As both Artistic Director and resident director of Actors’ Playhouse, David Arisco can claim the one thing most denizens of the theater world only dream of: a steady gig. An opportunity that arose purely by chance has now stretched into a 27 year tenure at one of Miami's most prominent regional theaters, a career that practically parallels the rise and development of the Playhouse itself.
“I’m a really fortunate person to be able to make my living in the theater 52 weeks a year,” Arisco says. “It’s a blessing to work with such talented people and to be able to exercise my passion.”
Married 22 years to wife Maureen, Arisco, 59, still resides in West Kendall where he helped raise the couple’s four children – each of whom are currently involved in the arts – and continues to care for a diverse pet menagerie that includes five Chihuahuas. As formidable as that task may seem, it’s his role at the playhouse that commands most of his time. He’s not only responsible for selecting the six shows the theater produces each season, but also for casting, directing and overseeing every aspect of each production. Artistic directors usually aren’t involved in that much multi-tasking, but Arisco’s efforts have clearly paid off. Actors’ Playhouse now boasts more than 2,100 season subscribers, a budget of $3.2 million and a reputation as one of Florida’s leading regional theaters.
A graduate of the University of Connecticut with a degree in music and theater, Arisco began his career by teaching high school drama in Connecticut for three years before relocating to New York City. “I thought to myself, ‘Here I am stuck in east Podunk,” he recalls. “I always wanted to try my luck at acting, so at the age of 26, I decided to give it a try.”
After endless auditions and slugging it out in Manhattan for seven years, Arisco had yet to land a role in a national touring company or make his big breakthrough on Broadway. So when, in 1988, he drove south to visit his parents in the Florida Keys, he stopped just long enough to audition for a production of “Man of La Mancha” at the fledgling Actors’ Playhouse, which was then taking root at a former movie theater in a West Kendall strip mall. Arisco not only got the part, but also inherited the directing duties when the original director quit after three days of rehearsals. Up until then, he’d only directed a few off-off Broadway showcases and some student productions.
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“I was getting $240 a week for the part,” Arisco chuckles. “I told Barbara and Lawrence (Stein, the theater’s executive director and chairman of the board, respectively) that if you double my salary I would do it. It turned into my professional theater directing debut.”
On the show’s opening night, Arisco got back in his car and returned to New York. A few days later the Steins called and offered him a permanent job as the budding theater’s artistic director. “I had nothing to hold me in New York,” Arisco remembers. “My rent was going up, I didn’t have a serious relationship, and nothing was happening there, so I packed my car, sold my remaining possessions and decided to give it three years to see what would happen. The rest, as they say, is a lifetime.”
Arisco’s been at the artistic helm ever since, slowly relinquishing his acting chores to focus entirely on developing his directing skills. “It wasn’t intended that I would direct every show,” Arisco concedes, "but it did ensure consistency. I didn’t want to hire different directors and then leave open the possibility that the quality of the shows would deviate. There was also the cost involved. Besides, as an actor, singer and musician myself, I relate to these actors and what they do. It’s like being a coach of a baseball team. It’s sixty percent psychology. You gotta know what you’re doing, but you also have to know how to deal with people and how to get the best out of them. I always felt good about being able to do that.”
The theater’s grown considerably since its formative years in West Kendall. After Hurricane Andrew blew its roof off, the company struggled to find an audience in the midst of its rebuilding. In 1995, it relocated to Coral Gables and took over the shuttered movie theater on Miracle Mile. Actors’ Playhouse has been evolving ever since, securing major corporate sponsorships, launching several world premieres and winning its fair share of the local theater community’s highly coveted Carbonell Awards. With a 600 seat mainstage theater, a 300 seat balcony theater, and an occasional black box space that seats 150, it’s garnered belated – and sometimes begrudging – respect from local critics. It’s also accumulated major kudos for Arisco himself, including the George Abbott Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Arts and the Richard G. Fallon Award for Excellence in Professional Theatre, both coming courtesy of the Florida Theatre Association.
I find it hard to let go,” Arisco responds when asked the reasons he dominates the director’s chair, "when I close that door of the rehearsal room, that’s when I’m the happiest.”