Theater is by nature ephemeral. Companies endure or vanish, and the shows they put on open and close, living on only in the memories of the artists and audiences who shared each production.
Lately in South Florida, theater has felt a little too ephemeral. This dispiriting trend began with the shuttering of the debt-burdened Coconut Grove Playhouse at the end of its 50th anniversary season in 2006. In June 2011, Florida Stage abruptly went belly up, massive debt again the problem. Last March, Davie’s smaller Promethean Theatre shut down after eight seasons.
And now, another major loss. On Tuesday, the Caldwell Theatre Company’s $10 million Count de Hoernle Theatre on Federal Highway in Boca Raton will be sold in an online foreclosure auction. The theater building, which isn’t quite five years old, sits on 1.5 acres and is being sold to satisfy a $6.75 million foreclosure judgment in favor of mortage holder Legacy Bank of Florida.
In truth, the Caldwell ended its 37-year run as an important, influential South Florida theater company after its production of the musical Working closed on April 1. Sure, there were hopes that donors keep one of the region’s oldest companies from disappearing. But that didn’t happen. The Caldwell is toast. And that matters.
Artistic director Michael Hall and designer Frank Bennett started the Caldwell in 1975. Rubbermaid founder James R. Caldwell had retired to Boca Raton, and he persuaded Hall to relocate to a place which then had very little in the way of professional theater.
Hall retired as artistic director in 2009. Responding to questions via email, he looks back with pride, nostalgia and the tiniest hint of sorrow when asked about his artistic offspring.
From the beginning, he and Bennett (joined by company manager Patricia Burdett) aimed to create ensemble productions, with Bennett contributing striking sets, costumes and props with perfect period detail. Producing in four different theater spaces throughout the theater’s history, Hall observes, “we weren’t afraid to tackle large-cast period plays like Somerset Maugham’s Our Betters in 1977, and later The Little Foxes, The Royal Family, A Few Good Men and Fortune’s Fool … we put a lot of theater folks to work.”
In fact, the Caldwell became a vital employer and nurturer of South Florida theater talent. Those American theater classics, later mixed with cutting-edge contemporary plays and some new works, provided decent pay for union actors and designers while building a loyal audience. Actors Barbara Bradshaw, Peter Haig, Pat Nesbit, John Felix, Tom Wahl, Elizabeth Dimon, Kim Cozort, Kenneth Kay, Terry Hardcastle, Dennis Creaghan, Harriet Oser, Angie Radosh and so many more became part of a loose-knit Caldwell rep company, appearing in play after play.
Bradshaw, a multiple Carbonell winner, was with the Caldwell from the beginning, becoming its frequent leading lady. Of Hall she says, “If I ever had a mentor that I owe everything to, from the time I was 23, it’s Michael Hall.”
When he thought she was ready, Hall gave her lead roles in The Heiress, Candida, Hedda Gabler, The Philadelphia Story, The Rainmaker and other theater classics.
“I did every single show for the first four or five seasons,” she says. “What it was, in many respects, was a library theater of the great plays.”
The loss of the Caldwell, she adds, is huge.
Through the years and three moves, Hall expanded the Caldwell’s artistic profile. Martin Sherman’s Bent, a Broadway hit about gay Germans sent to a concentration camp, was a controversial choice that became a smash. The director staged more than 150 plays including The Laramie Project, The Normal Heart, Falsettoland, Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde and other gay-themed work. He also produced recent-vintage Off-Broadway plays on a variety of subjects and such attention-grabbing shows as John deGroot’s Papa, starring Broadway veteran Len Cariou as Ernest Hemingway.
Clive Cholerton, the Caldwell’s second and last artistic director, pushed the company even more strongly in the direction of contemporary and new work when he took over in 2009. He started with a world premiere dance-theater piece ( Vices: A Love Story) and moved on to The Whipping Man, Clybourne Park (which played the Caldwell before winning the Pulitzer Prize), The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity, After the Revolution and other hot titles. He also produced two world premieres by Davie-based Michael McKeever ( Dangerous and the Carbonell-winning Stuff), whose comedy Suite Surrender premiered during Hall’s last season.
Cholerton is reluctant to pin the Caldwell’s demise on the financial burden created by its last home. He believes the theater’s traditional audience has shifted farther north in Palm Beach County, where Dramaworks now has 4,300 subscribers and the Maltz Jupiter Theatre has 7,520. He wanted, he says, to “get ahead of the demographic curve that was happening in Palm Beach County” and appeal to younger theatergoers. Though Cholerton’s choices and productions were often quite fine, that hoped-for audience growth didn’t happen.
“I spent three years soul searching and not sleeping much,” says Cholerton, adding, “There’s no talk of bringing it back.”
Playwright McKeever calls the loss of the Caldwell and Florida Stage devastating.
“The stability that they gave so many South Florida actors, designers and directors has vanished,” says McKeever, one of the founders of Zoetic Stage. “It has impacted me the most as a playwright. The Caldwell and Florida Stage were two top-of-the-line theaters that really embraced new work. Having them in my backyard was tantamount to winning the lottery.”
Gregg Weiner, a Carbonell-winning actor who appeared in three Caldwell productions under Cholerton’s, had faith in the artistic director’s vision.
“He picked brave pieces. I saw him fighting tooth and nail, every single day, to try to make that theater whole again and make it work,” he says.
Yet the actor, who has worked at many of South Florida’s best theater companies, says that if not for a recurring role on the made-in-Miami STARZ series Magic City and his voiceover work on telenovelas, he might be thinking about leaving South Florida. Promethean, Florida Stage and the Caldwell were all on his resume, and they’re gone. Other talented South Florida actors feel the same way.
Hall, though, hopes that theater entrepreneurs will look to the Caldwell’s beginnings and see opportunity: “It is my hope that the demise of the Caldwell will not discourage future theater lovers and artists, but instead [will] encourage them to take chances and create living theater whenever and wherever a space becomes available. ‘Revival’ is a treasured word in the American theater!”
Christine Dolen is The Miami Herald’s theater critic.