The $170-Million-Dollar Question

Over the years, various local theater educators, artists, and yours truly have tried to determine why Miami regards the dramatic arts as a sort of leprous beggar: pathetic enough to throw a few coins its way but too unsightly and inconsequential to develop and build up with hard, hefty cash. The most insightful explanation for this behavior was offered to me by dean of theater division Jorge Guerra of New World School of the Arts, who theorized that theater intimidated cultural poseurs, a species unfortunately thriving in these environs.

Drama is, he explained, different from the other performing arts in several ways. First of all, there's the dress code. Many people in Miami love to wear exquisite apparel and jewels. This sort of attire remains almost a prerequisite for the symphony, ballet, and opera. Theater, on the other hand, often accepts into its audience folks with jeans, T-shirts, even green hair. To achieve an effect for a stage work, sawdust might be strewn over the audience's seat, which would wreak havoc with silk Chanel suits; you won't encounter that in the symphony or opera. In many productions of Tina Howe's Coastal Disturbances, for example, a play set at the beach, sand covers the floors of the venue. No good for Gucci shoes.

Guerra, a native of a small town in Peru where clothing is simple and serviceable but art is almost magical, found Miami's values bewildering. "People go to so many things here just to see and be seen," he said. "They privately feel that if they don't have to put on gowns and diamonds, what's the point? They don't get anything else out of art."

The other part of his hypothesis concerning theater's secondary place in local cultural life involved the degree of comprehension required for the form. He said that because theater contains mostly meaning rather than meaning mixed with sound, audience members can't fake erudition. "You can say the Mozart piece was lovely and seem smart and chic while not understanding a thing about it, but it's hard to make any comment about Pirandello or Mamet unless you have some knowledge of the period and the premise."

Although I privately hoped, when I first heard this theory from Guerra two years ago, that the reasons for the mounting logistics problems theater faced in this town -- such as a lack of suitable state-of-the-art venues and large, private financial support -- eren't quite so shallow, I now wonder.

Still, I believed the future would bring change. Sadly, late-breaking news from the front just appears to get worse. The final approved plans for the Dade County Performing Arts Center, scheduled to open in 1998, brazenly demonstrate that the town sees the dramatic arts as a useless leper, unworthy of anything but a backhanded toss of the most scant tidbits. The message being sent to such masterful and hard-working theater companies as ACME and AREA Stage (who can hardly afford their rents and waste much valuable creative time on frustrating searches for affordable space) is clear: If you can't stay open under adverse conditions, then don't. Head out of town, for all we care.

The simple facts speak volumes:
1. The complex will cost $170 million.

2. It will house a 1900-seat symphony hall and a 2480-seat opera house.
3. Within the inner doors of the opera house will be a 250-seat theater space to be shared by the many companies in the area.

4. Of the cost, $8 million -- a little over 20 percent of the total -- will be given to various existing venues, such as the Gusman, the Actors' Playhouse, and various community theaters such as Goodlet Park in Hialeah. ACME, on the other hand, gets nothing from these funds. Sure, if the company wants to get on a long list and rent the Performing Arts Center theater space for a week or so, it can, but at no discount.

And people ask me why theater here isn't growing more quickly?
Let's face it: "Show business" as a term consists of two words, the latter one referring to finance. A play with a $5000-budget may sacrifice proper sets, lights, costumes, and the quality of performers. With $50,000 the possibilities increase. In the real world, wood for stage sets is expensive, and actors need to eat from time to time. Denying these facts and blaming the artists for not coming through with excellence when paltry sums are offered for talent and craft is an atrocity.

For those who love the theater, remember that any action is better than doing nada. The performing arts complex may have been approved, but the buildings aren't standing yet. We should insist on more space and money for the dramatic muse. What about a cutting-edge, 300 to 400-seat theater, perfect for a hypothetical South Florida Repertory Company, a dream long held by numerous local thespians. How about the restoration and/or construction of at least five venues to house our more skilled groups, using Arts Center funds to make the overhead costs manageable? Do we want drama in Dade to stagnate and wither, or to develop? If progress is the aim, now is the time to bitch and moan and petition so often that theater receives its rightful place among the other developing arts in Dade County -- not as a beggar but as a king who demands of his subjects not cultural pretense but cultural evolution.

Stage Notes
When I lived in New York and London, I believed that residing in any other location meant falling off the end of the world. During my past half-decade in Miami, I've been humbled. Having seen some great local theater and made many witty, enlightened friends, I now see how narrow my vision of the world once was. But I stumbled into the same arrogant pattern again recently when I was invited by David Spangler -- an excellent South Florida director and ex-artistic head of the Drama Center in Deerfield Beach -- to attend a special three-week theater training program for students ages thirteen to nineteen from all over the world. During the course time, students write, produce, and star in their own original musical. The catch? The program, called the Lovewell Institute for the Creative Arts, takes place in Salina, Kansas.

Go to Salina, Kansas, I thought? Will Toto come, too? Is there a library there and can people use it?

Of the 47 students, I knew that several originated from New World, Dillard High School, and Broward Community College, so at least I wouldn't be alone in the land of combines, cattle, and lately, of busted levees. Therefore I consented to go and see. What I did not know was that Lovewell is the most progressive program ever offered to train young people in the art of theater and in the art of getting along with other people in theater. Further, the town of Salina supports the program totally, censors nothing, and encourages development and exploration in the arts. During my too-brief stay, I met some of the most interesting folks I've ever encountered; witnessed the Lovewell students write, revise, and craft highly imaginative stage concepts; enjoyed hospitality of an almost saintly nature; and received the two biggest thrills of my life: no one locked their doors, and no one honked their horns. It's possible, I concluded, to be creative and progressive and kind all at the same time.

Approximately half of the student body receives a scholarship to cover the nearly $1000 cost (including airfare, meals, and lessons). Within the intense working period, in which days typically run from 8:00 a.m. to midnight, students learn about acting, staging, writing, and collaboration by becoming immersed in the process. The hands-on experience culminates in two weekend performances, heartily attended by the Salinans.

With the help of seventeen staff members, many from South Florida, Spangler (originally a native of Salina) turns wanna-be's into working professionals. "Lovewell made theater a part of my soul," said one seventeen-year-old, who has come to Kansas from Miami two summers in a row.

Students benefit in numerous practical ways, not the least being that Spangler brings in heavyweight guests to advise them. This year celebrated composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin) and Fifi Oscard, one of the top New York talent agents, came to the August 6 and 7 performances and answered questions from the eager apprentices.

"I considered creativity to be an endangered state of mind and decided someone had to encourage it among young people, to not be afraid of it," Spangler said, explaining why he founded Lovewell four years ago. Fortunately, the town of Salina agreed, and donated local theater space and subsidized dormitory housing.

If you have a child who might benefit from the Lovewell program, contact David Spangler at 565-5113 and leave a message.

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Roberta Morgan