Miami-Dade County

To be or not to be (small): Is size key to Grove Playhouse revival?

The exterior of the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse, which will be restored under a new Miami-Dade County master plan, as seen on July 27, 2011.
The exterior of the historic Coconut Grove Playhouse, which will be restored under a new Miami-Dade County master plan, as seen on July 27, 2011. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The storied, state-owned Coconut Grove Playhouse abruptly dropped the curtain on its last show at mid-season a decade ago, the victim of crippling debts that critics blamed on mismanagement by a nonprofit board, a run of mediocre productions and one stark reality: In a city of 2.5 million, the theater couldn’t fill its 1,130 seats.

It wasn’t the first time that the theater, built in the 1920s as a silent-movie house, failed.

The movie house had closed after a few years, even after adding sound. It had again failed after being converted by private owners into a live, for-profit theater in the 1950s, before two efforts to run it as a nonprofit venture under state ownership also stumbled — all that despite a long run of legendary productions featuring some of the biggest stars of stage and screen of the day.

That tenuous financial history, and a determination not to repeat it, now underpins a slow-moving but escalating effort by the administration of Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Giménez to revive the playhouse, albeit in a much different form that has split the city’s theatrical community.

Under a $20 million master plan unveiled earlier this month after a year of close-to-the-vest design work and analysis, the county would shrink the size of the playhouse to 300 seats by tearing down the existing auditorium and replacing it with a new, free-standing theater. The new house would be programmed by GableStage, a small but critically lauded — and financially solid — theater company that now operates at the Biltmore Hotel.

The plan would also fully restore the separate Mediterranean-style, wing-shaped three-story building on Main Highway that gives the playhouse its public face and, county consultants say, its unparalleled architectural and historic value.

That approach, Giménez’s cultural czar says, will ensure both financial stability and artistic excellence with the money already at hand. The county has earmarked $20 million from two bond programs for construction of the new playhouse. (A garage to be built separately by the city’s parking authority would rise in the theater’s surface lot and parking revenue would cover renovation costs.)

Given GableStage’s record for artistic prowess and tight management, and with help from the county, the company would then grow at the playhouse into what Miami has long lacked, said Miami-Dade cultural affairs chief Michael Spring: a true regional theater group that puts on new and classic plays while nurturing local actors, directors and writers and, not incidentally, drawing enough of an audience to pay the bills.

Spring and GableStage director Joe Adler say 300 seats, double the capacity of the company’s current space and with adequate backstage space that the Biltmore lacks entirely, will allow the company to expand its reach and the range and frequency of its productions while maintaining the intimate, close-in feel that distinguishes it.

“This is the theater we think is right,” Spring said. “This is what works for this company, what works for this community.”

The new playhouse would be largely self-sustaining even as GableStage grows, generating income from the garage as well as ticket sales and private fundraising, Spring and Adler say. The 18-year-old company, which currently has a $1.3 million annual budget, receives only $100,000 from the county, like most cultural groups, and has no debt.

The county plan — the result of a complex agreement with the state, which retains ownership, and Florida International University, which has a 99-year lease on the playhouse property — has been embraced by a good chunk of Miami’s growing professional theater community. It’s also won support from some preservationists, who had been worried the county would seek to demolish the entire playhouse.

But it’s also drawn pushback from some local theater pros and arts patrons who say Spring’s scheme is unambitious and fails to live up to the playhouse’s history, renown and potential. Some preservationists insist the auditorium should be saved as well, a decision that would fall to the city’s preservation board.

Prominent among the critics is lawyer Mike Eidson, a former board chair at both Miami City Ballet and the Adrienne Arsht Center, who has been pushing for a larger, 700-seat theater that he says would, like the playhouse at its peak, attract productions studded with Broadway and Hollywood stars — and big crowds to juice Grove businesses hurt by the playhouse’s closure.

“This city needs and deserves to have a great theater, with Broadway-style plays with big stars, and to bring those stars, this is the size you need,” Eidson said of his 700-seat vision. “A 300-seat theater is not going to have much of an impact.”

That larger seating capacity, Eidson said, would put the playhouse squarely in the sweet spot of successful regional theaters around the country, while fostering serious dramatic productions too small for the Arsht Center, which draws mainly big Broadway touring musicals and whose two halls hold more than 2,000 people each. A small “black-box” theater at the Arsht is home to a local dramatic company, Zoetic Stage.

The best known of those regional companies, most of which are multi-theater complexes like the Guthrie in Minneapolis or the Goodman in Chicago, have as many as 1,100 seats in their larger auditoriums and as few as 100 in companion studio or black-box spaces. Several also have a third stage with seating somewhere in the middle. Broadway houses, by comparison, are typically around 800 or 900 seats.

A perusal of this season’s offerings at half a dozen regional companies, however, shows no big-name stars at any. Adler and other theater professionals say those companies thrive by using and developing local talent in combination with a smattering of Broadway figures, though not typically big names who come with big price tags.

Eidson, though, says Miami and the Grove Playhouse name can draw stars of the caliber of Kevin Spacey. The actor, director and producer, who helped turn around the troubled Old Vic theater in London, has expressed interest in serving as artistic director or adviser at a revived Grove Playhouse. Eidson said he believes Spacey remains interested since his name was first floated last year, but was “put off” by the politics surrounding the county effort.

Eidson and the county have been at loggerheads for months. The lawyer quietly formed and funded a foundation to push for the larger theater after the county gained control of the playhouse property more than two years ago. At Eidson’s behest, the county master plan includes an alternate version with both a new 700-seat theater in place of the old auditorium and the 300-seat space for GableStage to one side.

