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Joe Adler, 1940–2020: Visionary South Florida Theater Icon Dies at 79

Joseph Adler
Joseph Adler
Photo by Giulio Sciorio

South Florida theater has lost a giant. GableStage president and board chair Steven Weinger announced in a statement yesterday that Joseph Adler, the company’s longtime producing artistic director, died Thursday morning after a long battle with an undisclosed illness.

Adler was born in Brooklyn and grew up in South Florida. He returned to the Northeast to study drama at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and film at New York University before he made his way back south to breathe new life into Miami's theater scene. In 2015, he was appointed to the Dean’s Leadership Advisory Board at FIU’s College of Architecture and the Arts.

In 1998, three years after his wife, Joan Murphy Adler, died of lung cancer at the age of 55, Adler brought his thought-provoking productions to GableStage, where, for the next two decades, he tirelessly tackled the multilayered complexities of the human experience.

Adler was something of an artistic gadfly. No play or script was chosen at random. Every selection had a larger purpose. It was important to him that a play evince exceptional writing, acting, and production values but also leave the audience feeling something significant as they exited the small theater tucked away inside the Biltmore Hotel. The emotion might be anger, sadness, joy, or rage, but following a production at GableStage, you'd emerge into your day-to-day life having been deeply moved.

“I like to do plays that... feature difficult themes that are tough to deal with,” Adler once told me.

Adler always meant to provoke conversation regardless of how tough the subject matter might be.

One of many such examples was 2016’s Stalking the Bogeyman, a hard-hitting play by David Holthouse and Markus Potter whose core subject matter was child rape.

“We live in a time now where every day there’s an act of violence, and I’m hoping this play creates an opening for discussion,” Adler said at the time. “Sometimes it’s not an easy subject for audiences. But [subjects like these are] extremely relevant and important and need to be talked about more. It’s certainly rarely talked about in this way in the theater.”

Then there was the time he fought for more than two years to bring Stephen Adly Guirgis’ 2015 Pulitzer Prize-winning Between Riverside and Crazy to GableStage. The play — whose problematic issues include gentrification, addiction, and a racist white cop who shoots an unarmed black man — is presented through the eyes of complex and unpredictable characters.

"The paradoxes that exist in the action in the play are what make these characters so vivid,” Adler said of the work. "I think we can all agree that, while there have been improvements in these areas during our lifetime, we have a long way to go."

Joe Adler was a titan in the South Florida theater universe. Before he joined GableStage, he was theater director for the Coconut Grove Playhouse, New Theatre, Area Stage, Florida Shakespeare Theatre, City Theatre, Hollywood Playhouse, Shores Performing Arts, and others. During his career, he racked up more than 60 Carbonell Awards (including several for best director), a Clio, a Remy, a Silver Palm, the George Abbott Award, and the Citizens Interested in the Arts’ Champion of the Arts Award.

But beyond the accolades, titles, and awards, Adler will be remembered simply as Joe: the diminutive, sharply dressed man with a shock of white hair who stepped onstage before every GableStage production to express his gratitude for the privilege of presenting works to Miami theatergoers. He would stand before the crowd and thank audience members by name. He would breathlessly praise his cast and production staff. He would express his enthusiasm about the play the audience was about to see. And, more often than not, he would take a comedic parting shot or two at the man currently occupying the White House.

Adler had a habit of enlarging positive reviews from the various outlets that covered his productions and displaying them on the walls of GableStage. One of my lasting memories: The first time he put up one of my reviews, he eagerly sought me out in the crowd to show me that I had made his mini-wall of fame.

Joe Adler was generous with his time as well, unfailingly solicitous in his frequent emails and eager to share his enthusiasm about upcoming productions.

It’s his unbridled passion for the arts, and his overall generosity of spirit, that South Florida will miss most.

He is survived by his son, Noah Adler; and longtime partner, Donna Urban. Details regarding a service or memorial have not been disclosed.

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