Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Theater commentary: Florida Stage move raises artistic questions

The auditorium at Florida Stage in Manalapan.

By Hap Erstein

I remember arriving in West Palm Beach in early 1994 to become the theater writer for The Palm Beach Post and being given a personal tour of the Kravis Center. I was told all the pertinent facts about Dreyfoos Hall, how it had the same stage dimensions as the Metropolitan Opera House (for some indiscernible reason) and soon realized that it was programmed like most other major performing arts center halls in the country.

If the Kravis Center really wanted to stand out, it needed to produce its own work, not be just another booking house, it seemed to me. And it had a 299-seat space in the Rinker Playhouse that was the ideal size for such adventuresome programming.

But when I would ask Chief Executive Officer Judy Mitchell why the center does not develop and produce new work at the Rinker, she would dismiss the suggestion by noting that we already had a company in our community that did exactly that. And it was called Florida Stage.

That always struck me as an insufficient response, but it comes to mind with the announcement Monday that Florida Stage is moving its entire operation to the Kravis Center beginning in July 2010, to perform at the Rinker Playhouse on a rental basis.

There had been rumors to this effect hovering about, but until Monday I never really thought they were true.

It is easy to see what the Kravis Center gets from the deal. It takes under its roof a significant nonprofit theater company that is gradually gaining a national reputation for nurturing new work, and by a single act of landlordship, it suddenly has a better answer for why it is not doing the vital job of creating its own art.

The harder question is what does Florida Stage gain from the move. According to Lou Tyrrell, the company’s founding artistic director, whom I happened to run into the day after the announcement at Costco -- no, really -- all was not well between them and the management of Manalapan’s Plaza del Mar, where rents were spiraling uncomfortably.

Yes, they have been in their current digs for some 18 years, but only because efforts to move into what became CityPlace’s Harriet Theater, the pipe dream called Opera Place, a high school in Boynton Beach and the still-dormant and disintegrating Royal Poinciana Playhouse all failed.

Financially, the move probably makes sense. Florida Stage gets a more advantageous rent rate, it probably gains a few more seats depending on how the Rinker will be configured in the future, it probably gains a larger pool of potential audience members -- and donors -- than it will lose by moving to West Palm and, according to Tyrrell, it has already received a $50,000 donation to pay for its moving costs.

Artistically, the picture is murkier. The Rinker has never been a very comfortable place to view a play, with its high school auditorium bleachers, its boring, straight-on proscenium configuration that had the first five rows of patrons craning their necks to look up to the elevated stage. Surely Florida Stage will redo the auditorium to resemble its Manalapan theater, but making the space feel intimate and warm, let alone theatrically versatile, will be a distinct challenge.

As currently configured, Florida Stage would gain fly stage and wing space that would open up distinct design possibilities. Whether or not it has had to reject plays it could not fit in its Manalapan space, that is unlikely to be an issue anymore. If there is anyone out there writing a sequel to Miss Saigon, with who knows how many helicopters, Florida Stage is soon to be the place to send it. If you would like your audience in close proximity to the stage, well, that is to be determined.

Tyrrell mentioned to me that he will be turning 60 in the coming year. Whether that meant he was looking for a new challenge at this milestone in life or if he was ever going to move his theater he had better do it now while he still was limber enough was not clear.

He is a man of boundless enthusiasm, but he also does not act without considering all the pertinent factors. So let’s assume he has a great plan to retrofit the Rinker and harness its boxy look. Here’s hoping this imminent move goes smoothly, that money showers down on the company and that they never have to look back at Manalapan with nostalgic regret.

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