has an amazing instinct. Her interests are very specific. This is one of the keys to being a successful artistic director, and few people have it. I also think that it's this kind of energy that draws audiences and actors to Juggerknot," says Michael John Garces, a playwright, actor, and director based in New York whose South Florida premiere of his one-man show, Agua Ardiente, was produced by Juggerknot. Garces recently directed the Coconut Grove Playhouse's Praying with the Enemy and performed Agua Ardiente at Oye Rep's debut.
Bravo's gutsiness and instinct come in part from her own experience as an actress. "When I first started out acting with Counterforce Actors' Studio, we did the kind of shows where the spotlight is on you," she explains. "There's a bare stage, and you save yourself. It's you and the audience and the energy that you create, and you don't have any fancy lights or fancy set to hide behind. It's just very bare bones. I think the audience wants to feel that connection with people on the stage." (Since then Bravo has performed to critical acclaim at the Caldwell Theatre, New Theatre, Area Stage, and other South Florida venues.)
Juggerknot was founded in 1998 under the artistic vision of Bravo and Paul Tei (now artistic director of his own theater company, Mad Cat). Bridge Theatre donated the risers and the lights. Ricky J. Martinez, a local actor and playwright, helped Bravo paint the black box theater space that seats about 50. Martinez's A Bed in Heaven was the first work Juggerknot produced. "We invited several of the artistic directors -- Mario Ernesto Sanchez, Rafael de Acha, Joe Adler," says Bravo, "and they came. Since then they have been extremely supportive of what we're doing." In 1999 Tei left, and local actress and singer Elda Brauwer took over the role of managing director. Performing the important task Bravo calls "the math stuff," Brauwer has a business savvy and artistic background that have been indispensable to the company's recent success.
One of the most important components of Juggerknot's mission is to serve as a refuge for local actors between shows, a place they can experiment with new roles as actors but also learn new skills. A prime example is actor Ken Clement, who recently starred in Mad Cat's production of Helluva Halloween. Bravo gave him the script for Bash and asked him to direct the show. Bash is three one-act plays by Neil Labute (known mostly for his films, such as In the Company of Men and Your Friends and Neighbors): Iphigenia in Orem, starring Chuck Pooler; A Gaggle of Saints, starring Robert Maxwell and Samara Siskind; and Medea Redux, starring Pamela Roza. With themes ranging from gay-bashing to baby murders, the plays gave the cast members the opportunity to prove their ability to push the line between cruelty and vulnerability. "All the actors are incredibly versatile," says Bravo. "They have that edge where they can flip like that. One minute you feel sorry for them and the next you hate them."