Theater / Film

Miami’s regional theaters are digging into new (and newer) works

Written By Christine Dolen
October 6, 2022 at 6:07 PM

Daniel Capote plays Jorge Mas Santos, with Andhy Mendez as Manny Diaz in Miami New Drama’s “Elían,” a new work commissioned by the company being produced at the Colony Theatre, Miami Beach. (Photo courtesy of Andres Manner)

Since ancient times, theater has enlightened and entertained us, helped us make sense of the world, mankind, ourselves. In 21st century Miami, it still does.

South Florida’s 2022-23 theater season is about to take off, and thanks to a growing community of playwrights, returning artists with Miami roots and artistic directors passionate about nurturing new works, this season is brimming with world premieres and plays making their regional debuts.

To get an idea of what’s on the horizon for theater-loving Miamians looking for something new, we connected with four artistic directors and five playwrights to talk about their projects and why new works are such a vital part of the theater ecosystem.

Margery Lowe plays a woman who finds unexpected love in GableStage’s “Heisenberg.” (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Key shows at several major Miami-Dade based companies – Miami New Drama at the Colony Theatre on Miami Beach, GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, and Zoetic Stage and City Theatre in the Carnival Studio Theater at Miami’s Arsht Center – speak to a growing focus on new (and newer) work as well as opportunities for Miami-connected playwrights.

“I don’t understand how we can be in the arts and not take risks,” says Miami New Drama co-founder and artistic director Michel Hausmann.  “It’s so exciting because of the diversity of our community… to write the first drafts of great new American plays.”

Three of the company’s 2022-23 productions are premieres:  Rogelio Martinez’s “Elián” Oct. 27-Nov. 20, Aurin Squire’s “Defacing Michael Jackson” March 9-April 2 and “Create Dangerously” May 4-28 by former Miamian Lileana Blain-Cruz, an acclaimed director basing the piece on Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat’s 2010 book of essays by the same title (the award-winning novelist and essayist makes her home in Miami.)

The fourth Miami New Drama play – a 20th anniversary production of Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics” Jan. 14-Feb. 5, to be directed by the author – had its commissioned world premiere at the intimate New Theatre in Coral Gables in 2002. In 2003, it made its Miami-raised Cuban-American playwright the first Latino to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and a new production played the Tony-winning McCarter Theatre before moving to Broadway – all fuel for Miami’s then-nascent playwriting community.

Though “Anna” has been produced throughout the world, Miami-Dade school officials recently sparked controversy by refusing to allow high school students to see the play gratis courtesy of New Drama and at the Colony, citing what they stated was “age-inappropriate content.”

Rogelio Martinez was commissioned by Miami New Drama to write the world premiere play “Elián.” (Photo courtesy of Karen Martinez)

Miami New Drama’s season begins with the commissioned world premiere of Martinez’s “Elián,” which Hausmann will direct. The celebrated and widely produced Cuban-American playwright, who came to the United States on the Mariel boatlift, made multiple trips from his home in the New York area over several years to research the 2000 Elián González custody battle and interview some of those involved.

“The subject matter is really sensitive to this community… which wasn’t painted in the best light by the national media,” Hausmann says. “We have a responsibility to set the record straight while being entertaining and surprising.”

Martinez got vivid details from some of the lawyers and negotiators in the case, and as he writes in an email, at that point “…a slightly different narrative from the one on record started to emerge… When I write about history, I know that I’m contributing to a conversation that already exists.  What I’m doing is adding to that conversation so when people see the play, they’ll discover new things and new points of view.”

The playwright also appreciates that Miami New Drama has underscored its faith in him by commissioning another world premiere piece, and he’s hoping that audiences will come to “Elián” to play their vital role in the developmental process.

“A play changes from one production to the next…because the audience has taught us something.  If this play is to have a future life, it’s because there has been an audience there to ensure that.  New plays need audiences,” he says.

Colony Memories: ‘Mostly Empty’

Aurin Squire, who wrote the book for Miami New Drama’s world premiere Louis Armstrong musical “A Wonderful World” and has built a thriving television career as a writer-producer on “Evil” and “The Good Fight,” is returning to the Colony this season with “Defacing Michael Jackson.”

