Matt Stabile: “The pandemic has taught me just how valuable theatre is.”

Since its 2015 launch, Theatre Lab has been on the fast track to becoming one of the most prominent and promising theatre companies in South Florida, and Matt Stabile has been there every step of the way.

Moving from the role of associate to producing artistic director in 2018, Stabile had been working with its founder Louis Tyrrell at Arts Garage when Tyrrell was inspired to approach Florida Atlantic University administration with the idea of establishing a professional resident theatre company on their campus.

Initially, this new company had planned to share space with FAU’s Theatre Department quickly became apparent that their entire season made that impossible, so Tyrrell was instead offered an abandoned cafeteria. Could they make a theatre out of this? The answer turned out to be a definitive yes, and Theatre Lab’s spirit of inventiveness has only blossomed from there. 

Dedicated to inspiring, developing, and producing new work, the Lab kicked off with a season of over 50 readings, beginning to build their audience as they refined their space into one that could support a total production. While the idea of a theatre company affiliated with a university is not unprecedented, Theatre Lab is relatively unique because it is physically on FAU’s campus, eliminating many of the practical barriers to working directly with university students. “Last year, we had two of the MFA grads in our world premiere production of Everything is Super Great, so now that play got published, and their names are listed, so that’s a cool thing for somebody who’s still in school,” Stabile remarked. 

The professional credit and experience are a precious asset considering that, in Stabile’s view,” university theatre programs teach you how to be in a university theatre program” but not necessarily how to navigate the real world as a theatre artist. Stabile certainly had to figure a lot out for himself. The “crazy path” that led him to Theatre Lab began when he followed a “bug” for performance to a middle and then high school of the arts, then to Dallas’s Southern Methodist University. There, he chose to pursue a theatre studies track rather than continue to focus on the acting that he’d come by that point already having studied for seven years. Students could choose an emphasis in directing, playwriting, or design, and in a decision, Stabile now describes as “foolhardy,” he decided to undertake all three. Now, though, Stabile is grateful that he took the opportunity to broaden his horizons.

He feels that everyone interested in pursuing theatre should “learn to do everything in the theatre and love it. If you don’t have an appreciation for what it’s like to hang a light or write a play if you’re only good at one thing, then you don’t respect what everybody else is doing,” he explains.

Still of The Glass Piano By by Alix Sobler at Theatre Lab

Stabile continued to expand his skill set as a sort of jack-of-all-trades at Fantasy Theatre Factory, throwing his hat into the ring for as many different duties as possible to minimize the shifts he needed to spend working as a waiter. But he found a more rewarding way of making ends meet as a theatre teacher at G-Star High School of the Arts, falling in love with the job and a lifelong passion.

“Teaching made me better at what I do, and it also made me a better human being,” Stabile explains.

It certainly made him uniquely well suited to take the lead at Theatre Lab, making education and outreach a central part of its artistic mission. Their Future Pages Project offers local students from grades 3-12 the opportunity to attend a writing workshop that helps them learn how to tell their own stories theatrically. This year, this programming was limited to the virtual world (for obvious reasons). These workshops have previously been presented in conjunction with live productions at Theatre Lab.

“A lot of our educational programming is only enhanced by the fact that we’re on a university campus. Students getting theatre experience for the first time, but many are also experiencing walking onto a college campus for the first time.” Stabile remarks.

He hopes the exposure can remove some of the “fear and pressure” that comes from entering an unfamiliar space. He also wants to help instill an interest in academia and an affinity for the performing arts. That’s just one of many unexpected advantages to Theatre Lab’s college connection. Though the Lab must secure their funding since they are not a degree-seeking component of the university, the fact that the two institutions share space helps them maintain a small core company and keep overhead low. It’s a promising paradigm for theatre-making that might be worth considering for an art form that often finds itself struggling to stay in the green, even before the COVID pandemic upended the industry and left countless companies for the worse. 

The Revolutionists by Laura Gunderson at Theatre Lab

But though Stabile almost feels guilty to admit it, Theatre Lab is poised to come out of this calamity in a better financial position than when they went in.

“It was something we were already building towards, and now it’s happened,” he says.

Although the revenue from their digital programming was substantially less than from a typical year’s in-person ticket sales,

“We were fortunate in that the majority of our supporters stuck with us even when we weren’t sure we were able to do any productions. That told us that they believe in our mission, and it’s not just that they wanted to come to see a good show.”

He also wonders if there might have been an element of karma in their good fortune, a cosmic recompense for their continual efforts to give back to the community they were a part of. 

For instance, when the pandemic first hit, Stabile was moved to put together a fundraiser for the scores of suddenly unemployed theatre artists in the form of two Online Original Monologue Festivals.

“We had no idea if OOMF was gonna work—no idea.”

But despite technical difficulties streaming the festival’s first iteration, it was indeed a success—Stabile movingly described hearing from one of the artists involved that the show had helped them raise enough money to pay their rent that month. Theatre Lab continued to rise to the challenge posed by COVID-19 by retooling its Playwrights Forum and Masterclass series to focus on audio plays, one of which they went on to produce fully. 

This was Vanessa Garcia’s Ich Ein Bin Berliner, which is still available for streaming through May 23. The play explores the devastating effects of government oppression through the framework of the Cuban playwright’s intense reaction to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an adventure for more than just your ears, though; Ich Ein Bin Berliner is also available with a visual accompaniment featuring drawings, short animations, and photographs that support the story. While the result is still not exactly the “theatre” we’re used to, the Lab did get back in the swing of live events by hosting an in-person launch for the play in early April. 

To Stabile, finally hearing an audience react to the material he had spent months at a computer poring over was a much-needed reminder of what makes his work so rewarding.

“The pandemic has taught me just how valuable what we do is… Breathing the same air and hearing other people laugh and hearing other people gasp… that is a unique experience, and it’s what sets us apart and what it should be fully embracing,” he says. 

But Stabile is also excited by the potential of the Lab’s digital productions to reach a far wider audience than their physical theatre allows.

“We’re contractually allowed to reach one thousand one hundred forty people per week, so that gives us a potential audience of close to 8,000… We’d have to run for three months to get that kind of audience in our space,” he explains.

The accessibility of the internet has already enabled Theatre Lab to work with a broader network of artists and extend its reach outside the South Florida area. Beginning to build a national audience that they have plans to continue to engage with regular productions of audio plays—the next is tentatively scheduled for this October.

Meanwhile, the Lab’s next mainstage season will begin with a production of The impracticality of Modern-Day Mastodons by Rachel Tegler, which is shaping up to be “the biggest show we’ve ever done.”

If that seems like an almost audacious leap of faith to take at a time when most other companies will be scaled way back, you’re right—and Stabile, for one, takes pride in audacity. “You have to at some point believe in the work you’re doing enough to take the risk and say ‘this thing is worth possibly failing,'” he explains. It was undoubtedly audacious for Theatre Lab to try to carve out a place for theatre-making where there once was the only cafeteria and an area for challenging new work when audiences flock to the familiar; perhaps even more so to succeed.

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