West Side Story is being produced by Actors’ Playhouse in Coral Gables in late January, but one of the show’s signature numbers could serve as a theme song for the Broward County theater community at the start of the 2015-16 season.
Something’s Coming, a song that radiates anticipation, excitement and hope, expresses the way many artistic directors and theater leaders are feeling as the season is about to begin.
“Our theater scene here is growing and diversifying,” said Nicole Stodard, whose Thinking Cap Theatre now has its own striking space, The Vanguard, in a refurbished Fort Lauderdale church. “It’s not just canned touring shows. There’s already a sense of strength in numbers.”
Understand, long before the Broward Center for the Performing Arts opened in 1991 at Sailboat Bend on the New River, Broward County was home to theater facilities and companies. That history is worth remembering as the county nears the grand finale weekend of its Broward 100 centennial celebration, with the extravaganza WE starring Linda Eder and Jon Secada capping the festivities at 8 p.m. Oct. 3 in the Broward Center’s Au-Rene Theater.
The Parker Playhouse, which opened at Holiday Park in 1967, was home to Broadway touring shows (Zev Buffman produced Elizabeth Taylor’s stage debut in The Little Foxes there in 1981), and plenty of theater still graces its stage. The Hollywood Playhouse began as a community theater in a residential area in 1949, later presenting professional productions before closing shy of its 60th birthday.
Even a partial list of theater companies that have come and gone in Broward is a long one: Mosaic Theatre, The Promethean Theatre, the Women’s Theatre Project, the Vinnette Caroll Theatre, Florida Playwrights’ Theatre, Hollywood Boulevard Theatre, the White-Willis Theatre, the Public Theatre, Rising Action Theatre, Sol Theatre, New River Repertory, the Sea Ranch Dinner Theatre, the Oakland Park Dinner Theatre, Off-Broadway on East 26th Street Theatre — well, you get the drift.
Broward County has a long list of departed theater companies.
Broward County seemed to be a place where theater companies could start but not stick, not enduring the way they did in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. It’s true that the mortality rate among smaller companies with limited budgets tends to be high everywhere. But the relative scarcity of theater in the county, the absence of award-winning anchor companies like Actors’ Playhouse or GableStage in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach Dramaworks or the Maltz Jupiter Theatre in Palm Beach has made lots of theater artists (plenty of whom live in Broward) and theater lovers scratch their heads.
As for why Broward has been different, there are several likely reasons: less government funding and fewer deep-pocket donors; the perception of Broward as a “bedroom community” whose residents would drive south or north to work and play; theater founders whose lives changed, causing them to move on.
So why the Something’s Coming feeling at this moment?
Over the past few years, Broward theater has been growing and changing, with some significant developments:
▪ The Broward Center, having undergone a $56 million expansion, is welcoming the award-winning Slow Burn Theatre into its upgraded Amaturo Theater as a co-producing arts partner/resident theater company. The center is also the new home to Outré Theatre Company, which rents the Abdo New River Room for its performances.
▪ Thinking Cap Theatre turned a former church on South Andrews Avenue near Broward General Hospital into a performance space, christening it The Vanguard and filling it with eclectic, edgy, entertaining fare. The theater is a block away from the lively Tap 42 bar and restaurant, and artistic director Stodard is hoping to help spark a resurgence of nightlife in the area.
▪ Island City Stage, an LGBT company that launched in 2012, played giant killer at the 2014 Carbonell Awards, which honored the best work in South Florida theater during 2013. Its production of Dan Clancy’s The Timekeepers won six awards, the most for any company, including best production of a play. Island City continued on its roll last season with sellout houses for its world premiere of Michael McKeever’s deeply moving Daniel’s Husband, a tender and tragic play about marriage equality.
▪ Infinite Abyss, which (like Island City) formerly did its work in the small Fort Lauderdale space that’s now Empire Stage, reopened after a hiatus with its own Wilton Manors venue, the Abyss Stage. Specializing in horror-themed plays (most recently, Tracy Letts’ Bug), the company is refurbishing its theater, adding more seats and getting ready to share its space with Island City.
I see a difference in the gay population here. There are more professionals who have moved here from places...where they were culturally active. They want that here, and they’re willing to invest in it.
