Innovation In the Face of Adversity as Miami-Dade’s Theatre Companies Conquer The Pandemic

To say that it’s been a challenging year for the theatre may be a rather profound understatement. But as we head into the 2021-2022 season, things are slowly making their way to something closer to normal, and South Florida theatre is gradually kicking back into gear.


So I caught up with a few of Miami-Dade county’s smaller companies to take a look at how they’ve struggled their way through this unprecedented pandemic and at what their exciting future holds!


Miami companies seem not to be as shattered as you might initially imagine for having been through something so earth-shattering to start on an optimistic note. For one thing, smaller companies mean more negligible overhead and thus more minor losses, which doesn’t mean that the artistic and financial losses they did suffer weren’t considerable. Giancarlo Rodaz, associate creative director of Area Stage, describes a substantial struggle in his company’s effort to make ends meet.


“It was pretty hard because… we do professional shows, but no one makes money off of professional theatre…some of our shows cost like $300,000, they’re expensive, when you include the entire company’s operation costs, carrying a production… Our bread and butter was the conservatory… It’s like the room was‌ ‌filled‌ ‌up‌ ‌with‌ ‌water‌ ‌, and‌ ‌our‌ ‌heads‌ ‌were‌ ‌right‌ ‌above‌ ‌it. That’s‌ ‌what‌ ‌it‌ ‌felt‌ ‌like…‌ I‌t was ‌a‌ ‌pretty‌ ‌terrible‌ ‌year‌ ‌looking‌ ‌back‌ ‌on‌ ‌it,‌ ‌very‌ ‌rough‌.” 

Areas Stage also had to cancel the last few shows of their conservatory production of Oliver, which Rodaz describes as “a harrowing experience.” That was also their previous production period in the company’s former home at the Riviera Theatre before a spring move to its new location at The Shops at Sunset Place. Though Rodaz might have found the timing of their move to be an ominous omen, a generational history of overcoming adversity helped him keep a positive attitude.


“When my parents started at the Riviera…it was during the recession, and now starting this one during the pandemic, so both times, we were screwed over going in, but I think it’s a testament to how my parents worked. They’re often dealt a tough hand, and they always come out on the other side.”


So Area adapted their paradigm to offer the first virtual and then socially distanced classes. And now that the COVID situation has begun to improve, business is finally on the rebound, with Rodaz estimating student enrollment to be at about 60 to 70 percent of normal.


“There are always people who support us,” he reflects.


Other companies have also found that audiences and patrons have shown a remarkable amount of understanding for the peculiar situation in which theatres found themselves after COVID forced them to shut their doors.  


“I have to tell you, the audience in Miami tends to be a little younger than it does in some of the northern counties, and they’ve been completely supportive and completely understanding of the situation.” Michael McKeever of Zoetic Stage reflected. 


Tanya Bravo found Juggerknot Theatre Company’s audiences’ to be similarly forgiving when their Miami Motel Stories was forced to close prematurely in the middle of its extension.  

Bus Stop Stories producers, Tanya and Natasha Bravo.


“Even ticket buyers…several didn’t ask for a refund, said this is a donation to the company… So I think the community’s come together.”


Grants, loans, and other types of outside funding have also been key to many companies’ survival. For example, Area Stage continued receiving funding from the state for their Inclusion Theatre Project, which provides theatrical training to children with developmental and intellectual disabilities. In contrast, Zoetic Stage and Juggerknot received aid from the county and various individual foundations.  


One major grant came through for Main Street Players even though COVID precluded its initially predicated productions. They also received aid from the nationwide Paycheck Protection Program.


“We did our due diligence when it came to getting as much assistance as possible,” artistic director Danny Nieves reflects.


Though Nieves plans to take a more aggressive approach to fundraise as things start to return to normalcy, he has found his audience base to be somewhat hesitant about donating, which is understandable given how financially rocky the past year has been for many. But in the meantime, MSP still finds itself relatively fortunate.


“The theatre is in a good financial position because we’re just cautious with our money, and we don’t spend it where we don’t have to.”


Bravo also feels good about where her company has landed financially post-pandemic.


“I don’t think we’re better than we were before the pandemic because we did have an incredible loss, but I think we feel comfortable now. We’re back on our feet.”

