Talk with Patrick Fitzwater for just five minutes, and you’ll discover this is a man who is anything but burned out by the pandemic.
Slow Burn Artistic Director and Co-Founder Patrick Fitzwater said the decision to alter his 2021-2022 season “was more tied to certain national events and our current cultural climate.”
“We took a substantial financial hit, about $1 million, but we’re pretty streamlined,” Mr. Fitzwater said. “We only have three employees. We don’t own our own space, so we didn’t have to maintain it.”
Mr. Fitzwater is artistic director and co-founder (with Matthew Korinko) of Slow Burn Theatre Company, currently housed at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale. He said the pandemic stifled the celebration of Slow Burn’s 10th anniversary and the opening of what was to be their most significant production of the 2019-2020 season, “Ragtime.”
“That show had the biggest gross potential,” he said. “We were doing our final run-throughs before going into tech. Then, the sets were built, and everything was ready to go. So I would say the biggest hit for us realized that show was not going to happen and having to refund the tickets we sold — and beyond that, realizing we weren’t going to be able to produce anything afterward.”
Mr. Fitzwater added he has been unable to assess the pandemic’s effect on retaining his approximately 3,000 subscribers but should know those results once a new subscription drive initiates in June. He also acknowledged the COVID crisis “put a strain” on Slow Burn’s relationship with the Broward Center, particularly in matters related to severe constrictions placed on performance venues by Actors Equity Association, but quickly asserted the venue “had taken excellent care of us.” He then dispelled the rumor that Slow Burn may move to the Parker Playhouse, about two miles from the Broward Center.
“If they come to us with an offer, that would be fantastic,” he laughed. “But no, there’s nothing to that rumor that I’m aware of.”
Mr. Fitzwater added that Slow Burn’s mission is to showcase musicals that didn’t get their entire life on Broadway or shows that went on tour but didn’t get a South Florida swing. However, due to the company’s partnership with the Broward Center, which brings in a variety of touring productions in addition to hosting Slow Burn’s line up, the company is restricted from producing “any show that is anywhere in the United States on a tour of any kind,” he said. Despite those restrictions, he wants to mount productions representing timely themes that open lines of communication — or productions that bring joy to audiences starved for entertainment, such as Slow Burn’s recent “Topsy Turvy Upside Down (Outdoor) Cabaret,” which was staged in the Broward Center’s rear parking lot in April.
Slow Burn shook off its pandemic blues by presenting “Topsy Turvy Upside Down (Outdoor) Cabaret,” which took place in the Broward Center’s rear parking lot.
“We saw so many people going on to TikTok and Facebook and performing for audiences from their bedrooms,” he said. “We were apprehensive about the mental health of the performance community. So we wanted to pull together a safe event where, for one night only, people could go out and be who they are, blow off some steam and get in front of 400 people again and remember what that felt like.”
The parking lot, he laughed, looked a little like Live Aid.
“There was a festival stage, and we had pods where people could buy sizes of two, four, and six,” he said. “And you had to arrive with your pod and stick with your pod. Those were socially distanced. The performers were only allowed to be on stage one at a time to take their masks off. It was a lovely night, and we had other theater companies there. It felt like a gathering in your backyard, kind of like coming out of your house after a hurricane, checking on your neighbors and making sure everyone was all right.”
As for Slow Burn’s upcoming season, the company’s website revealed the following: “Songs For A New World” will kick things off from Oct. 12-24. According to composer Jason Robert Brown, the show is an abstract “theatrical song cycle,” a series of songs all connected by a theme: “the moment of decision.” Following that will be the Tony Award-winning “Kinky Boots” from Dec. 17-Jan. 2, which focuses on a young factory owner struggling to save his family business. Pairing with an exotic entertainer, the two learn to embrace their differences and create a line of “sturdy stilettos unlike any the world has ever seen.” Next up will be “Once On This Island” from Feb. 4-20. The French Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean Sea concerns a peasant girl on a tropical island who uses love to bring people together of different social classes. Finally, “Matilda,” running from March 25-April 10, centers on a precocious 5-year-old girl with the gift of telekinesis who loves reading, overcomes obstacles caused by her family and school, and helps her teacher reclaim her life. Closing the season will be “Head Over Heels,” a jukebox musical comedy with music and lyrics from the catalog of The Go-Go’s, running from June 10-20.
Mr. Fitzwater said the 2021-2022 season would depart from what was initially planned to accommodate Equity constrictions, diversity, and inclusion.
“The pandemic didn’t make me change my line up,” he said. “That decision was more tied to certain national events and our current cultural climate. They made me reflect on what kind of artist I want to be and the opportunities I want to give. I want to reflect the community I serve more with both the shows I choose and the types of people their stories are about.”
Mr. Fitzwater added Slow Burn is now instituting a new professional performance youth group called Sparks, consisting of a diverse collection of singers and dancers between the ages of 10 and 15. They will put on a 30-minute musical revue featuring selections from each upcoming Slow Burn mainstage season. In addition, he hopes to serve as goodwill ambassadors to communities in the Fort Lauderdale area and Broward, Palm, and Miami/Dade counties.
“Matthew Korinko and I have already picked 26 kids,” he said. “It’s ‘no pay to play,’ meaning any kid from any background or any walk of life can apply to be a part of the group at no charge. We will fundraise for their opportunity, and our Slow Burn professionals will train them.”
Once Slow Burn begins operations again, Mr. Fitzwater said the size of its productions would start a little smaller than the $400,000 they usually budget per show but will soon ramp back up again.
“We want to make sure audiences feel comfortable enough to get back into our theater so they can enjoy our productions,” he said. “We work on a model of ticket sales, so we’ll be testing out in the beginning how ready they will be to return. Also, our audiences are very title-driven, so until we announce our season, it’s going to be a little hard to build our attendance numbers back quickly.”
Slow Burn casts about 95 percent of its actors locally and sticks to roughly three Actors Equity members per show. Mr. Fitzwater said he plans to hold that number in place unless he encounters too many costly restrictions from the union.
“I honestly have to see what those restrictions will be,” he said. “If they remain as stringent as they are currently, I don’t see how any theater company could make that work coming out of COVID.”