Nicole Stodard is a creative theater artist with drive, vision and the determination to prove that significant South Florida theater isn’t limited to Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties.
In 2010, she founded Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre, a not-for-profit company dedicated to producing “experimental, provocative and socially conscious plays” reflecting a range of identities, as well as lesser-known and familiar classics. Stodard’s body of work since then, mostly in Thinking Cap’s first home at Empire Stage, has reflected the bold, eclectic taste embodied in the company’s mission.
Now, the second part of Stodard’s vision has come into focus. On Friday, The Vanguard — described as “a sanctuary for the arts” — will officially open with a production of Ted Swindley’s musical two-hander, Always … Patsy Cline.
The building at 1501 S. Andrews Ave. was constructed in 1939 as a church. It sat empty for nearly a decade before Stodard and her husband took out a $500,000 small business loan and spent 18 months transforming it into a stylish home for Thinking Cap and a venue for other arts events.
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“It’s exciting to go into a space that has a history of its own,” says Stodard, perched on a stool at one of the high tables in the lobby, which sports a pair of Sputnik chandeliers and a series of pop art playwright portraits.
“Thinking Cap emerged five years ago, but The Vanguard felt like a physical place, not a theater company with a mission. Thinking Cap can stay true to its identity here, but we can also do more conventional stuff ... and the more we bring in things besides theater, the more we’ll create an identity for The Vanguard as a venue.”
Always … Patsy Cline is one of those more conventional shows — though its focus on a strong artist who was unyielding when it came to her sound, her career and how artists should be treated fits with Thinking Cap’s mission.
Stodard had intended to launch The Vanguard last month with Waiting for Waiting for Godot, an award-winning New York Fringe Festival comedy about two understudies waiting to go on in the Samuel Beckett classic. But an actor’s illness forced her to push that show, very much a Thinking Cap piece in its tone and style, to later in the season.
Instead, after a one-night dance presentation last weekend, Stodard will bring The Vanguard to life with a music-infused play about early country superstar Patsy Cline and her fan Louise Seger, a Houston housewife, who met her idol before a 1961 show. The two forged a friendship during a long night of talking about their lives, and stayed in touch through letters and phone calls until Cline’s death in a plane crash at the age of 30 in 1963.
Ann Marie Olson plays Cline and sings 27 songs in the show, including such classics as Walkin’ After Midnight, Sweet Dreams, Crazy and I Fall to Pieces, accompanied by a four-piece band. Olson is a nominee for a best-actress in a musical Carbonell Award for her work in Slow Burn Theatre’s Parade.
Sally Bondi plays Louise, a part that calls for her to memorize about 30 pages of monologues.
“She sings, I talk,” jokes Bondi, who adds, “It’s an honor to open this space.”
Stodard says she initially thought of doing a show about Johnny Cash, with Olson playing June Carter Cash, but found Always … Patsy Cline and thought it would be a good fit. Both Olson and Bondi have worked at Thinking Cap before. And Stodard has warm personal memories centered around the first woman solo artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“Walkin’ After Midnight was my mom’s go-to karaoke song,” Stodard says. “My mom, sister and I would ride in our Ford LTD, which had a long gear shift like a microphone, and sing along to those songs.”
Olson has listened obsessively to Cline’s recordings, seeking out rare videos of the singer. Listening to country songs old and new has been revealing, she says.
“So many country singers nowadays are inspired by Patsy. You can hear it,” Olson observes.
Still to come at The Vanguard this year are Eileen Atkins’ Vita and Virginia (April 16-May 3), Amy and David Sedaris’ The Book of Liz (June 11-28), Odalys Nanin’s Garbo’s Cuban Lover (July 31-Aug. 16), Erin Courtney’s A Map of Virtue (Sept. 24-Oct. 11) and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (Nov. 12-Dec. 6).
Sitting in Vanguard’s lobby, surrounded by portraits of Virginia Woolf, Aphra Behn, Lorraine Hansberry, Arthur Miller and others, Stodard continues to dream.
She hopes that The Vanguard, along with nearby restaurant and bar Tap 42 and its upcoming adjacent Bar Rita (featuring Mexican bar food and a rooftop margarita bar), will spark a nightlife renaissance in the neighborhood. She’d like to get The Vanguard on the trolley route for the monthly FATVillage art walk. She’d like The Vanguard’s flexible 55- to 105-seat space, with its 30-foot-high Dade County pine ceiling, to attract all kinds of performances, as well as art exhibitions.
Stodard, a Ph.D. candidate in English literature at the University of South Florida, and managing director Mark Duncan, chair of Theatre and Arts Administration at Nova Southeastern University, want to launch workshops, training and outreach efforts. Stodard, for example, has a background using theater in hospice work and imagines doing something like that with Broward General Hospital across the street.
“I want this to be a sanctuary for arts lovers and artists,” Stodard says.
And one other thing.
“There is good work being done in Broward, and I feel there’s not respect for that,” she says. “Hopefully, we can help draw attention to it.”
If you go
What: ‘Always … Patsy Cline’ by Ted Swindley.
Where: Thinking Cap Theatre production at The Vanguard, 1501 S. Andrews Ave., Fort Lauderdale.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday (additional show at 8 p.m. March 25), through March 29.
Cost: $37.22 (includes service charge).
Information: 813-220-1546 or www.vanguardarts.org.