This is partly because the virtual ventures Juggerknot produced this year came with lower production costs while still serving as exciting avenues for artistic exploration and, ultimately, success. For example, they made the best of a bad situation when they partnered with New York company Pop Up Theatrics to bring back an online show that had previously been performed over Skype called Long Distance Affair. Its new Zoom incarnation sent its audience members on “virtual flights” to one of six different cities worldwide, and in each, they’d find a new one-person show crafted explicitly for the medium. Especially now that actual life travel was out of the question, the unique chance to connect with people from across the globe resonated with many.


“What we found is that people had a sense of wanting to connect, and what was fascinating to us as we were working with people in Singapore and India and Mexico, Paris, all over the place, London, we were all in a sense in the same situation…and our challenge is how close can we get the audience, to feel that intimacy and connection with another person across the world,” says Bravo.


The show ultimately enjoyed not one but two sold-out runs, with an initial round of performances in May and a new incarnation presented this February.


“It was very successful for us. We were pleasantly surprised by the feedback and how much people enjoyed it. And for us, it opened up a global audience because we had people tuning in from all over the world. So all of a sudden, it’s not just the Miami audience, but you’ve got people from Lebanon, to India, to Mexico City, Los Angeles.”


But while Juggerknot was leaning into Zoom’s potential, other companies felt frustrated by its limitations. For example, Main Street Players’ first post-shutdown project was a summer Zoom reading of the script that had won his company’s annual new play competition, which usually would have been presented in person. And though Nieves found that it was nice “to be able to do something artistic again,” in the midst of such a long drought, he also found that “it did not satisfy us as artists or as a company the way that in-person and live theatre does.”


“So we decided to hold off after and not continue to do things on Zoom and just sort of wait and bide our time until we can get people in the house,” he explains.


Rodaz puts his feelings on the matter more frankly:


“Zoom shows are horrible. Like us, I admired everyone who tried to make it work, but the theatre’s about getting together with people. It’s about seeing something live. Especially nowadays, there’s nothing special about seeing something online because everything is online.”


But Rodaz can still appreciate the part virtual productions played in keeping the theatre community connected when a physical connection was out of reach. 


“One wonderful thing was that theatre people were supporting each other online, and that’s what that was good for. I think it kept everyone in touch with each other. It kept everyone aware that we’re here, that we’re all still producing, we’re all still trying.”


Zoetic Stage made the best out of our time in Zoom confinement by using it as a platform for a series of virtual play readings. Though these readings didn’t necessarily draw a large audience, Mckeever still considers them an artistic success because of the value that hearing a script read aloud by professional actors has to a playwright in process. So he plans on continuing the endeavor even after the pandemic ceases. 


“That’s gonna be something that becomes a staple, our virtual play reading series very much a staple,” he reflects.


Nieves also found an opportunity to embrace original work during the pandemic: Main Street’s first significant venture since last year’s shutdowns will produce two new plays that came to him via submissions the previous year. Wolf and Badger by Michael McGoldrick will open in late July and run through late August. Shakespeare is a White Supremacist by Andrew Watring will premiere towards the end of September. 


For Nieves, exploring new work had both pragmatic and artistic upsides. 


“They were a little bit cheaper than going to a publisher, and it also gave us a little more flexibility when it came to the streaming side of things, and we just wanted to give new artists some opportunities. So both of the plays that we’re doing this year are going to be available online as more like a video on demand than a livestream.”


Nieves is hopeful that streaming could open up Main Street’s programming to a broader audience and will consider continuing to make his shows available virtually if he finds that there is indeed demand.


Meanwhile, Juggerknot’s success in the virtual realm inspired them to expand into another new horizon. Their next project, Miami Bus Stop Stories, “is the first time we’re doing an educational program that’s specifically for middle and high school students,” Bravo explains.


Much as Long Distance Affair offered virtual “flights,” in Bus Stop Stories, a virtual bus ride will “take” students to different Miami neighborhoods, where stories crafted by playwrights will help teach them about the area’s history.


But other companies have already taken tentative steps back into in-person theatre. Area Stage first experimented via some outdoor productions with their conservatory students. Then, early this year, their professional production of Shrek may have been the first musical to return to the Miami area. 