The key condition, Spring said: That Eidson’s group pay for designing the additional theater now, then raise the money for construction — a total of around $35 million — by the time the project goes out to bid in 2018.

Eidson and his foundation director, Olga Granda-Scott, say it’s Spring who has frozen them out, refusing to work on a formal agreement the mayor had authorized.

Eidson now says he doesn’t believe the slow-moving county can pull off the project before a state deadline in 2022, and wants Giménez to turn over the keys and the $20 million to his group, pledging to do it faster as a public-private partnership. After working with prominent preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, he’s also convinced the original auditorium should be saved and improved, not demolished, though he said he could live with a new structure.

“It’s been enough time,” Eidson said of the county’s initiative, which Spring has acknowledged could take as long as four more years. “Turn it over to the private sector. You’ve allowed this thing to become derelict.”

It’s unclear how ready Eidson and his group would be to take the reins, however. Granda-Scott said there is a board of directors, a plan and pledges in place, but she can’t reveal any of it because supporters don’t want to be identified without a formal agreement in place with the county.

“There are so many roadblocks it’s virtually impossible for us to succeed,” she complained.

Spring says he’s willing, but has heard “radio silence” from Eidson and his group for months.

“All that is standing between us and doing that is having Mike Eidson raise the money,” said Spring, adding that, unless he hears otherwise, he intends to move forward as rapidly as possible with the single-theater master plan.

But Spring also clearly believes that the ground-up approach is the right one. What’s worked time and again to boost the city’s cultural heft, he contends, is home-raised talent like New World School of the Arts grad Tarrel Alvin McCraney — who has worked with GableStage and was recently appointed chair of the Yale School of Drama’s playwrighting department — and Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz.

“Every time, given a choice of Nilo Cruz, Tarrel McCraney or Joe Adler, I would take it over Kevin Spacey. What puts Miami on the map are the voices that come from our various communities. There is nothing second-rate about that. We don’t have to rely on imported talent.”

That, Eidson and some supporters maintain, would be a waste of a singular opportunity that won’t present itself again.

They argue that GableStage, for all its sterling reputation, specializes in “edgy” productions with limited appeal, and that tailoring a playhouse revival around the company will straitjacket it. But they say Miamians will fill theater seats for stars and glamour productions.

“You can never underestimate the draw of Hollywood. We need to think big. Miami needs to be on the international stage,” said Carmen Pelaez, a Miami playwright whose “Rum and Coke” once played in the intimate Encore Room at the Grove Playhouse. “The only reason they’re doing a 300-seat theater is that’s what Joe Adler is used to. He produces small plays really well. But Cate Blanchett will not come to a 300-seat theater. We’re shooting ourselves in the foot.

“When I was in New York and said I was in the Coconut Grove Playhouse, that meant something. It’s a touchstone. I don’t understand why they would think so small with such a legendary theatrical space.”

Spring and Adler bristle at the criticism, and say Eidson and his supporters are unrealistic. They argue that Miami has not yet shown it can support a large dramatic theater, and that taxpayers and political leaders have no stomach for another publicly supported cultural project that runs into trouble.

Expanding capacity to 700 seats exponentially increases operating costs and thus ticket prices, they say, but is at the same time probably not large enough to generate the kind of money that stars demand. That size would also force an artistic trade-off between producing serious plays with a smaller draw versus popular fare, a difficult balancing act that Adler says helped doom the Grove Playhouse.

“That was a bygone era when movie stars who fell on hard times would come do theater at the Playhouse,” Adler said. “But it’s gone belly-up so many times under many different people.

“It has to be demonstrated the theater [Eidson] wants to build would be self-sustaining without a dollar more from the county, and in my experience that’s not going to be possible. The cost of putting on a production and filling 700 seats is very hard to do in this town.”

One Miami theater veteran who runs a large theater says Adler is right and Eidson is “dreaming.”

Barbara Stein, founding director of 30-year-old Actors’ Playhouse, which operates at the Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables, said she doesn’t believe Eidson or his supporters understand how hard it is to consistently fill seats, even with popular and well-reviewed shows. The Miracle, a late-Art Deco movie house that Stein helped restore and convert to a live theater, has a 600-seat main auditorium and a smaller 300-seater upstairs.

Lately she has been using the upstairs space more, in part because its intimate size allows for dramatic productions that lure audiences in. The company also bought curtains to screen off a portion of the downstairs theater because people don’t like sitting amid empty seats. And that’s even though her shows do feature Broadway regulars: The company’s current production of the hit musical “Million-Dollar Quartet,” for instance, features the Broadway production’s original Elvis Presley, Eddie Clendening.

The idea of putting a large auditorium in the Grove, she said, also doesn’t account for increased competition for an audience since the days when the playhouse was the only live theater in town. Since then, professional companies in the county have proliferated, all them nonprofits, many of them with critical plaudits, and most of them small. Some produce in newly restored auditoriums, such as the 430-seat Colony Theatre in Miami Beach, she noted.

That’s about the biggest size for a viable local theater company, Stein said. With a wrong bet on a play in a big house, she said, “you can lose a lot of money.”

“I know about developing cultural audiences in Miami-Dade, a lot more than just a dream. It’s very difficult. We are at the highest professional level and don’t fill all our seats,” Stein said.

Forcing a large theater on the playhouse plan, Stein said, might end up being the biggest mistake a dramatic producer could make — passing up a sure success in the form of GableStage and ending up with nothing if Eidson can’t make good on his promise.

“It would take away opportunity from a company like GableStage to grow,” Stein said, “and to do the job of renovating a beautiful historic theater.”