Pulitzer Surprise

It has been a few weeks since it hit the headlines. If you haven't been paying attention, Nilo Cruz, the Cuban-born, Miami-raised, New York-based playwright, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for his lyrical Anna in the Tropics, a play that received its world premiere last fall at the teeny tiny New Theatre in Coral Gables (see "Magical Lyricism," October 24, 2002). It certainly is remarkable that Cruz, an upcoming writer who has yet to turn out a major hit, won out over three-time Pulitzer winner Edward Albee (The Goat or Who is Sylvia? ) and a New York favorite, Richard Greenberg (Take Me Out). Both the Albee and Greenberg plays enjoyed positive critical notices on Broadway -- Greenberg's is still running. What's really stunning is that Anna has only been produced in South Florida and none of the Pulitzer voters or its board saw the New Theatre's production.

Instead Anna won on the strength of the script alone. Any attempts to pass this off as a freak accident were deterred by the fact that two days before, Anna also won the nearly-as-prestigious Steinberg Award from the American Theatre Critics Association, in the process edging out the legendary Arthur Miller. This unusual situation certainly raised the hackles of the New York critical community, as Christine Dolen reported in a recent Miami Herald article. But while there is nothing new to New York bias against non-New York culture in general and Florida's in particular, the Pulitzer story has other ramifications that merit examination.

Some of the repercussions are obvious. This is the best possible public relations coup for Rafael de Acha's New Theatre, which has heretofore been struggling just to get known even in the Gables. Now suddenly the company is in the news nationwide. You can't buy that kind of notice and the short-term benefit for the New is sure to be increased ticket sales, donations, subscriptions, and public awareness. The fact that the New's 2003-2004 season features yet another Cruz premiere (three in three years) plus new works from other playwrights is another happy convergence.

The Pulitzer also gives more gloss to the ongoing image transformation that the Florida arts scene is experiencing. At the very time when the state government seems dead set on decapitating as many arts organizations as possible (a State Senate subcommittee recently voted to cut off 100 percent of state funding to over 700 groups, beginning next year), the arts community seems to be undergoing a powerful transformation. The result may be a significant shift in state identity and cultural tourism trends, despite a lack of vision and support from Tallahassee.

Only a little while ago, "recent New York hit" was just about the only way to market a show around here. But nowadays South Florida is just as likely to be the launching pad for nationally known projects. Anna is slated to be produced in major theaters across the country. Meanwhile Florida Stage in Manalapan regularly premieres plays that also tread that path, while the Coconut Grove Playhouse has sent several shows New York-bound, including Say Goodnight Gracie and Urban Cowboy. Actors' Playhouse, another Coral Gables troupe, is readying a splashy new version of Little Shop of Horrors that is also headed for Broadway after its local run. All of this is impressive but easily dismissed by cultural pooh-bahs as, well, somewhat trashy. But the Pulitzer -- that is harder to dismiss.

It isn't the former-local-boy-makes-good angle that's significant. It isn't even the local-theater-gets-lucky angle. It's what is under that. Not only did the Pulitzer-winning show start at the New Theatre, the New commissioned it. Cruz came down here and stayed in de Acha's house to write it. The company developed it, and put it in the season before it was written. In other words the New Theatre was essential to this play's existence. This underscores the new reality -- that South Florida culture, once derided as a contradiction in terms, now has a significant impact on the national scene and will in the future. It also means that Florida institutions -- government, corporate, educational, cultural -- need to rethink their relationships with the long-ignored and little-regarded arts community and, not incidentally, with the individual creative people who choose to live and work here.

No matter what else he ever does, Rafael de Acha will be known in American theater annals for making Anna in the Tropics happen and it happened here because he chooses to live here, despite the lack of support from Florida institutions. The same goes with all of the leaders here -- Joe Adler, Louis Tyrrell, Richard Simon, everybody. We get the benefit of their creativity and commitment; they get, what? Nice weather. You don't miss your water 'til the well runs dry, but what is going to keep our water from running to other wells if we don't find ways to support the creative community in Florida? Sooner or later the artists here are going to get tired of self-subsidizing their work and go where they are appreciated. That's why Nilo Cruz lives in New York. It's long past due for Florida to start recognizing the true gifts that area artists give to this community.

While the Pulitzer story was a happy interlude, it came amid a growing tide of bad news on the local stage scene. Box office appears down throughout the region. No concrete reason has been given, but many attribute the downturn to the Iraq war and the current economic doldrums. Whatever the reasons, a number of companies have released some troubling news. The Dreamers Theatre in Coral Gables reportedly will give up its space soon. The Acting Studio of Fort Lauderdale, the largest and most comprehensive private acting school in the region, has closed up shop. The studio's resident theater company will carry on in a limited fashion, co-producing Apron Strings, Michael McKeever's evening of one-acts, in collaboration with the Hollywood Playhouse. The playhouse itself teetered near collapse earlier this year. While artistic director Andy Rogow seems to have steered clear of termination, his company will move from Hollywood altogether to take up temporary residence in Fort Lauderdale.

Also on the move is Fort Lauderdale's Public Theatre, which loses its own temporary tenancy at the Fort Lauderdale Children's Theatre in a few months. Without a space lined up, this company appears headed for serious trouble. Meanwhile the Broward Performing Arts Center sits underused and despite several years of operation, lacks much brand awareness as a presenter. And all the while, instead of moving to support its beleaguered arts organizations, the City of Fort Lauderdale appears to be sitting on its hands.

One bright spot appears to be further south. The City of Miami's Arts & Entertainment Council recently released a report to Mayor Manny Diaz recommending specific areas where Miami can help its creative communities. While some of the ideas were pretty generic, some weren't: a one-stop process for city arts grants, administrative support, and fee waivers; city-produced special events; establishing an entertainment and media magnet high school; sending more students to arts performances; using city resources to brand Miami as a global arts and entertainment hub. Talk may not lead to action, but at least this talk is on the right track.

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