Scene: Two actresses are seated at a table in a theater located in a rundown part of town that is undergoing aggressive gentrification. Male artists scurry around, removing pieces of artwork from the building and contributing to the air of general disarray. The women are distraught. Their theater/art production group, ART-ACT, is being evicted and they have had to cancel this weekend's performance of Tiny Tim Is Dead, a benefit for a local homeless shelter. The actors would have portrayed a group of street people staging Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The irony is perhaps intentional.
"I never thought we'd meet up again, especially out here," reads Tara Parks from the script. "You're the last person ought to be on the street." J.C. Carroll, artistic director of ART-ACT, flushes and her eyes well up. For most of the afternoon, she will remain on the verge of tears. She has tried to jump-start a theater company at least five times in Miami. Her present landlord, Dacra Development Corp., has provided her with free venues on two prior occasions. Both times she was abruptly asked to leave when the developers needed the space.
For Miami's small avant-garde theater companies, evictions are predictable dramatic standards, the sound of an empty cash box their postmodern take on The Sound of Music. Because ticket sales for experimental theater are usually insufficient to cover rent and other expenses, companies are forced to rely on government grants and the limited largess of their landlords.
When ART-ACT moved into the Miami Design District last November, Carroll says that Dacra agreed to waive the first six months of rent, based on the belief that the actors and artists would improve the image of the neighborhood. It's an evolving area of once-neglected shops and interior design showrooms bordered by a zone of industrial warehouses to the south and by State Road 112 to the north. Later Craig Robins, the president of Dacra, agreed to charge Carroll $500 a month plus utilities for a space Robins estimates is worth $2000.
But Carroll was unable to meet even the reduced rent. Despite positive reviews for theater and art shows, audiences stayed away. "Can you imagine what it's like when the cast outnumbers the audience?" Carroll asks. "And you're going to the coffee shop around the corner and saying, 'Come in! Come see the show for free!'"
Sympathetic to the plight of other artists and actors who lacked their own venue, Carroll would lend her space to them at little or no charge. "I don't turn anyone away," she declares. "People approach me for shows, and I try to accommodate everyone. It's a weird psycho mission of mine." In the past year ART-ACT has been home to the an erotic art show, the QueeRoots/QueerSpace festival, a Haitian drama, open-mike poetry readings, screenings of local videos, and jam sessions by local bands.
"She was definitely filling a void," asserts Juan Cejas, artistic director of the newly opened Florida Shakespeare Theater at the Biltmore Hotel and founder of the ACME Acting Company, a critically acclaimed local company that went out of business last summer, sunk by more than $13,000 in debt. "The stuff that J.C. produces is really, truly experimental work, and it gives people an opportunity to create works of art with no consideration for mass appeal. They create art for art's sake, and I don't think you can say that of any other group in town. There's no other place that has an open door policy for experimental artists. If I won the Lotto on Saturday, I'd pay her rent because what she was doing was really worthwhile."
Ironically, the value of Carroll's work is reflected most in the rising rents that she can't afford to pay. In a pattern of development that has now become a cliche, artists reclaim forgotten neighborhoods, finding affordable space in the neglected buildings and inspiration in the squalor. They bring a cachet, create a buzz, and attract real estate speculators. "It's historically typical," Cejas observes. "ART-ACT was one of the first groups to be priced out of the Beach, and once again it's happening in the Design District. She was one of the first pioneers, and she is also one of the first victims."
Together with his brother Scott, Craig Robins owns more than half a dozen buildings in the Design District as well as large chunks of South Beach, including a prime parcel along Lincoln Road. He rents that space to the Florida Arts Center at below-market rates. He also provides subsidized studios to artists at the Art Center on Espanola Way. So Robins bridles at the suggestion that he cynically supports artists in order to increase his real estate profits. "There are two extremes [in the philosophy of real estate development]," he proclaims. "There's a person who says I want to make money because I build a house and sell it, and there's another who says I want to invest my time and money into my community because ultimately I'm going to have a more profitable business. I would salute that latter approach rather than attack it, because most people have a short-term view."
As for playing Scrooge in evicting ART-ACT two weeks before Christmas, Robins points out that for the entire year he rented to Carroll he received exactly $339. "We were paying her water bills and electric bills and sewage bills," he complains. "I'm happy that we supported her, and I'm not upset that we didn't get our money, but I just felt that enough was enough."
Robins says that his other tenants complained that ART-ACT made too much noise and that were people living illegally at the theater. He questions why Carroll went ahead and planned the homeless benefit for December when she knew that her lease had expired in November and that she had not been paying rent.
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"He gave me his word that he wouldn't evict me," Carroll counters, explaining that she had been in the process of securing a city grant for facade improvements that Robins had agreed to apply to her rent. "I would have loved to pay him rent every month, but I couldn't. That's why I tried to find other ways to do it." She says Robins gave her no notice whatsoever, despite their personal relationship, which dates back to the late Eighties.
On that point Robins disagrees. He maintains she was informed about the impending eviction many times. He admits that he encouraged her to apply for the grant, but says that conversation took place last spring. "I think J.C. has good intentions, but she never does what she says she is going to do. At what point do you draw the line?"
ART-ACT's eviction reminds Ralph de la Portilla of the uncertainty facing his own theater company, 3rd Street Black Box. De la Portilla was given free space by the owners of San Villa Oriental Restaurant, who saw the group's performances as a way to boost a flagging business and attract diners to Miami's deserted downtown. "They need not give us any notice [of eviction]," de la Portilla acknowledges. "We always have to walk on eggshells. But that's just the state of theater, the most neglected art form in this city."
For Nancy Gomez, vice president of Next Stage, another experimental theater group with a benevolent landlord, ART-ACT's misfortunes might present an opportunity for both companies. Like ART-ACT, Next Stage was given virtually free space in a vacant storefront on Biscayne Boulevard and 71st Street with the understanding that the group will soon start paying a regular $500 monthly rent. In the meantime Next Stage is searching for like-minded artists who want to share the space. So far they have found no takers. Maybe ART-ACT would be interested?