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By Travis Cohen
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By Ciara LaVelle
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In Miami's ever-evolving cultural landscape, change is not only welcome but also required for survival. And the Miami Made Festival, bringing up-and-coming theater and dance projects to the Adrienne Arsht Center February 26 through March 3, is evolving along with its local talent. The eighth edition of the festival comprises five free shows this week, with a twist on its earlier presentations: It's branching out across Biscayne Bay, infusing one of the Miami Made events with a dose of reality television and putting it on at a South Beach hotel.
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Project Theatre, whose past performances have included flash mobs and characters with names like Connie Lingus, kicks off this year's festival with the reality TV spoof Extended Stay at the Riviera Hotel in South Beach. The immersive, interactive performance will include participation by the audience and hotel staff and will be filmed live, reality-TV-style. It's not your typical night at the theater.
Scott Shiller, executive vice president of the Arsht Center who has worked on the annual Miami Made fest since 2008, says that's exactly the point. "[When I got here,] I immediately began being immersed in the local arts groups, and one of the things I realized very early on was that Miami was really dedicated to creating new work, both in the visual arts and in performance art," he says. "It really surprised me that so much new work was being created in Miami and how audiences were responding to that new work." This focus on new work and the nourishment of new talent, he says, is what Miami Made is, well, made of.
Shiller's goal is for Miami Made to serve as a platform that opens up other opportunities for its participating artists, such as allowing them to expand to full productions here, in other major U.S. cities, and abroad. That type of success has been achieved by choreographer, dancer, and Arsht Center sweetheart Rosie Herrera, whose works were spotlighted in the 2010 Miami Made Festival, helping her win a spot in the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina; stage a premiere at the Joyce Theater in New York City in January; and attract the attention of Mikhail Baryshnikov, who recently invited Herrera and her company to perform at the Baryshnikov Arts Center. Last year's Small Membership and Beer Samplers, from writer Mark Della Ventura and Project Theatre, respectively, were both picked up to become full productions, and the artists behind those pieces will be back with new work this year.
The dance segment of this edition's lineup comes from choreographer Letty Bassart, a Miami native who says she demanded to take ballet when she was just a saucy 3-year-old. The decorated artist's Good God Go incorporates the work of five dancers, a sculptor, an actor, an animator, an illustrator, and the Hialeah Senior High School marching band. The same work, in an earlier phase, was presented at the 2010 Miami Made. "A visual image I had been working with was this idea of the 'canary in the coal mine,'" Bassart says. "So we think of the canary as the bird we send in to check for poisonous gas and who keels over, but... we are also always comparing artists and singers to canaries. So it's this kind of play on those two things and how subtle that line is, and to me it's as subtle as the difference between God and good, which is just one o."
The other shows in this year's festival are theatrical performances, staged inside the Arsht's multifaceted Carnival Studio Theater. Stuart Meltzer, artistic director of Zoetic Stage, has partnered with Zoetic cofounder Christopher Demos-Brown and a cast of celebrated Miami actors, including Todd Allen Durkin, Steve Anthony, and Arielle Hoffman, to direct a staged reading of Fear Up Harsh, a work in progress that examines the process by which the Congressional Medal of Honor, America's highest prize for valor, is awarded, and how awards generally obscure our views of reality.
Meltzer is also behind Dinner Parties (Ironic and Themed), a dramatic comedy directed by Margaret Ledford. (Meltzer's contribution this time is as a writer.) The work examines three modern couples as they struggle to remain dignified through the trials of the titular social affairs. Stars include Nicholas Richberg, Amy McKenna, and Chaz Mena.
Creative co-conspirators Mark Della Ventura and David Michael Sirois, who brought Brothers Beckett to the Arsht's Theater Up Close series in 2011 and Small Membership to the Miami Made stage last year, have collaborated with their friend Gabe Hammad to bring a dark comedy about perhaps the most universally recognized comedy killer: cancer. Two-Merz is the name of the show, in which the "two Merz" brothers (played by Della Ventura and Sirois), having just lost their father to cancer, discover they both have terminal forms of the disease as well. "It's not about making fun of the subject, but about finding ways to laugh through those problems," Sirois explains. "There's a fine line between being funny and making fun of," Della Ventura says, "and we work hard to find that balance."
The three, whose dry, modern, sitcom-like playwriting has carved them a niche in the Miami theater scene, are especially grateful for the low-pressure, workshop approach that the Miami Made creators take. "Art is a work in progress all the time, and we're constantly trying to make it better," Sirois says. "People are coming to give you feedback on something to help you make it into something bigger. That's what I like about it."
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