Since its founding in 1996, City Theatre has been an important part of South Florida’s theatrical landscape, though the company’s visibility has always been highest in the month of June. That’s when its popular Summer Shorts festival takes place; for more than a decade, its high-profile venue has been the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Arsht Center.
Though the company founded by Susan Westfall, Stephanie Norman and Elena Wohl has always had multifaceted programming – including works aimed at kids, an LGBTQ-themed program (most recently in conjunction with Island City Stage in Wilton Manors), a major playwrights’ conference – City Theatre is now becoming a more frequent presence on the region’s cultural radar.
That began in September with its production of Robert Schenkkan’s “Building the Wall,” just the second full-length play done by a company dedicated to presenting short comedies, dramas and musicals. It continues Dec. 7-23 with Winter Shorts, a collection of eight holiday-themed comedies with heart and, sometimes, a bit of darkness.
This isn’t the first time City has tried doing a shorts festival during Miami’s balmy winter. The company did one in December 1999, then again in February 2001, but it’s been awhile. The more frequent production activity, says founder Westfall, is due in part to the hiring of Margaret M. Ledford as fulltime artistic director.
“With the programming growing and new projects on the horizon…Margaret is a terrific choice to take us towards our upcoming 25th season,” says Westfall, who cites Ledford’s influence in the production of short musicals, the presentation of “Building the Wall” and, in collaboration with Westfall and administrator-manager Jessica Farr, taking commissioned short plays into middle schools.
“We do have new programming on the horizon, which we should be able to announce shortly,” Ledford says. “And we want to continue doing a third anchor of our season with a full-length, based on our relationship with the National New Play Network.”
But first, there’s Winter Shorts.
Ledford is directing four of the program’s plays, with Deborah Kondelik directing two, and Vanessa Elise and Ivan Lopez staging one each. All eight plays involve a holiday, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve and Valentine’s Day are there along with Christmas and Hannukah.
In Amanda Keating’s “this movie,” strangers encounter each other in a nearly empty movie theater on Thanksgiving Day, only to share an unexpected feast and some revelatory conversation. Sheri Wilner’s “The Miracle of Chanukah” features an extended family and an outsider redefining miracles. Ashley Lauren Rogers brings together a wish-granting elf and one surprising little girl in “Becky’s Christmas Wish.” In Patrick Gabridge’s “Santa Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” a Santa-believing 30-year-old gets a big shock, as do Mom and Dad.
Mark Harvey Levine takes a hilarious look at Jesus’ birth in “Oy Vey Maria.”In Staci Swedeen’s “Feliz Navidad,” which was also part of the first Winter Shorts, a harried Anglo woman shopping for a special doll for her niece encounters a Spanish-speaking saleslady whose English is minimal at best, and much difficult communication ensues. In Gina Femia’s “Fly, Baby” two women contemplate a scary new year from their Brooklyn rooftop, as Santa and the Tooth Fairy look on.“Occupy Hallmark” by Cassie M. Seinuk features a raging, obviously inebriated guy who’s been dumped by his girlfriend of three years over a Valentine’s Day dispute.
The Winter Shorts acting company – Alex Alvarez, Dave Corey, Diana Garle, Jovon Jacobs, Rita Joe and Margot Moreland – is a diverse one that includes three performers of Hispanic descent and two black actors.
“The diversity of casting is very important,” says Ledford. “That is who we are in this city. We need to push the boundaries of the families we see onstage.”
The actors, all of whom have experience with one or more of City Theatre’s varied shorts programs, adore the necessarily hectic rehearsal process, the chance to jumpfrom character to character, and the tone Ledford brings to the rehearsal room.
“This is kamikaze theater. I love having to embody different characters, with different directors and actors. It’s going back to the roots of what I do,” says Moreland, who was in the Summer Shorts acting company for the festival’s first five seasons. “In this day and age, to have the levity of a short show with a little heart in it lets you escape. Which is exactly what this world needs.”
Garle, who was born in Mexico and raised in Miami by her mother’s Colombian family, starred in telenovelas as a kid and recently finished a run in GableStage’s acclaimed production of “The Humans” opposite Alvarez. She calls Winter Shorts “theater on steroids” and says the relatively short rehearsal period with its limited time for each play is “super exciting and challenging.”
Rita Joe moved to South Florida five years ago after working at Disney World and has appeared with a number of companies in the region. She admits to being thrilled at the chance to perform at the Arsht Center and to be part of a company of actors who are all new to her.
“I have been waiting to get inside this building,” she says. “I love the company. I feel I’m growing as an actor, and that I’m learning from seeing the others’ work ethic and process.”
Corey, who is returning to acting after retiring from a long radio career, credits the resurgence of “Saturday Night Live” in part for the renewed joy audiences feel when they see short plays; for him, being in Winter Shorts and being directed by Ledford “is the biggest holiday present.”
Alvarez agrees about Ledford’s directing skills.
“I hadn’t worked with her in awhile. You feel safe and taken care of.She knows what she wants, and she understands every beat of each play. I think she’s underappreciated here,” he says.
Adds Jacobs, “She knows how to color moments. She’s very vivid with her words and ideas.”
Ledford’s fellow directors are having their own fun working with short-form plays.
Kondelik, who retired after many years as a teacher and director at Broward College, says she finds it “thrilling to work with such fine actors.” Elise, an actor-director who has extensive experience with short plays via her work with companies including Microtheater Miami and the Fort Lauderdale Fringe Festival, believes that short plays help build and educate audiences, creating future audiences for full-length plays. Lopez, on the theater faculty at Florida International University, thinks short plays get a lot of attention and support, in part “because now people are used to quick stories.”
Though the plays in this third edition of Winter Shorts are mostly funny and relatively brief, most can and do have depth. Ledford cites “Fly, Baby,” which she’s directing.
“You have the two girls, then you have Santa and the Tooth Fairy show up.It’s tricky tonally to get right,” she says. “It makes me guffaw and weep. And it captures humanity so beautifully.”
City Theatre’s Winter Shorts Festival, Carnival Studio Theater in the Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday (additional performance 7:30 p.m. Dec. 20), through Dec. 23. Cost:$39 to $54; 305-949-6722 or www.arshtcenter.org.
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