Though the show was scaled way down, with the cast trimmed to only seven actors instead of its traditionally large ensemble, Rodaz still found immense creative satisfaction in the project. 


“A lot of people came out to see it. We were filled up every night. We had to add chairs some nights… that was a pretty successful run. I was thrilled to see that. And I think, more than anything, it showed that we were hungry to do stuff again. We were wondering if people would be so traumatized by this whole pandemic that they wouldn’t want to come out and see a show again, but we were wrong.” 


Zoetic Stage saw a similarly impressive turnout when they too began to experiment in the great outdoors, taking advantage of a hitherto unused courtyard at their Arsht center home as the playing field for a “high energy improv comedy experience” provided by their six-actor-troupe Zoetic Schmoetic. 


“It was a terrific success. The audience did well and responded to it…We sold out each of the runs, and it was just so gratifying. It gave us goosebumps to see people coming out… that was very important to us because not only was it important to keep the brand out there, keep our audience aware that we were still producing, it was important for us as the artists that we keep busy,” Mckeever says.

While Main Street Players has kept their theatre mostly dark, they too did briefly test the waters on returning in December with three short one-person shows, those being the thesis projects of a few FIU students who missed out on performing them in person during lockdowns the previous spring. 


“It was a small house, we only had ten people in the audience, and it was the close friends and family of the actors, there weren’t any actual patrons allowed, but we used it as a dry run to get an idea of what it would be like with a socially distant theatre and all those protocols that COVD is now demanding of businesses, like temperature checks and masks,” Nieces describes.


He expects that some of these protocols will still need to be in place for his July production but hopes to host a whole house come September, CDC guidelines pending. But after scaling down somewhat this year, he has bigger plans for 2022. There were two plays initially slated for their 2020 season and one for 2021. And he expects their themes to be newly resonant in the wake of the past year’s turmoil.


“Theatre has always been that mirror to society, theatre is where we come to escape, and that’s all well and good, but we also come to exorcise society’s problems and connect. That’s what I wanted in 2020 before the pandemic happened…the plays that we were doing were all about very American family topics, they all tied into that American story.”


Zoetic also plans on mounting several of the initially slated productions for its 2020-2021 season.


“We brought back a lot of the season that was canceled because those shows had committed to us, and we wanted to be committed to them as well,” Mckeever explains. 


Along with bringing back their ill-fated production of A Little Night Music, which was only a week out from opening when the first lockdown hit, Zoetic also plans to produce two original plays by writers with South Florida roots, Gringolandia by Hannah Benitez and Our Dear Dead Drug Lord by Alexis Scheer. The latter both have relatively small casts, which Mckeever hopes will help keep the season manageable, but Zoetic is starting big this October with Nick Dear’s Frankenstein production.


“We’re going to try and represent it as a theatrical event, with special effects and a large cast to try to coax audience members back, with the understanding that everything that we do will be completely within COVID compliance guidelines, not only for our actors or staff but for our patrons as well. So we’re very cautious and very aware of the health situations that could follow.”

Area Stage also plans on getting back into dramatic swing in a big way with their upcoming June production of the classic musical Annie, which will be their first professional show at their new space. But before you brush it off as an inconsequential kid’s show, Rodaz wants to make potential audience members aware that this will be an Annie like no one has ever done Annie before. 


“It’s going to be an immersive experience….we converted our black box into a speakeasy bar. There’s a live jazz quartet… the story’s being told straightforwardly,” he explains.

“I love the script, I think it’s brilliant, I think people underestimate it now…, and I just feel like it needs a facelift, so we’re doing it in a brand new way.”


Rodaz was influenced by Brechtian theatre of the poor when developing his vision for Annie. His most considerable alteration from the original is probably his choice to present the show with only eight actors, all adults who will be double and triple cast.


“Having adults do the show brings out a surprising quality…. the few people that have watched the opening scene are crying because these adults are doing things that kids have to live with,” he reflects.


He found the play to be a perfect fit for the post-pandemic era “because it’s about orphans in the depression and about a tough time in US history.. and Annie is this girl who swings in with this old-fashioned American optimism… it’s about finding hope in the darkest times.”


