APRIL 05, 2015

Turning 10, Miami Theater Center welcomes a Tony winner and a resident company

THE MIAMI HERALD

As Miami Theater Center turns 10 this year, artistic director Stephanie Ansin is seeing the vision she had when she co-founded the former PlayGround Theatre a decade ago come to fruition.

BY CHRISTINE DOLEN

As Miami Theater Center turns 10 this year, artistic director Stephanie Ansin is seeing the vision she had when she co-founded the former PlayGround Theatre a decade ago come to fruition.

Rebranded in 2012, the facility — its artists and patrons call it MTC — has become home to an increasingly varied array of arts programming. Yet Ansin wishes more South Floridians understood or knew about MTC.

“Some people think that one thing [MTC] ate the other [PlayGround]. Some people who come to O Cinema here think we’re just a movie theater. We had a group of alumni from Columbia University and Barnard College here before a performance of The Seven Year Itch, and most hadn’t heard of the theater before,” she says.

Ansin and Fernando Calzadilla, her creative colleague, designer and script collaborator, still do the kind of family-friendly, visually striking productions that were the company’s focus during its years as PlayGround. For MTC’s 330-seat MainStage space, they have co-authored the original worksInanna and the Huluppu TreeThe Red Thread and Everybody Drinks the Same Water. Since November 2012, the two have done adaptations of vintage and newer plays aimed at adult audiences: Anton Chekhov’s The Three Sisters, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, George Axelrod’s The Seven Year Itch.

In MTC’s adjacent SandBox, which has flexible seating for 70, individual artists and companies have presented three seasons of original work with help from a John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Arts Challenge Grant. For next season, 36 artists applied for four available slots.

O Cinema Miami Shores offers popular movie programming in the main auditorium, a nod to the theater’s beginnings in 1946 as a movie house. Students and teachers come to MTC for free morning performances, planting the seeds for future theater lovers, and young arts enthusiasts can also attend musical theater camp programs.

And as MTC celebrates its anniversary Thursday evening with a gala dinner and performance by Tony Award winner Tonya Pinkins, there are more creative developments on the horizon for a company whose current budget is $2.3 million.

For one, Miami’s Mad Cat Theatre Company, which has been performing in the SandBox for two years, will become MTC’s first official resident company.

“MTC already moves to the beat of its own drummer,” says Paul Tei, Mad Cat’s founder and artistic director. “I’m trying to move away from being in line with the rest of theater in South Florida — companies that do brochures, have subscribers, program five to six shows a season. I think of us more as an arts organization than a traditional theater. Now, we’ll have two spaces to play around on.”

It’s not that MTC and Mad Cat are melding, even though Mad Cat’s Tei, Jessica Farr and Theo Reyna have appeared in MTC productions as actors. Tei hopes that what what his company does, which will now include a MainStage concert series called Mad Cat Live!, will complement Ansin and Calzadilla’s work.

“We found a group we want to work with, and we wanted to make it formal. Mad Cat is the epitome of hip. We love the work,” Ansin says.

For next season’s MTC lineup, Ansin plans to bring back the Florida-flavored adaptation she and Calzadilla did of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the two will work together on Tennessee William’s Out Cry for adult audiences. They’re also in the research phase of creating plays involving Yemanja, the Orisha goddess of the ocean, and Brazil’s Yawana tribe from the Amazon.

Calzadilla, who is married to MTC’s executive director, Elaiza Irizarry, joined the company in 2007 after completing his course work for a Ph.D. in performance studies at New York University. The Venezuela-born artist finds himself and Ansin on the same creative wavelength — often, they’ll separately have the same idea about a project they’re working on — and he explains how they collaborate.

“We’ve developed our own style, language and aesthetic,” he says. “When we’re working on the words, we’re also working on the staging and design. They evolve simultaneously. … Stephanie’s use of language is so amazing and efficient. We design the whole structure of the play, the scenes, the progression, the dramatic points, then she does the dialogue.”

As a director, he adds, Ansin is “rigorous with herself. She’s 100 percent focused in working with the actors. She’s not thinking, ‘How is the audience going to react to this?’”

Moving forward, Ansin says she wants MTC to find a balance in its work for multi-generational audiences and adults, and that she wants the programming to “age up” as its younger audiences mature. She’s hoping to grow MTC’s donor base and attract other artists to create work there. Calzadilla is hoping to take MTC’s productions elsewhere to gain more national exposure for the company.

MTC’s next MainStage season will begin with three public performances of the family-friendly Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Oct. 24-25, but hundreds of students will see it Oct. 21-Nov. 20 at morning matinees, which are also open to the public. Williams’ Out Cry (also known as The Two-Character Play), will run March 31-April 24, 2016. The play-within-a-play is about a pair of actors, brother and sister, who are abandoned by their company, left broke and stuck performing in a flop.

MTC’s SandBox Series will present four productions next season: Genus Genet by Danilo de La Torre and David Rohn (aka Homo-Sapiens Collab) Nov. 13-28; Ringing True by Rebecca Joy Fletcher Jan. 22-Feb.7; Them Beaux by Joshua Jean-Baptiste and Lab 9 April 29-May 14, 2016; andBrookdale by Lazaro Godoy June 10-25, 2016.

Exact dates for some of Mad Cat’s shows at MTC are still to be determined, but the music and theater programming is largely set. The first offering from Mad Cat Live! will be this summer, with a lecture and performance of songs from Paul and Linda McCartney’s RAM. The second concert, Harry Nilsson’s family-friendly musical play The Point, will be presented Dec. 4-6.

Mad Cat’s theater offerings will be Reyna’s comedy Lazy Fair in August in the SandBox; another new play in February-March; and the MainStage production of Gerald Ford Superfreak by Tei, Reyna and Jessica Farr, with the date to be determined.

Pinkins, MTC’s gala headliner, has just finished an Off-Broadway run opposite Dianne Wiest in Joel Drake Johnson’s Rasheeda Speaking, a provocative play about ingrained racism that was filmed for presentation on New York’s WNET. She’s shooting a guest spot on a TV pilot, co-authoring one play and directing another, and writing a book titled Brown Skins/White Stages.

MTC, she says, is reflective of its community, but too many theaters are not.

“So many people who run our theaters are all from the same educational institutions,” Pinkins says. “Art can come from anywhere.”

Pinkins, who won her Tony for Jelly’s Last Jam and was nominated twice more for Play On! and creating the title role in Caroline, or Change, adds that the conversations sparked by Rasheeda Speaking are important ones.

“America is still pretty segregated. We’re not going to church together. We’re not having dinner together,” she observes.

Her set at MTC’s fundraising gala will be an eclectic one: classics from the American songbook, a medley of songs made famous by Barbra Streisand and the chilling Supper Time, a song sung by a woman whose husband has been lynched.

Tei, who’s currently appearing in Sam Shepard’s Buried Child at Palm Beach Dramaworks, says that working at MTC and being around Ansin, Calzadilla and resident composer Luciano Stazzone has already been creatively fruitful.

“Stephanie’s an artist, first and foremost. When we talk, it’s about ideas, concepts, our artistic reactions to things,” he says. “They’re all bright, smart, artistically inclined individuals who live the lives of artists. It’s like being in class again.”