Performing Arts

As the curtain falls on life in an aisle seat, a theater critic remembers

Miami Herald critic Christine Dolen has retired after 36 years of covering theater in South Florida.
Miami Herald critic Christine Dolen has retired after 36 years of covering theater in South Florida. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

I have spent more than half my life in aisle seats, watching and analyzing the magic that theater artists work so hard to create.

Since 1979, when I became the Miami Herald’s drama critic, I have seen, reviewed and written about literally thousands of plays and musicals — most of those in South Florida, but plenty of others in New York, London, Paris and Canada and at regional theaters all over the United States.

On Friday , as of the end of the day, my long run as the Herald’s theater critic has come to an end, thanks to a bittersweet word: retirement.

I have had other jobs in journalism — copy editor, rock music critic, arts editor, a total of 42 years with the Herald’s parent companies — but nothing came close to sparking the kind of enduring passion I have for writing about theater, a passion that doubtless was born when I was a kid watching my actor dad, Bill Hindman, transforming himself into an entirely new character each week as he did summer stock in Ohio.

Though I did some theater criticism even in college, I started covering the subject full time nearly a decade before Phantom of the Opera, Broadway’s longest-running show, opened. I started reviewing South Florida theater long before some of the younger artists I cover were born.

Honestly? I feel privileged to have documented the evolution of theater in the region, review by review, story by story.

People from other big cities with vibrant arts scenes, even some from this area, sometimes ask, “Is there much theater in South Florida?”

That makes me want to scream or wonder why those folks seem to believe there’s not much more to the arts and culture story here than Art Basel, the Miami Book Fair, the New World Symphony, Miami City Ballet and the Florida Grand Opera. (I can only imagine how the theater artists in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties — and there are hundreds of them — feel when they get that question.)

Certainly, when I began covering South Florida theater, there was less of it than there is today.

Zev Buffman (who then spelled his last name “Bufman”) was bringing in touring Broadway fare. The Coconut Grove Playhouse, then in its 23rd year, was home to the evolving not-for-profit Players State Theatre, an ambitious and important regional company led by David Robert Kanter. Ruth Foreman, Florida’s first lady of theater and a local pioneer, was running her company; glamorous Jan McArt, Florida’s first lady of musical theater, was at the helm of the Royal Palm Dinner Theatre in Boca Raton.

The handsome, eccentric and talented Brian C. Smith was operating the Oakland West Dinner Theatre, and Michael Hall was building Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre Company into a place where world and American classics could get top-notch productions alongside newer works. M Ensemble, Miami’s enduring black theater company, had been producing work for much of the ’70s. And there was college theater, most notably the University of Miami’s Ring Theatre, where Broadway great Jerry Herman, Ray Liotta, Sylvester Stallone, Saundra Santiago and so many other now-famous folks got their start.

Since then, South Florida theater has grown, evolved and become a community in which playwrights can create original works (and get them produced), many actors can go from one production to another (and make a living, especially if they add in things like teaching or voiceover work), and those who love theater can nearly always find something worth seeing (sometimes, as many as five or six shows open during a weekend).

No, the theater scene here doesn’t have the scale of the communities in Chicago, the greater Washington, D.C., area, Philadelphia or several other culturally rich cities. Nor does it have a major not-for-profit regional theater, not since the abrupt closing of the Coconut Grove Playhouse during its 50th anniversary season in 2006. But still, South Florida theater is scrappy and ambitious, often vibrant and impressive.

So many companies have come and gone during my years as the Herald’s theater critic that to list them all would take up several paragraphs. But among the gone, not forgotten and still missed, I’d mention Mosaic Theatre, The Promethean Theatre, Florida Stage, Players State Theatre, the Caldwell Theatre Company, Acme Acting Company, the Women’s Theatre Project and the Vinnette Carroll Theatre. And, of course, the Grove Playhouse, dormant for a hard-to-fathom 10 years now, but on its way back (exactly when, no one knows) in a brand-new, smaller theater space helmed by GableStage’s award-winning artistic director Joseph Adler.