Playwright Aurin Squire will see the new version of his play “Defacing Michael Jackson,” set in Opa-Locka, premiere at Miami New Drama. (Photo courtesy of the playwright.)

Squire, who grew up in Opa-Locka, first wrote the play as a 2004 one-act. He expanded it to a full-length play two years after Jackson’s 2009 death, and in 2018, a newer version was given a small production in Chicago. Now a different version of the play – rewritten to reflect new ideas and changing times – will premiere at Miami New Drama.

Set in Opa-locka in 1984, “Defacing Michael Jackson” is a coming-of-age play about teens, hero worship, and life-shaping personal and societal turmoil. The kids are members of a fan club devoted to the pop star, a figure who serves as a metaphor in Squire’s dark comedy.

The playwright is gratified that the piece is being produced at the Colony, which he remembers as “mostly empty” when he was growing up, and that Miami New Drama is part of a bustling South Florida theater season.

“Theater is not-for-profit…It only exists thanks to the support of artists, audiences, benefactors, patrons and government.  All the best theater comes out of that, and Miami has made huge strides in finding a way to create a vibrant theater community,” Squire observes.

As to why people should seek out new work, Squire believes that “…the underlying engine in new plays are the ideas that keep us up at night.  You’re looking at the obsessions, compulsions, addictions of the human soul.  That’s why theater feeds all other dramatic forms because it starts with that obsessive idea…What we do in theater is pass along these obsessions and voices to others.  That’s why theater has continued to enchant people for over 6,000 years.  And even today, there is something about sitting in that dark space with others and letting new ideas spark something in your soul.”

Disney’s ‘Encanto’ Writer’s Play Comes Home

For her second season as GableStage’s producing artistic director, Bari Newport has assembled a five-show lineup that begins Oct. 28-Nov. 20 with “Heisenberg” by Simon Stephens, who transformed “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” into a Tony- and Olivier Award-winning play. Margery Lowe and Colin McPhillamy star as an improbable couple whose lives are transformed by love.

Two plays earlier produced in Palm Beach County – David Meyers’s “We Will Not Be Silent” (Jan. 6-29) and Lucas Hnath’s “A Doll’s House, Part 2” (Feb. 24-March 19) – will be followed by a pair of works by Latina playwrights: “El Huracán” by former Miamian Charise Castro Smith (April 14-May 14) and “Native Gardens” (June 9-July 1) by Karen Zacarías.

Via preshow talks outside the theater before every performance, Newport is hoping to give GableStage’s evolving audience context for what they’re about to see.

Charise Castro Smith will come home to Miami with a production of her play “El Huracan” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of the playwright)

“It’s incredibly useful to be given a lens into new work,” she says. “The production and interpretation are always new.”

Newport is ecstatic that the Cuban-American Castro Smith – a playwright, director, actor, producer and screenwriter who cowrote and codirected the Oscar-winning animated Disney smash “Encanto” – is coming home for what will be only the fourth production of 2018’s “El Huracán.”  Dámaso Rodríguez, a Miami-born Cuban-American director and artistic director who has worked at major regional theaters throughout the country, will stage the play.

“Dámaso brought me the script. This is a passion project for him,” Newport says. “This is absolutely a new play.  Charise is doing rewrites on Act Two.”

Set in Miami, “El Huracán” focuses on four generations of Cuban-American women as they cope with exile, loss and three different hurricanes – including the 1992 monster, Hurricane Andrew.

“‘El Huracán’ is, by far, the most personal play I’ve ever written.  It is deeply connected to my roots and to my family,” Castro Smith writes in an email. “It had always been a dream of mine to stage the play in Miami, the city where I grew up and also the land that bore witness firsthand to the devastating effects of Hurricane Andrew.”

The playwright also feels that “El Huracán” will resonate with many communities in a diverse Miami.

