Get on the Bus

If you're looking for stage action, go back to school

Local theater fans have often griped about the state of the stage here in South Florida, and readers of this column will recognize me as one of that disgruntled crew. Despite the wide array of local theater companies, the choice of shows tends to run a narrow gamut from lightweight musicals to small-cast dramas and comedies. Only a few companies venture into large-cast classical programming or difficult musicals, and fewer still do these on a regular basis. Experimental projects get even less stage time.

In fairness, many producers would love to deliver more adventurous programming. But such bold thinking can turn into a nightmare if general audiences stay away. Survival, after all, is the name of the show biz game. But a survival mentality leaves little room for creative exploration, let alone innovation. As a result, the local professional scene here tends toward competence rather than daring, leaving audiences often satisfied but rarely thrilled. This situation can result in ongoing frustration for the adventurous playgoer. But here's one offbeat solution: Go back to school.

Educational theater is one of South Florida's underreported cultural assets. Schools, colleges, and universities throughout the tricounty area regularly produce an array of solid, sometimes boldly innovative work that sadly lacks much media attention or public awareness. Yet educational theater may be the key to reviving the struggling performing arts scene in the region.

The Frogs by Stephen Sondheim at UM
COURTESY OF UM RING THEATRE
The Frogs by Stephen Sondheim at UM

Some reasons why are obvious. Schools are breeding grounds for new artists who continually replenish the stock of professional actors, directors, writers, and designers. These student-artists work for free, allowing schools to mount the large costume dramas and experimental projects that the pros dodge. And the lower ticket prices mean that people with modest means have access to affordable live performance.

But educational theater also provides hidden assets to the local environment, a creative biosphere that bears some resemblance to the natural world: Kill off the plankton and you wipe out the bigger fish that eat it. The plankton of show biz are the many small jobs that often go unnoticed by the general public -- acting in commercials and corporate training films, the once-in-a-while jobs that keep actors and directors going in between the sexier stage and film work. It's no coincidence that the major centers for theater in the United States -- Chicago, New York, Seattle, Minneapolis -- all have healthy commercial industries (and the corporations that drive them) that attract and hold a community of professional artists.

South Florida lacks this source of support. But educational theater provides another, modest alternative, as many actors, designers, and directors rely on teaching posts to balance out their professional engagements.

Academia is also an arena for artists to work on their chops. Certainly the bigger budgets afford more creative vistas for designers and composers, and directors can think about sweep and scale in their productions, often working with a freedom that most local professional theaters can only dream about.

One hotbed of theatrical activity is Miami's New World School of the Arts, which is an unusual academic combination of a magnet high school run by the Miami-Dade school system and a four-year BFA program, part of the University of Florida but administered by Miami-Dade College. New World is the region's answer to Juilliard, offering extensive training as well as study in dance, music, and visual arts. Dean of theatre Patrice Bailey has a teaching staff that includes many top local pros: David Kwiat, Bob Rogerson, James Randolph, Octavio Campos, Paul Tei, Suzie Westfall, Heath Kelts, Cynthia Caquelin, and Carlos Orizondo among them. There's also a healthy flow between the NW faculty and the students.

Tei's own company, Mad Cat Productions, often draws from New World students to fill out the younger roles in its productions. And New World graduates crop up in professional casts all over the region. In addition NW requires that each graduating college senior write, produce, direct, and perform a one-person show. "We want our students to think about creating their work, not just performing that of other people," says Bailey. The strategy has had a decided impact beyond the boundaries of NW's nine-story building in downtown Miami. Raquel Almazan's multimedia piece on feminine archetypes, She Wolves, went on to a professional run. So did April Henry's Jazz Like a Drug, which snagged her a Carbonell best actress award.

But the rich world of educational theater is not confined to downtown Miami. In Boca Raton Florida Atlantic Universityhas initiated an aggressive new push in advancing arts education. The program, headed by Jean-Louis Baldet, has been bringing in internationally acclaimed performing stars for master classes and productions. Local lights David Mann and Bridget Connors are on staff to direct some of the student productions this season.

The University of Miami is another academic beehive, the oldest college theater program in the region. UM's musical theater program has long been a strength, but recent seasons have also included strong showings in the classics and contemporary drama. Stephen Svoboda's Twelfth Night, set in a John Cheever-like 1950s, wasn't just a time transposition but articulated the play's themes of sexual confusion and homoerotic desire with more clarity than normally seen in professional productions.

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