"It's astounding," says Stuart Meltzer. "When I first started working in this region, you couldn't get a new play down here. Nobody wanted to touch new work. It was, Sorry, this isn't Gypsy, this isn't Neil Simon, and we don't want to go near it.' It's interesting how much this community has grown up culturally -- and not just what [the audience] will accept, but what they go after. "
Meltzer is a mind-bendingly fabulous director -- his January production of Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Public Theatre in Plantation was one of the better things to happen to SoFla theater in recent memory -- and what he says is true. For several years now, some of the region's most successful theater has been its most daring, and this tendency is becoming only more pronounced. In seat-packing terms, the most potent production to hit Miami in the past six months was almost certainly the world premiere of Defining Code Red, by 24-year-old local Justin Koren. Square Peg Productions' unspeakably perverse Three Angels Dancing on a Needle is about to move to New York. Theater people buzz incessantly about the deep, daring, and playful work coming out of the Promethean Theatre, the Mad Cat Theatre Company, and Inside Out Theatre. Add these things together, and you've got the state of the art.
There are a handful of people we can thank for this, and City Theatre's Summer Shorts brings most of them together. Indeed City Theatre has likely been a catalyst for change.
Four women -- Stephanie Norman, Susan Westfall, Gail Garrisan, and Elena Wohl -- started the short-play festival in 1996. "It came about because Stephanie and myself and Elena were kind of frustrated with what we saw in the theater scene at the time," says Westfall, a playwright whose piece Uprising will appear in this year's festival. "We very quickly formed a company which found a location at the Ring Theatre, which was only available in the summer, and then we did this huge solicitation to figure out what kind of plays were out there in the world."
Adds Norman, the only founder still involved in City Theatre full-time: "We wanted to do new work, work that had never been done in South Florida ... and we wanted to collaborate with many other artists. So we gravitated toward the short-play format, as far as new work goes."
That was the idea, and it's still working. This is City Theatre's busiest year so far, with the company presenting its new Shorts for Kids, a sort of G-rated mirror-image of the twelve-year-old Summer Shorts Festival. The company will continue its Short Cuts program -- an abridgment of Summer Shorts that will tour schools and community venues throughout the winter and early spring -- as well as its mentorship program for high-school-age playwrights.
This summer marks City Theatre's first season at the Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, and the beginning of its partnership with the Actors Theatre of Louisville, which has produced the Humana Festival of New American Plays annually since 1976.
The Humana Festival is the nation's most prestigious of its kind. Three of its plays have gone on to win Pulitzers, and the festival has featured new work by ideology- and genre-bending writers such as Tony Kushner, Joyce Carol Oates, and William F. Buckley. Two years ago, the Humana Festival reached out to City Theatre for an exclusive partnership. Now the two run a literary office online, jointly handling more than 1200 short-play submissions annually.
"When you read 1200 plays," says Norman, "you know you've gotta be really good to get into the final list with us, the top 20 or 30. And then we just gravitate towards the best writing: Who has an interesting frame of reference, who's using language in a way we haven't done before?"
With that litmus test firmly in mind, Summer Shorts cheerfully rapes as many conventions as it can run down. Folks who attend both of this year's programs (which will run on alternating nights, save Saturdays, when they'll show back to back) will witness Michael McKeever's Splat!, directed by Norman, about the Munchkins who have to clean up the Wicked Witch of the East's remains after Dorothy disappears down the Yellow Brick Road. They'll see a ten-minute sendup of telenovelas called Donde Est Pedro Mano, by Montserrat Mendez; a play called Foul Territory, about a sorry sod at Yankee Stadium who can't help getting hit in the face by foul balls; a play titled Ron Bobby Had Too Big a Heart, by Pulitzer finalist Rolin Jones, about murderous Midwestern high school girls and the prom queens they kidnap. And they'll see ten others -- two world premieres, a Southeastern premiere, and three plays by Floridians.
The plays contain no central unifying theme, but they possess a queer unity of purpose all the same.
"Too often in South Florida," says Norman, "you get in your car, you drive somewhere, you see something, you get back in your car and go home. And there's absolutely no sense of community around that."
But community is where it's at, at least insofar as Florida's late-blooming progressive theater culture is concerned. There's some validity to the notion that the primary utility of art is in beginning interesting conversations among people who wouldn't ordinarily have anything to talk about, and Summer Shorts starts a very great many conversations -- among disparate organizations, as in its partnership with Humana; among theatergoers, when it serves them a nightly dinner (before showtime through the week, and between the two programs on Saturdays), and among artists.
From the list of folks involved in this year's Summer Shorts, many names leap out. Kameshia Duncan, Antonio Amadeo, Erik Fabregat, Bechir Sylvain, Margaret Ledford, Stu Meltzer, Paul Tei, Elizabeth Dimon, Matthew Glass, Michael McKeever, Susan Westfall -- these are among the most consistently intelligent and daring actors, directors, and writers in our corner of the world. It's difficult not to think that City Theatre's annual meeting of the minds is, in a very deep way, sustaining for the community, that those minds go forth and create independently throughout the rest of the year. And it's difficult not to believe that this commingling has been largely responsible for wedging the gap between the flabby Florida theater of old and the vibrant, progressive thing it might become. If current trends prevail, there's more to come.
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