“‘El Huracán’ is, at its heart, a play about what we get to keep when it feels like everything has been stripped away,” she says. “It’s about exile and the longing for home, about how memories get passed down, about surviving and rebuilding after literal storms and about the possibility of transformation in the face of loss…It’s about magic and forgiveness… I’m honored and humbled to be able to share it with the city that inspired it all.”

Challenging Audiences

Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts will play host to several Broadway tours new to the city, including the musicals “Six” (Oct. 25-30), “Hadestown” (Dec. 6-11) and a reconceived “My Fair Lady” (March 28-April 2).  But as regional theater fans know, the Arsht’s Carnival Studio Theater is also home to several local companies including Zoetic Stage, City Theatre and Area Stage (which recently scored a massive success with director Giancarlo Rodaz’s immersive “Beauty and the Beast.” Next, back at its home base in South Miami, Rodaz is staging an immersive “Sweeney Todd” Oct.14-Nov. 6.)

Zoetic Stage is opening its season with the Florida premiere of “Mlima’s Tale” (Oct. 13-20), a shattering 2018 play about the deadly ivory trade by double Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage.  The company is also producing the 2010 Pulitzer-winning musical “Next to Normal” (March 16-April 9).  Zoetic’s other two shows are world premieres by South Florida-based playwrights:  Michael McKeever’s “American Rhapsody” (Jan. 12-29) and Vanessa Garcia’s “#Graced” (May 4-21).

Jerel Brown plays a ghostly elephant the Zoetic Stage production of Lynn Nottage’s “Mlima’s Tale.” (Photo courtesy of Chris Headshots)

Artistic director Stuart Meltzer, who notes that two of the company’s five founders are playwrights (McKeever and Christopher Demos-Brown, both of whom have had multiple Zoetic world premieres), blends recent works, musicals (often by Stephen Sondheim) and new plays when he’s constructing a season.  But it’s the new work that calls to him – and, he hopes, the audience.

“I find new work incredibly vital, engaging and a lot more interesting,” says Meltzer, who is hoping that Zoetic’s annual Finstrom Festival of New Work will grow from workshops and readings into a festival of fully produced plays presented in repertory. “Material that has been produced time and again becomes comfort food.  With a new play, you have to listen, pay attention and get lost in the story. It’s beautiful.”

Meltzer describes his season’s new plays as “60-plus years of an American family…an epic poem” (“American Rhapsody”) and “a remarkable journey of an immigrant woman traveling through America and how she learns to create her own American dream” (“Graced#”).

The prolific McKeever has had his plays – all world premieres – produced at theaters throughout South Florida, and many have gone on to Off-Broadway, regional or international productions.  Since launching his play-writing career with “That Sound You Hear” at New Theatre in 1996, he has successfully juggled work as a playwright, actor, designer and, for a time, Zoetic’s managing director.  He has seen a sea change in the attitude of companies toward new work since he began at New Theatre 26 years ago.

“New Theatre and Florida Stage would worry about selling tickets to new plays,” he said of two important now-closed companies.  “Now, almost all companies are excited about world premieres. There has never been a better time to be a South Florida playwright than now.”

“American Rhapsody” was commissioned by Sarasota’s Florida Studio Theatre, which told McKeever to “go as big as you want.”  The play uses eight actors playing 14 characters to chart the evolution of a family and the America that surrounds them over six decades – “history through the eyes of four generations of one family,” McKeever says.

Michael McKeever and Vanessa Garcia will both have world premieres at Zoetic Stage this season. (Photo courtesy of Chris Headshots)

“When you see something new, you put yourself in the position of being among the first people to see the next ‘Strange Loop’ or ‘Anna in the Tropics’ or ‘August: Osage County,’” he says. “Miami and South Florida are such great incubators for new work.”

Garcia, a playwright, novelist, journalist and visual artist, is a multifaceted talent.  The author of “Amparo,” Miami’s long-running immersive 2019 hit about the Cuban revolution and diaspora refracted through the experiences of the family behind Havana Club Rum, she’s in the midst of an eventful season: her first children’s book (“What the Bread Says”), the commissioned world premiere of a play she coauthored with inaugural poet Richard Blanco (“Sweet Goats & Blueberry Señoritas” at Maine’s Portland Stage Jan. 1-Feb. 12, 2023) and Zoetic’s world premiere of “#Graced.”