People sometimes ask about the best things I’ve seen. The South Florida list would be extensive, with multiple productions by GableStage, Actors’ Playhouse, New Theatre, Zoetic Stage, Mad Cat, Slow Burn Theatre, Florida Stage, Area Stage, Acme Acting Company, Island City Stage, Palm Beach Dramaworks, the Coconut Grove Playhouse, the Caldwell Theatre Company, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, Mosaic, Promethean, Thinking Cap, Outré.

From beyond the region, there are a few shows, though, that I always cite: Roger Rees, utterly captivating in the nine-plus hours of the RSC’s The Life and Times of Nicholas Nickleby on Broadway in 1981. Derek Jacobi in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s heartbreaking Cyrano de Bergerac at the Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles in 1984. Jennifer Holliday, sending chills up and down my spine, as she sang And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going in Dreamgirls in the early ’80s. Rent at the New York Theatre Workshop in 1996. Raúl Esparza, on his way to Broadway and a Tony nomination, playing Bobby in the revival of Company at Cincinnati’s Playhouse in the Park in 2006. Lin-Manuel Miranda, starring in his work-of-genius Hamilton, on Broadway in early October.

Beyond the art, it’s the theater artists who stick in my memory.

Because I’ve been at this so long, I have interviewed and written about some of the greatest playwrights. I talked to Tennessee Williams at a table by the water in Key West. I met Edward Albee for the first time in the lobby of New York’s Algonquin Hotel, where he held one of the resident cats as he answered or parried my questions with withering wit. I grabbed a quick interview with Arthur Miller outside a theater at the Spoleto Festival in Charleston. Since the mid-1980s, I have interviewed (in person or on the phone) nearly every winner of the Pulitzer Prize for drama. What a brilliant, inspiring group of artists they are.

The memories made closer to home are even more vivid.

I’ll never forget sitting with playwright Nilo Cruz, director Rafael de Acha and the cast at New Theatre’s old space on Laguna Street in Coral Gables as they did the first table reading of a script de Acha had commissioned: Anna in the Tropics. That play, born in a tiny 104-seat theater in 2002, would go on to win the 2003 drama Pulitzer (making the Cuba-born, Miami-raised Cruz the first Latino to win the prize). Though he works all over the country (most recently writing the libretto for the Lyric Opera’s Chicago premiere of Bel Canto), this gloriously poetic, imaginative artist remains committed to Miami, staging productions of his rich body of work in English and Spanish.

Tarell Alvin McCraney, another Miami playwright (and MacArthur “genius” fellowship recipient) whose singular voice has won him acclaim nationally and internationally, also continues to give back to the place where his life was transformed through art. As his first mentor Teo Castellanos did for him, McCraney will lead a program aimed at helping teen girls find their creative voice. He’s teaching at the University of Miami, getting ready for a production of his play Head of Passes at New York’s Public Theater in March. In the theater world, McCraney is an elegant, intellectually dazzling rock star.

Through the years, I’ve met and done stories about George Abbott, Julie Harris, Carol Channing, Mary Martin, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Elizabeth Ashley, Harold Prince, Elaine Stritch, Patti LuPone, Bob Fosse, August Wilson, Lanford Wilson — and so many more actors, directors, playwrights and designers.

Working in the same region for four decades, I’ve watched and written about the work of numerous theater artists over time. I reviewed Michael McKeever’s first plays in the late 1990s; this year, I wrote about his masterfully moving latest work, Daniel’s Husband. Barbara Bradshaw was a young leading lady when I began reviewing her at the Caldwell. Most recently, she played a cantankerous, elderly murder victim in The Mousetrap at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre (I would add, though, that she’s simply a great and versatile actor, and not elderly).

If I were to mention the South Florida theater artists, critics and, yes, great publicists (Charlie Cinnamon, thinking of you) who have enriched my working life, I would need twice as much space, and like more time in this job, that’s something I don’t have.

So I’ll simply say thank you. Thank you to the artists whose work made my “job” such an engaging, endlessly fascinating pleasure. Being the Miami Herald’s theater critic has felt like being in a graduate school that never ends. Except now, it has.

I’m not stopping theater criticism cold turkey, not at all. I’ll remain active in the Carbonell Awards program — South Florida’s version of the Tony Awards — as a judge. I plan to go to the theater, lots of it, and to do freelance criticism.

Maybe even, from time to time, occupy one of those seats on the aisle.