JANUARY 07, 2016

Stephanie Ansin: The Soul of the Miami Theater Center

Azureazure.com

She is a rebel that upholds only the highest standards and is always willing to take a risk.

By Vivienne Nosti

Stephanie Ansin, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of The Miami Theater Center (MTC) is a woman of many talents. She wears multiple hats as a playwright, director, master of unique and vibrant adaptations, not to mention, artistic visionary. On a beautiful, sunny South Florida morning I arrived at her offices located in a classic art deco building in Miami Shores, a residential area filled with tree-lined streets and charming art deco houses. Miami Theater Center made this their permanent home in 2004 while still functioning as The Playhouse Theatre for Young Audiences–co–founded by Ansin and her then-husband the Russian Director, Oleg Kheyfets). On this particular morning, I had the privilege of discussing all things theater with Ms. Ansin, an attractive, petite, perfectly-coifed young woman with intense eyes and a luxurious mane of brunette hair.

Ansin’s artistic development started at the precocious age of six when she began studying piano and ballet. Her passion for piano shifted at the age of 11 or 12, when one fateful summer she arrived at the all–girl art camp in Massachusetts’ Belvoir Terrace. Thinking she was attending the camp to further her ambitions as a pianist, she instead ended up being bitten by the theater bug, which continued to grow and expand when she arrived back home to Miami, and continued to blossom at her school Ransom Everglades. By the time she was ready to attend College at Brown University in Rhode Island (where she had graduated with a major in theater), she knew she had wanted to direct and act.    After graduating from Brown, she pursued her interests in everything from teaching movement at a children’s theater company, working at a non-profit organization focused on bringing theater to multi-generational audiences, a short stint working in TV news for Channel 7 in Boston, as well as working on a documentary film focused on sex education. The theater once again took center stage when her old camp, Belvoir Terrace asked Ansin to teach kids as a counselor for the summer. It was during this time that she started directing shows and realized this was her true calling in life. Ansin’s “AHA” moment prompted her to apply to Columbia University where she was accepted at their prestigious MFA directing program. While, at Columbia, she honed and focused her gifts, she took “her all-time favorite class”, which turned out to be a pivotal step in her career as this is where, during the course of a school project, she decided to create a hypothetical theater company, and The Playground Theater was born. The unique concept included world adaptations of children’s theater in Miami using first-rate artists—something that had never been attempted there. Soon after she became pregnant and after 14 years of directing and acting in Boston and New York, she felt the pull of family and home, not to mention the itch to start what would become the very successful Playground Theater for Young Audiences. In 2012, things began to feel stifling for Ansin. Despite some well received, very successful productions, she felt a need for a change of direction “although we knew adults were coming to the shows without kids and enjoying them, the message was still not clear to the public. They thought it was kids doing shows or fuzzy animals on flats”. It was then that she made the decision to rebrand to Miami Theater Company, allowing her to expand her vision, doing shows for adults as well as children. With this bold new vision in place, she was able to work on different initiatives with the company. One was to partner with O, Cinema (Miami’s hip, art house cinema) “and show movies when we were not presenting shows.” Another was to invite the Mad Cat Theater (whose artistic director is Paul Tei) to become MTC’s first resident company. MTC also received a Knight Arts Foundation grant three years ago, which allowed the company to open up a cutting edge series of new work at the black box theater, the sandbox, adjacent to the main stage, which allows diverse artists to develop new work with the support of MTC’s funds, space, and marketing.    Her ambitious nature—once again—shines through in her choice of plays. MTC’s first foray into adult programming was Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which received rave reviews. Ansin followed with new adaptations of Hedda Gabler, The Seven Year Itch (the play that proceeded the Marilyn Monroe film), and in 2016 MTC will be staging one of Tennessee Williams’ more obscure plays Out Cry.

When I asked Ansin, how she manages to keep these plays fresh for an audience that has probably seen countless productions of these classics before, she says, “We have to feel that the play is still relevant and that there is a connection with the theme and the story.” She also gives a great deal of credit to her closest collaborator, Fernando Calzadilla—her resident costume, set and lighting designer as well as her partner in the process of adaptations. She calls Calzadilla her “external hard drive” due to his prodigious memory. She also describes him as “an amazing artist, scholar, and person”. Ansin adds, “working with him just means I have this other brain and soul to benefit from.” Theirs is a match made in theatrical heaven.

Ansin’s vision for MTC in the next ten years: “to grow the seeds we are planting now. To be a magnet for interesting work, like what we have started with the Sandbox and with Mad Cat. For artists to feel like this is a safe, supportive and challenging environment. A place that can develop their work and say I can take risks here, I can breathe here.”

Earlier this year, MTC celebrated their 10th Anniversary Gala and raised $70,000 from sponsors, guests and donors to support their artistic and educational programs. This is a testament to their creative innovation and dedication to their community. It also points back to a woman named Stephanie, a rule breaker with only the highest standards and a willingness to take risks. She loves Shakespeare, facials, dreams and South Florida, where she plans thought-provoking theater that will continue to challenge audiences and bring her inner drive prominently to the stage. I can hardly wait to see what she will surprise us with next.