“I wanted ‘#Graced’ to be like a road trip movie, but it’s a play with a Latina woman at the helm,” Garcia says of the comedy, her third play to get a full production in Miami.  “She represents a lot of Americans you don’t always see on New York stages.”

Development Program Nurtures Writing

Garcia twice participated in Miami-Dade County’s much-admired Playwright Development Program, working with master playwrights Deborah Zoe Laufer and Kenneth “Kenny” Finkle to develop her plays “The Cuban Spring” and “1,000 Miles.”

As a result of the region’s multiple developmental programs, new play festivals and the increased interest of companies in producing new work, Garcia says, “You can work from here and create here and not have to leave.”

Garcia is paying her experience forward by serving as the master playwright in the new City Theatre program Homegrown. Over a two-year period, she is mentoring eight emerging BIPOC playwrights as they develop pieces reflective of a diverse Miami.

The necessity of a program like Homegrown, says City Artistic Director Margaret Ledford, is illustrated by Miami artistic expats who have built careers elsewhere.

Elizabeth Price will debate and analyze the Constitution in City Theatre’s “What the Constitution Means to Me.” (Photo courtesy of Morgan Sophia Photography)

“Florida is in the export business when it comes to talent. We have to do a deep dive to support the artists living here, particularly artists of color and playwrights,” she says.

Because City’s focus for more than 25 years has been on producing short (and frequently new) comedies, dramas and musicals in its perpetually popular Summer Shorts Festival, its audiences eagerly embrace those world and regional premieres.  But its annual December production of recent, more political full-length plays – this year, it’s Heidi Schreck’s 2017 work “What the Constitution Means to Me” (Dec. 1-18) – presents different challenges.

“For the winter audience, we have to convince people to sit in a room with others and enjoy a communal experience,” says Ledford, who cites Art Basel, the bustle of the holiday season and the outdoor lure of Florida in December as competitors for a theater lover’s presence.

Schreck’s play, which will star South Florida actor-director Elizabeth Price, is a trenchant comedy born of the playwright’s experience: As a teen, she earned prize money for college by giving speeches/having debates on the Constitution.  Women’s rights, immigration, domestic abuse and protections afforded by the Constitution and its amendments figure into the play, as does a debate about whether the Constitution needs to evolve – or be scrapped.

“Theater has to start the harder conversations in order for us to have them,” Ledford says. “If you are or you know a woman, you need to see this play.”

Miami New Drama’s Hausmann, who has continued deepening his company’s relationships with Miami playwrights who have chosen to stay as well as those who forged careers elsewhere, is certain that new work created for Miami audiences can go on to a longer life – and should.

“A play that’s successful in Miami can be successful anywhere,” he argues.  “Miami has grown more and more as a place for new work. It’s not a new wave.”

INFO:

  • City Theatre: “What the Constitution Means to Me” (Dec. 1-18), $55-$60. Carnival Studio Theater in Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. www.citytheatre.com
  • GableStage: “Heisenberg” (Oct. 28-Nov. 20), “El Huracán” (April 14-May 14), “Native Gardens” (June 9-July 1). $35-$65; subscriptions also available. 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables. www.gablestage.org
  • Miami New Drama: “Elián” (Oct. 27-Nov. 20), “Defacing Michael Jackson” (March 9-April 2), “Create Dangerously” (May 4-28). Single tickets available now for “Elián” at $76.50, $65.50, $46.50, includes service charge; season memberships also available. Colony Theatre, 1040 Lincoln Road, Miami Beach. www.miaminewdrama.org
  • Zoetic Stage: “Mlima’s Tale” (Oct. 13-30), “American Rhapsody” (Jan. 19-29), “#Graced (May 4-21). Single tickets available for “Mlima’s Tale” at $55-$60; five-show Theatre Up Close subscription also available, includes City Theatre’s “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Carnival Studio Theater in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., Miami. www.zoeticstage.com.

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