Andy Rogow, Island City Stage
This recent evolution has left Broward’s theater leaders — who tend to be enthusiastic, hard-working dreamers anyway — feeling confident about a shift in the appetite for theater.
“There have been successful theaters in Broward, but none seem to last long,” said Island City’s Rogow, who led the Hollywood Playhouse during some of the years it was producing professional theater.
“I see a difference now in the gay population here. There are more professionals who have moved here from places like Washington, Boston, New York, where they were active culturally. They want that here, and they’re willing to invest in it. ... I get checks for more than $1,000 from people I don’t even know. I got $10,000 from a foundation and hadn’t even asked for it. Now, a bunch of small theaters are taking hold.”
Another key shift this season is the higher-profile presence of Slow Burn Theatre and Outré at the Broward Center. Both began creating theater in the center’s Abdo New River Room last season — the Slow Burn team hired to mount productions of The Marvelous Wonderettes and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Outré producing Othello and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, as well as its just-closed start to the new season, the chamber musical Bed and Sofa.
Broward Center President Kelly Shanley and Jill Kratish, the center’s director of programming, have long been exploring ways to present the work of South Florida companies, much as Miami’s Arsht Center does with Zoetic Stage. Kratish had watched the rapid evolution of Slow Burn since founders Patrick Fitzwater and Matthew Korinko began the company with a production of Bat Boy at the West Boca Performing Arts Center — a high school auditorium — in early 2010.
“I got more and more excited about their talent and ability. I thought having them here would be the perfect way to bring locally produced quality theater to the Amaturo,” Kratish said. “This was the right place at the right time. We’ve always wanted this showcase for the best of the best of South Florida arts.”
We have a role to play in the larger theater movement in South Florida.
Kelly Shanley, Broward Center
Shanley views having locally produced theater as part of the center’s programming as part of its varied mission.
“I’m glad we have people like Jill out there, making connections. You’re always trying to look for that next thing to get the audience excited, to draw a new audience in and speak to your constituency,” Shanley said. “We have a role to play in the larger theater movement in South Florida.”
Sabrina Lynn Gore, Outré’s co-founder and managing director, believes the presence of her company and Slow Burn at the Broward Center makes a statement.
“There’s a whole legitimacy that’s conferred when a big theater center supports the work of smaller companies. It tells the community they care,” she said.
Fitzwater and Korinko, partners since they met 22 years ago while performing at Six Flags Great America outside Chicago, built a large, enthusiastic audience during their relatively short time in West Boca. Slow Burn specializes in ambitious productions of challenging musicals, including next to normal, Parade, Assassins, Sweeney Todd, Chess and Big Fish, which will begin the company’s new era at the Amaturo Oct. 22.
Operating on a $600,000 budget for a four-show season that will also include productions of Violet, Spring Awakening and Heathers, the Slow Burn founders know they’re taking a risk in moving. But growth made it necessary.
“Everybody was afraid of the titles we picked because we were dealing with lots of seniors. But they grew up with Hair, so why are you treating people in their 60s and 70s as if they’re 90 or 100?” Fitzwater asked. “We think that in Broward, we’ll [also] get the hipster, younger, artsy crowd that goes to Riverwalk ... There’s been a surge in audience members period, because things like Glee and major musicals becoming movies have put musical theater back in the limelight.”
Thus far, Slow Burn has survived on ticket sales, donations and its practice of having its casts race to the lobby after the curtain call to chat and collect audience donations in buckets. Korinko, the Carbonell-nominated veteran of numerous Slow Burn productions, said the company will soon hire a grant writer.
As in all of life, funding is a vital key to keeping any theater organization alive.
$263,500 Proposed grants to Broward County theater groups for 2016
$2,713,465 Grants to Miami-Dade County theater groups in 2014-15
The Broward County Cultural Division’s proposed arts grants for 2016, still to be approved by the county commission, total $3,068,800, with $263,500 of that going to theaters — including the first-ever county grants to Island City Stage and Stage Door Theatre in Margate, which has been around since 1994 and draws some 80,000 theatergoers a year to its two theater spaces. By contrast, in 2014-15, the larger Miami-Dade County, through its Department of Cultural Affairs, awarded $2,713,465 to not-for-profit theater groups; the $281,809 grant to Actors’ Playhouse that fiscal year was larger than all of Broward’s proposed theater grants for 2016.
