Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Rafael de Acha says he's taking a risk. Rather than launch the eleventh season of his Coral Gables-based New Theatre with a classic from the dramatic canon, a piece of proven contemporary theater, or a crowd-pleasing musical, instead, early this month, he debuted the New Plays Project, a showcase of world premiere scripts by a trio of South Florida playwrights. As if finding an audience for new work isn't difficult enough, de Acha programmed the six-week project -- it runs through July 14, with two weeks of full productions given to each show -- during a notoriously sluggish time of the year. All because, the artistic director claims, risks or no risks, he's committed to cultivating local voices.

"You're really going out on a tightrope by doing a new play if the playwright has no track record," de Acha contends. "There's no pedigree with the audience and no pedigree with the critics. But by seeking to do new plays, I'm trying to make an impact that will go beyond the flavor of the month. By bringing a new play by an early-career playwright to life, we not only revitalize whatever else we do at the theater, we also make some long-lasting impact on theater in a big sense, hopefully giving these plays an opportunity to have a life beyond New Theatre."

Since its inception in December 1986, New Theatre has featured at least one new work a year by either a regional or a national playwright; that includes work commissioned from Susan Westfall, whose Pirates of Tigertail (now through June 30) premieres in this year's New Plays Project. (The other offerings include Richard Janaro's Youth and Asia, which just closed, and Michael McKeever's That Sound You Hear, July 3 through 14.)

But de Acha realized that a full-fledged festival of new pieces demanded a more extensive marketing approach than the usual press-release-and-brochure campaign that might sell an original work during the rest of his season. So he sought and eventually received a grant from the Knight Foundation. "We hardly ever do any paid advertising. It's just not within our means," de Acha explains. "Most of what we do is direct mail, and then it's word of mouth and PSAs [public service announcements]. However, because we had a little bit of this funding helping us, we paid for some advertising this time. Also, by concentrating each play into a two-week run, we hope to get more density of audience instead of spreading a production out over five weeks. And to our subscribers we said, 'Hey folks, it's only ten performances, so you'd better reserve early because it's going to fill up.'"

With any luck a number of other factors might help to fill New Theatre's 60 seats. For one thing, audiences are growing increasingly accustomed to new works being presented by major theaters. A glance at schedules from Miami to Palm Beach over the course of the past year reveals numerous world premieres, several written by South Floridians, as well as new play-reading series that bring works in progress to the community. For local talent, think of Geoffrey Hassman's Neal's Garden, which opened this past June at Area Stage Company and went on to win two Carbonell Awards for the 1994-95 season. Coconut Grove Playhouse's Encore Room hosted Mama's Last Waltz by Miamian Rafael V. Blanco in the fall of 1995, followed by University of Miami professor and novelist Evelyn Wilde Mayerson's Marjory this spring. ACME Acting Company recently mounted Hollywood playwright Janyce LaPore's Ferris Wheel, while in April and May, Jim Tommaney presented his play South Beach at the EDGE/Theatre on Miami Beach and then at New River Rep in Fort Lauderdale. Tommaney also produced new works this past summer by New World School of the Arts student Adam Stuart Littman and New World faculty member Roberto Prestigiacomo; he also featured original one-person pieces by New World college seniors at the EDGE during January.

Playwright Rafael Lima knows from experience that Miami used to be infinitely less open to original drama. In fact, he fled Miami for New York City in 1988 because he could not get his work produced here. Lima saw three of his plays presented at Manhattan's Circle Repertory Company: 1988's El Salvador, 1992's Parting Gestures, and 1994's Hard Hats. Additionally, El Salvador was produced elsewhere in the U.S., as well as in Europe. Lured by Hollywood, Lima moved from New York to Los Angeles to write scripts for television's China Beach and Wise Guys, before returning to South Florida in 1994 to work on a novel and to teach play writing at the New World School of the Arts. Next year he assumes directorship of the play-writing program at New World, where students can earn high school and college degrees in the subject. "The difference in Miami from when I left to when I came back is absolutely worlds apart," notes Lima. "Now there are places to go to have your plays read. There are places to go to have them workshopped. There are more writers now in Miami who are actually staying here, living here, and not going to New York or L.A. There's an energy here that certainly wasn't here before."

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.


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