Design and operating contracts that will set in motion a long-in-the-works plan to revive the historic, shuttered Coconut Grove Playhouse as a significantly smaller theater are up for Miami-Dade Commission approval on Tuesday — even as the backer of an alternate proposal for a second, larger auditorium on the site said he won’t pursue his vision for now.
The surprise decision by arts patron and lawyer Mike Eidson to “stand down” appears to clear the way for approval of a more modest plan developed by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez under an agreement with the state of Florida, which owns the playhouse.
Eidson had proposed adding a second, larger theater that could produce Broadway-style shows with name stars, pledging to privately raise the nearly $40 million it would require. He said actor/producer Kevin Spacey, credited with reviving London’s Old Vic theater during a recently concluded run as artistic director, was interested in taking an unspecified role at a revived playhouse.
Last month, Gimenez issued a memo agreeing in principle to consider Eidson’s proposal.
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But Eidson said on Friday he decided to back off after a discouraging meeting this week with county cultural affairs director Michael Spring. Spring laid out reasons why he believes Eidson’s proposal was insufficiently fleshed out to win approval from either the county commission or the state, and why the hurdles to bring it to fruition are substantial.
“I told Mike I didn’t think his plan had reached that level of viability,” Spring said in an interview. “It was not an easy conversation for either of us. He was as gracious and graceful as he could be, but I think he was upset.
“What I want, to be blunt, is to deliver great theater to the Grove and to be as fast and as focused as I can be,” Spring added. “I’m not inviting further complexities at this point.”
Eidson said in an interview that he disagrees, still firmly believes he could pull off the plan, and might seek to revive it in the future. But he said he had gotten a clear message.
“We were ready to enter into a formal agreement,” he said. “That’s where I thought we were. But they have a plan they think is satisfactory, and they didn’t see a need for the larger theater. The administration makes the decisions. We were just offering to help. I didn’t see anything else we could do at that point. So the best thing for us to do is wait and see what’s going to happen.”
The Gimenez plan, developed by Spring, calls for a 300-seat regional theater to be jointly run by GableStage, a small but critically acclaimed company that now operates at the Biltmore Hotel, and Florida International University, which would lease the playhouse from the state for a nominal sum. The county has lined up $20 million in voter-approved bond money for the project.
Both Gimenez’s plan and Eidson’s, which contemplated adding a second, 700-seat house to be run by a new dramatic company, drew praise and pans from different bands of theater lovers and professionals and Grove residents. Some say the county plan is unambitious and won’t carry the cultural and economic clout the playhouse brought to Miami and the Grove in its heyday.
Others praise GableStage’s longevity and artistic quality and say a larger theater would be hard to fill, risking a repeat of the fiscal troubles that led to the playhouse’s abrupt closure nine years ago. Spring and theater consultants have said it’s unfeasible to operate the playhouse with its current capacity of 1,100 seats.
On Tuesday, the commission will vote on an operating agreement with GableStage as well as a separate contract with a team led by Grove-based firm Arquitectonica to plan and design the playhouse revamp.
A major part of the task for the design team, which includes noted Miami architect and preservationist Jorge Hernandez, will be to figure out how much of the historically designated but deteriorated 1926 playhouse, widely regarded as a key cultural and architectural South Florida landmark, should be saved and reused.