Jody Horne-Leshinsky, assistant director of Broward’s Cultural Division, joined the department in 1988. She serves on the board of the Carbonell Awards, the region’s major theater awards program, and said she relishes the growth she’s seen in her time in South Florida.
“I come from near New York City, and when I first got to Broward, there was only the Parker Playhouse, which was geared to my parents’ age,” she said. “Now, there’s so much activity you don’t know which way to turn. We’re proud to have been part of that growth. Our Cultural Directory used to list 325 not-for-profit arts organizations; now, it’s 823.”
Janet Erlick is the executive artistic director of the Galleria Mall-based Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre, which was founded in 1952 and is the oldest still-operating theater in Broward. She has been with the company since 1990 and has led it since 1999, and like Horne-Leshinsky, she’s appreciative of the significant changes on the Broward theater scene — but she still sees room for improvement.
Survival mode is where so many groups live all the time. It’s hard to stop bailing our your boat to pick someone else up.
Janet Erlick, Fort Lauderdale Children’s Theatre
“When I got here, Broward truly was a cultural wasteland. There was no community, no cultural foundation or fabric. There’s a cultural literacy that comes with having lots of action,” she said. “Broward lagged behind Miami-Dade and Palm Beach because there was a fearful, competitive attitude that got in the way of real organizational collaboration. ... Survival mode is where so many groups live all the time. It’s hard to stop bailing out your boat to pick someone else up.”
The scrappy smaller groups find different ways to survive and thrive.
David R. Gordon, whose Empire Stage space is almost hidden away across from the railroad tracks along Fort Lauderdale’s Flagler Drive, provided the first home for Thinking Cap and Island City, and between producing his own (often gay-themed) shows and booking in smaller productions, he has a full lineup through next summer.
Skye Whitcomb, co-founder and artistic director of Outré, simply does the math when coming up with budgets for his company’s edgy shows and classics.
“We spend a maximum of $15,000 on a show. We operate on the assumption that there will be no money except ticket sales, that the house will average 60 percent [of capacity] and that ticket prices will average $20,” he said. “We’re learning to live within our means. While spectacle is nice, I want to tell a really compelling story and cast the right people.”
Infinite Abyss’ Dalton, who said her company doesn’t spend more than $4,000 on a show, draws a younger audience that loves the horror genre. When it comes to spreading the word about her shows, she gets creative.
“We depend on word of mouth and e-marketing. We invite local bartenders, too. They come and then spread the word to their clientele,” she said.
Of the current crop of smaller Broward companies, Dalton said, “I feel we all have respect for each other. We have all figured out branding and funding. Your niche is important. We’re not competing for the same theater audience.”
Fort Lauderdale got its first Fringe Festival in May at Broward College’s Downtown Center, and artistic director Vanessa Elise expects the fest to grow to a two-day event in 2016.
Stodard has a notion about adding a different kind of festival to the Broward mix, one that would showcase the varied work that is stirring pride and hope among the county’s theater groups: “I’d like a new festival to introduce the work of the small and mid-sized theaters.”
And then, in a statement that gets at why Broward theater is on the upswing, she adds, “If you see a lack of something and you have an entrepreneurial spirit, you do something.”
Broward Theaters and Companies
Andrews Living Arts: 23 NW Fifth St.,Fort Lauderdale. 954-874-5084 or www.andrewslivingarts.org.
Conundrum Stages: Performs at various locations in Broward. 954-673-5124 or www.conundrumstages.net.
Curtain Call Playhouse: Performs at various locations in Broward. 954-784-0768 or www.curtaincallplayhouse.com.
Infinite Abyss: Performs at the Abyss Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Hwy., Wilton Manors. 954- 326-7767 or www.infinite-abyss.org.
New Light Foundation: 6000 N. Ocean Blvd., Suite 14C, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. 954-829-0638 or www.newlightgallery.org.
Pembroke Pines Theater of the Performing Arts: Performs at Susan B. Katz Theater at the River of Grass ArtsPark, 17195 Sheridan St., Pembroke Pines. 954-437-4884 or www.pptopa.com.
Pigs Do Fly Productions: Performs at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Dr., Fort Lauderdale. 866-811-4111 or www.pigsdoflyproductions.com.