Mastermind 2014 Finalist: Stephanie Ansin Lures Miami Back to the Theater with Original Productions and Hard Work

Miami New Times' Mastermind Awards honors the city's most inspiring creatives. This year, we received more than 100 submissions, which our staff narrowed to an elite group of 30, and finally, nine. We'll be profiling those finalists in the days to come. This year's three Mastermind Award winners will be announced February 27 at Artopia, our annual soiree celebrating Miami culture. For tickets and more information, visit the website.

The lights are low, the theater is silent, and footsteps echo behind the heavy curtain like firecrackers in the distance. The theater holds just one spectator: the director.

Stephanie Ansin sits behind a desk covered in pages bleeding yellow and scribbled with stage directions. As she agonizes over the show, Ansin always tries to keep one phrase in mind: "An amazing actor can overcome everything else."

Inspiring a new wave of remarkable local thespians has been Ansin's mission since she returned to Miami a decade ago and helped spark a theater renaissance in her hometown.

See also: Mastermind 2014 Finalist: Otto Von Schirach is a Weirdo, But He's Miami's Weirdo

The 42-year-old grew up in Coral Gables but left after high school to pursue an acting career in New York. She spent 14 years studying, acting, and directing in both the Big Apple and Boston, eventually snagging two Ivy League theater degrees from Brown and Columbia. She surprised her acting colleagues by moving back to Miami with the intention of reviving a waning art in South Florida.

Ansin wanted a project that could inspire budding young artists while also debuting original, envelope-pushing works. It's a delicate balance, but it's exactly what she pulled off with her company, the PlayGround Theatre. The company focused on shows aimed at kids that adults could also enjoy, and the equation brought in crowds and accolades, including a Silver Palm Award last year for Outstanding Staging and Production for Three Sisters.

See also: Mastermind 2014 Finalist: Kevin Arrow Catalogues Miami's Strange History Through Strange Things

In the fall 2012 season, Ansin changed her company's name to the Miami Theater Center, but the mission remains unchanged. In addition to giving audiences a fresh slate of original shows, Ansin's crew runs camps for both kids and adults, spreading her love for stagecraft to a new Miami generation.

Ansin's latest production, which she wrote and directs, is among her most ambitious. Titled Everybody Drinks the Same Water, it's a medieval murder mystery that takes place in 13th-century Spain. When residents of Córdoba, famous for its religious tolerance, discover their water supply has been poisoned, the Christians, Muslims, and Jews living there aren't entirely amicable anymore.

The show, which debuts this spring, ticks all the boxes that have made Ansin such a dynamic force on Miami's theater scene.

"I look for something that gives me visual inspiration, something that I can see images in my head, something that I can feel has a dynamic physical life, and something that I want to live with for a year or two," she says.

Ten years after returning to Miami, Ansin knows the scene still has miles to go to catch up to some of the East Coast's illustrious theater meccas.

"There's a lack of tradition," she observes. "People aren't used to going to the theater here, and in other cities it's just a thing that people think about, like 'What can we do this weekend? What's going on at the theater?' Going to the theater is not top of the mind for most people in Miami."

But that doesn't mean a shift isn't happening -- or that the Miami Theater Center isn't right at the center of it all. "It's starting to become exciting," Ansin says.

Wanna see more MasterMinds? At Artopia, sponsored by Miracle Mile and Downtown Coral Gables, you can check out work by 2014's ten MasterMind award finalists and watch as the three Mastermind Award winners are announced. And that's just the beginning. Artopia will also include live entertainment by Bottle & Bottega, CircX, and Flamenco Puro; local art by Tesoro Carolina, Trek 6, 8 Bit Lexicon, Hec One Love, Ivan Roque, and Jay Bellicchi; and DJ sets by Main Event Productions, Phaxas, Golden San, Skinny Hendrix, and DJ Supersede. Other sponsors include Rums of Puerto Rico (Official Rum sponsor), Car2Go, El Palacios de los Jugos, Beck's (official beer sponsor), and Vero Water (official water sponsor). Early bird tickets are available through Feb. 2. Visit the official Artopia website.

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Carolina del Busto is a freelance writer for Miami New Times. She nurtured her love of words at Boston College before moving back home to Miami and has been covering arts and culture in the Magic City since 2013.