Juggerknot also has two other immersive productions in the works, the details of which have yet to be made public.


“We do have a couple of surprises that we’ll be announcing later down the line,” Bravo coyly states. 


They also eventually hope to offer Miami Bus Stop Stories as a physical experience for students and a virtual one.


“Imagine, if you will, everybody’s getting on a bus and ending up at somebody’s home in Little Haiti, or ending up at somebody’s home in Coconut Grove or Hialeah,” Bravo describes. 


The city’s rich and multicultural history also provides an exciting opportunity to explore the stories of those who may have previously enjoyed less time in the limelight.


Black playwright France-Luce Benson will be writing about predominantly black neighborhoods like Liberty City, Coconut Grove, and Little Haiti, while Miami Motel Stories writer Juan C. Sanchez will be focusing on Latin X neighborhoods like Homestead, Hialeah and Little Havana. 


“The way that Juggerknot works is we tell the stories of the neighborhood, what’s happening past, present and future, so I think that these things will come up no matter what, because we are telling the story of people,”


Bravo said when asked whether this year’s unrest was something the company planned on exploring in their theatrical works. But it’s already played a part in some of Juggerknot’s other artistic choices. 


“We closed Long Distance Affair right when George Floyd was murdered, and we purposefully said ‘hey we’re not gonna produce anything right now because we’re gonna use our platform to get the vote out, to speak as much as possible about what’s going on and to help this cause’… I think the creative community responded very quickly to it, so it was wonderful to see it,” she said.


Meanwhile, Rodaz was about as enthusiastic about the prospect of a more diverse theatre scene as he was about his offbeat Annie—in which, by the by, the iconic role of Miss Hannigan is set to be played by a black man in drag. 


“I’m always hungry to find more actors of all types cause I love that….I love to see as diverse a cast as possible.”


Rodaz also recalled an incident that made him viscerally aware of the importance that seeing themselves reflected onstage could have for the next generation of potential theatremakers.


“I’ll never forget, I wrote a show, we did it for a school, and it was with our students, and that group of students just happened to be all white, Hispanic. A black student, who was I think five years old, raised his hand, and he said, can black people audition too? And I was like, of course, of course. It’s heartbreaking to hear a question like that.”


He is, though, optimistic that things are headed in the right direction.


“I think the more people get comfortable seeing all different types of people onstage…I think all these things get better and better,…especially in theatre, it’s usually at the forefront of that kind of stuff, it’s ever-evolving.”


Mckeever has also cautiously optimistically viewed the slow process of racial reckoning underway in the theatre community.


“I think that we have a long way to go. I think that it’s been a long time coming, and it’s going to be a welcome change to the world of theatre. The theatres that I’m involved with have embraced it and realized that it’s a long time coming. And I think it’s important, not only on the stage but in the boardroom administratively as well,” he said.


“I think we’re all going back changed… the theatre community in general, around the world and certainly in America, it’s going to be looking at so many things differently, and for the better, I think that as an artist myself creating I do look at the world differently and that the world is where we draw all inspiration from, so for better or worse I think that the pandemic has had an impact on each of us as artists,” McKeever continued. 


For Bravo, that impact may be a permanently broadened perspective.


“I think the fact we were working with artists all over the world, realizing hey, we’re not the only ones over here in our little bubble of South Florida…there’s some empathy, and there’s a sense of understanding, outside your sort of community that helped us,” she says.


And for Nieves, this moment in time is just a chance for him to embrace what he has always believed.


“Theatre has to continue what it’s always done, give people the opportunity to escape, but also to challenge them, to get them to think critically and perhaps understand a different perspective… it’s always been around and will always be around,” he says.


And it seems artists eager to give the art form their all will always be around to fuel its continuity.


“I’m so eager to get back to the world of making theatre and entertaining and being in the room with other artists. I think it’s something that we all need. It’s not just a job. I do miss being in the room with people I love,” McKeever reflected. 


Nieves can’t wait to get back in the game, either.


“It was a tough 13-14 months. But, we’re very, very excited to get back, and we hope to see people out there,” he states.


Well, you heard him—see you at the theatre!

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