Expect provocative theater, classics and new work when the Coconut Grove Playhouse comes back

Long after closing abruptly during its 50th anniversary season in 2006, one of South Florida’s cultural treasures literally got a new lease on life last week. Miami-Dade County and Florida International University reached a 50-year lease agreement with the state of Florida, effectively saving the beleaguered Coconut Grove Playhouse.

Now what? What can theater lovers expect when the place that launched the American premiere of Samuel Beckett’s absurdist classic Waiting for Godot in 1956 finally comes back to life?

Having sat dormant for more than seven years, the 1926 Mediterranean Revival building, with its Broadway-sized 1,130-seat theater, isn’t going to reopen tomorrow or next year or even the year after that. Though the façade of the historic building may be retained, when the Coconut Grove Playhouse is reborn, it will likely be as a 300-seat, state-of-the-art theater. That new building would become home to South Florida’s much-honored GableStage, in partnership with FIU and the county. And it must be built first, in a process that inevitably won’t go as quickly as folks eager for the return of theater to Coconut Grove would like.

Among the steps to be taken soon are executing an operating agreement between GableStage and the County Commission, and putting out the competitive bid requests required to assemble the team (architectural and engineering firms, theater consultants, acousticians, historic-preservation experts) that will create a 21st Century version of the playhouse, said Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade’s Department of Cultural Affairs.

If plans for GableStage to become Coconut Grove’s resident professional theater are approved (an operating agreement between the theater and the county will soon be negotiated), future theatergoers will see shows that are far more similar to GableStage’s edgy, award-winning fare than to the more mainstream plays and musicals (many star-driven, with large casts) that dominated the playhouse lineup for so many years.

The programming shift is partly a matter of scale. Many shows that fit in the large theater, such as the pre-Broadway tryout of Urban Cowboy or the Jimmy Buffett-Herman Wouk musical Don’t Stop the Carnival, would be too big and costly for a 300-seat space. But it also has to do with the kind of theater that speaks to Joseph Adler, producing artistic director at GableStage, and with the role he believes the Coconut Grove Playhouse should play in South Florida’s theater community.

“I still want to be the kind of theater we are,” says Adler, in his 16th season leading GableStage at Coral Gables’ Biltmore Hotel. “We’re hoping to do the kind of work we’ve always done: exciting contemporary theater that will be evocative and provocative. ... But this makes it possible to do bigger, more ambitious things.”

The 150-seat GableStage has established an impressive track record during its first 15 seasons, winning eight Carbonell Awards for best production of a play and two for best production of a musical. The Carbonells are South Florida’s top theater awards, honoring productions and artists in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Though some of the eligible companies have larger spaces or budgets (or both) than GableStage, for each of those “best” productions, Adler won the Carbonell as best director.

During its long history, the Coconut Grove Playhouse featured numerous stars, from Tallulah Bankhead in A Streetcar Named Desire to Kathleen Turner in Tallulah, from Hal Holbrook in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman to Jack Klugman and Tony Randall in Neil Simon’s The Sunshine Boys. Star names, of course, help when a theater has lots of tickets to sell.

GableStage isn’t star-driven at all, though the company did present Sharon Gless, former star of Cagney & Lacey and Burn Notice, in A Round-Heeled Woman in 2011. Instead, the majority of the actors and designers who work there are based in South Florida, a key element of the way Adler believes a major regional theater should function.

“We want the Coconut Grove Playhouse to be one of the most important regional theaters in the country — a flagship theater,” Adler says. “It can have a profound effect on everything happening [in theater] here, and let the rest of the country know about the talented theater artists who live here.”

GableStage has taken a step toward that more influential future by co-producing Miami playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s new version of William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra with the Royal Shakespeare Company and New York’s Public Theater. The production runs through Feb. 9 at Miami Beach’s Colony Theater, which is closer in size to the reimagined Coconut Grove Playhouse. Adapted, directed and driven by efforts of McCraney, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner, the production has helped raise GableStage’s profile on the national and international stage.

Typically, a number of Adler’s choices show up on American Theatre magazine’s annual list of the most-produced plays in the country. In recent years, those productions of hot titles from Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional theaters have included David Ives’ Venus in Fur, David Lindsay-Abaire’s Good People, Amy Herzog’s 4000 Miles, John Logan’s Red, Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still, Stephen Adly Guirgis’ The Motherf**ker With the Hat, and Lynn Nottage’s Ruined. Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop and Christopher Durang’s Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike are still to come this season.

The plays that speak to Adler and to the audience he has built over 15 seasons are challenging, provocative, sometimes controversial. Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman follows the travails of a writer suspected of a series of child murders. Sarah Kane’s war-torn Blasted destroys the hotel-room set and the couple who occupy it. Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Ruined is an unsettling, deeply moving look at the war on women in the Congo. GableStage’s productions of all three won best play Carbonells.

Still, Adler hasn’t been able to do everything he’d like to at GableStage, given its small size and limitations. Though the company has thrived and built a loyal audience in its quarters at the elegant Biltmore, the former meeting room that is its home lacks a theater’s wings, fly space and backstage area. At the new Coconut Grove Playhouse, he says, he would like to do larger musicals and plays, classics and new work that could have a life beyond South Florida.

Programming in the new space won’t be limited to GableStage productions, though. Adler already has a history of turning his theater over for play readings, performances by new theater companies, jazz concerts and other events. The partnership with FIU may lead to student performances, lectures and more.

“The underlying vision is theater education, using creative energy to engage the community,” says Brian Schriner, dean of FIU’s College of Architecture + The Arts. “We’d like to be involved in the performing and visual arts [through the Coconut Grove Art Festival], have student internships, conferences, lectures, exhibitions. And we hope to move toward creating a master of fine arts degree in theater.”

Marilyn Skow, the retiring head of FIU’s theater department, sees the link between FIU’s future master’s program and the professional company at the playhouse as vital.

“I’d also like to see the educational company that used to tour to area schools re-formed under the Coconut Grove Playhouse umbrella,” she says. “And I would hope there would be a studio theater space in the new building, so we could showcase the work that our students now do here — a different type of audience would go to the playhouse.”

From the time the Coconut Grove Playhouse closed in 2006, Spring and his department have been instrumental in taking the steps necessary to save the theater. Spring has talked in detail with Adler about expanding GableStage’s board of directors, staff, budget and programming. Though Adler is the only leader GableStage has had, Spring says succession planning is part of the equation too.

“It’s not too early to think about that, even if Joe continues to lead the company for 15 years. Everything in the world is evolutionary,” he says.

Spring sees GableStage, or whatever the company might be called once it moves and expands, as the anchor entity in a vibrant facility.

“We should embrace a diversity of ideas. I could envision a film series or a concert series. Those are things that enliven a building and help get people through the door. We have to think about not just what kind of theater will be there but what kind of performing arts will be there,” Spring says. “It’s really exciting.”

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