Big dreams for his Miami hometown have always figured in playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney’s globetrotting life in theater. Next season, one of those dreams will come true when South Florida’s GableStage, England’s Royal Shakespeare Company and New York’s Public Theater join forces to premiere McCraney’s new set-in-Haiti version of William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
Announced Monday by the three companies, the production will premiere in November 2013 in the RSC’s Stratford-upon-Avon home, be presented by GableStage at Miami’s Gusman Center for the Performing Arts Jan. 9-26, 2014, and then move to Manhattan and the Public. The Miami run will include morning shows for some 15,000 Miami-Dade public school students.
About $700,000 of the production’s estimated $2 million-plus budget will be GableStage’s responsibility. The cast will be half American, half British, and auditions will be held in Miami, New York and London. McCraney will direct the play, which is set in the 1790s in colonial Saint-Domingue on the eve of the successful Haitian revolution against the French.
Artistic leaders from all three companies say their faith in and admiration for McCraney is what led them to say yes to the collaboration.
“One of the beautiful things about this is that it was driven by Tarell,” says Oskar Eustis, artistic director at the Public, which has presented all three of McCraney’s reputation-making Brother/Sister Plays. “The key to all of this is that we’re unabashed Tarell McCraney fans.”
“Tarell was our playwright in residence, and I wanted to see his take on Antony and Cleopatra,” emailed Michael Boyd, former artistic director of the RSC, who commissioned the script, adding that he was seeking “a bold new take on this difficult play.”
For GableStage’s Joseph Adler, McCraney’s Antony and Cleopatra is an opportunity to build on a relationship that began last season with McCraney’s staging of his The Brothers Size and this season with a January-February production of Hamlet, a 90-minute adaptation McCraney and Bijan Sheibani wrote for the RSC.
Adler also believes the collaboration with two of the world’s leading presenters of Shakespeare’s plays can take his company – and the region’s theater – to a new level.
“I think it could be transformative for South Florida,” Adler says. “If it works, it could be done annually.”
Adds GableStage board chairman Steven Weinger, “We hope that the Shakespeare presentation will raise our visibility and reaffirm our value to the community.”
Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs, says Antony and Cleopatra is a huge step for GableStage.
“This will force GableStage to develop greater staff capacity and fundraising capacity,” he says. “But the Public and the RSC would never enter into a collaboration with a theater that couldn’t hold up its end. This has everything to do with the quality of work coming out of GableStage.”
McCraney, who grew up in Liberty City and graduated from New World School of the Arts, earned his master’s in playwriting from the Yale School of Drama in 2007. In the five years since, his plays have been produced at major regional theaters throughout the United States and in England. His Head of Passes will have its world premiere in April at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where he is a company member, and his British hit Choir Boy will be done in June at New York’s Manhattan Theatre Club, which commissioned the play.
Still, McCraney’s thoughts – and, as often as possible, McCraney himself – are drawn to Miami.
“I really wanted to produce a theater festival here, with Shakespeare being the center point,” says the 32-year-old. “We have growing and budding film festivals, Art Basel, a jazz festival, but Miami hasn’t been able to galvanize the same momentum around theater.
“Once the Knight Foundation started giving out its Arts Challenge grants, I tried on my own to get one, but the feedback I got was, ‘No one’s ever heard of you, you’re a kid, you don’t have the structure around you to raise money.’ That taught me how to make this a better package.”
Leveraging his relationships with the RSC, the Public and GableStage, McCraney got his infrastructure, and the project got a $125,000 Knight Foundation grant.
“You need an outside stamp of approval to get Miami people to sit up and pay attention,” McCraney says, laughing. “So I got the RSC and the most well-known Shakespeare producer in the United States. The question now is, who’s gonna be the heavy hitters [with financial support] on the Miami side?”
Dennis Scholl, the Knight Foundation’s vice president for arts, says the new Antony and Cleopatra is exactly the kind of project the foundation wants to back.
“When people like Tarell become internationally known, you want to bring them home and keep them here. You want to give your most talented people a reason to stay,” Scholl says.
“We’re focused on community engagement and artistic excellence, and this project has both. Joe [Adler] never settles and never quits. He’s always aiming for greater heights. And Tarell has a gift for looking at the world around him and interpreting that world in a way that makes you understand somebody else’s existence better.”
The Public’s Eustis explains why a McCraney Antony and Cleopatra set in Haiti is so appealing to him.
“This isn’t an idea you’d lay on top of the play. It’s not a contemporary, lively, anachronistic setting,” he says. “This is something that will allow people to hear this play differently. This brings it closer and makes us understand colonialism.”
He adds that the Public’s ongoing relationship with McCraney is at least as important as collaborating on Antony and Cleopatra.
“Tarell has a deep sense that his work is in service of something much bigger than himself. He’s trying to answer to an artistic imperative. It makes you want to throw your weight behind him,” Eustis says.
“His life will get more complicated, but one still feels the purity of that vision. Not just for his sake, you want to hold him out as an example that you don’t have to sell out to be a success.”