When playwright Juan C. Sanchez began researching North Beach, one theme stood out to him right away. It started with a story dating back to the late Nineteenth Century: In 1876, the Biscayne House of Refuge was built in the Miami Beach neighborhood to assist shipwrecked sailors. President Ulysses S. Grant ordered construction of the abode, one of five such homes built across South Florida by the United States Life Saving Service, which would later become the U.S. Coast Guard.
“It really struck me that as far back as 1876, this neighborhood has been offering and open to refuge, accepting shipwrecked sailors who were coming from everywhere,” Sanchez says. “That led me to this whole idea that this is a place that has opened its arms to people. This is a place where you might actually have a shot at being, maybe, happy.”
Sanchez's insight into North Beach's character became the catalyst for the latest iteration of Juggerknot Theatre Company's Miami Motel Stories, an immersive theater production that uses old motels as settings for exploring the history behind various Miami neighborhoods. The North Beach production, held at the Broadmoor Hotel and directed by Ana Margineanu and Tai Thompson, will open Thursday, February 6.
Sanchez, who was born in Cuba but has lived in Miami since the age of 6, has felt a personal connection to each neighborhood the show has covered, whether because he's lived there or had experiences there. The initial idea for Miami Motel Stories came from his fascination with the old, rundown motels he saw lining Calle Ocho in Little Havana, near where he grew up. This initial spark prompted him to write a play called Paradise Motel, the story of a fictional motel’s evolution over time. When Tanya Bravo — the founder of Juggerknot Theatre Company and producer of Miami Motel Stories — read the original play, she suggested it be performed in a real motel space, and the transition to an immersive project was born. The first Motel Stories in 2017 explored Little Havana, and subsequent editions were staged in MiMo and Wynwood.
“Usually these projects are born out of something in the research that really resonates with me,” says Sanchez, who has written all four Motel Stories productions. “Then I continue researching, and if it feels like the other stuff supports what I was feeling; then I just kind of listen to what the neighborhood is telling me.” His research process includes a partnership with HistoryMiami Museum, interviews with historians and neighborhood residents, extensive reading, and time spent exploring the area for himself and talking to people.
From there, he creates fictional story lines that are rooted in the very real historical events and people from which Sanchez took a page.
“When we produce Miami Motel Stories, we really want to reflect the people, the places, what it was, what it’s becoming, and what it will be,” Bravo says. “It’s a really exciting way to get people to know neighborhoods. Because of the way it’s structured, you’re actually standing inside of someone else’s space for a moment and maybe for a second understanding them in a different way because you can see through their eyes.”
“Basically, we’re creating a playground for people to enjoy,” director Ana Margineanu says. “Every room of the building becomes another fantasy world, and it’s all very much connected to the history of this neighborhood.”
The story lines in the show introduce audiences to a variety of characters and communities that have ostensibly populated the neighborhood over the decades. There’s a honeymooning couple visiting from the Northeast in the 1950s; there are two teenage friends, one black and one white, navigating high school while dealing with the complications of busing and school desegregation in North Beach in 1972; there’s a fictionalized Andrew Cunanan, the man who murdered Gianni Versace in 1997; and a story based on the real-life Jungle Inn, a Prohibition-era speakeasy that was raided in 1921. Another character was inspired by a well-known shoe store owner whose business has been in North Beach for decades.
When buying ticket to the show, guests choose one of four tracks, each represented by a color: pink, blue, orange or yellow. Each track has a general theme (glamour, crime, home, or outsiders) and provides a different experience. “Depending on the ticket that you buy, you’ll get a different color and you’ll see a completely different show. In order to see the whole thing, you have to come here four times,” Margineanu says. Still, each track provides a rich hour-and-a-half experience, and there is some overlap among them.
“You may not go into the story that’s happening in another track, but you will encounter somebody from that track at some point and get a little bit of that story,” Sanchez explains. “That lets you know what’s happening in other areas and who populates them, so you can get a sense of all the different kinds of people that have passed through here or lived here.”
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According to Margineanu, Motel Stories is a little more interactive than some other immersive shows — actors might ask audience members to dance with them or respond to a question — though all participation is voluntary. “You can stay put and it will still be an amazing show for you to see,” she says, “but depending on your curiosity and your willingness, you can be as involved as you feel like.”
Guests are free to explore the rooms of the motel more thoroughly by opening drawers or digging through a laundry basket. That doesn’t mean, though, the experience is completely unstructured. “You have a story to watch — you’re not by yourself; you’re guided,” Margineanu says. “So you’re basically never alone. At any moment, there is somebody to help you, tell you what to do, or take you to the next place.”
For Sanchez, it’s nice to shine a spotlight on North Beach, an area that’s often in the shadow of its partying, more touristy neighbor to the south. “This particular side of the beach was really built to be a working-class neighborhood — you had your single-family homes and it was really about community,” he says, citing the area’s small-town feel that endures today. “In a lot of ways, it’s one of the neighborhoods that I really think represents home.”
Miami Motel Stories: North Beach. 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays from February 6 through 29, at the Broadmoor Hotel, 7450 Ocean Ter., Miami Beach; 305-866-1631. Tickets cost $69.99 via juggerknottheatrecompany.com.