Plan for larger theater at Coconut Grove Playhouse remains alive

March 12, 2015
A plan to build a 300-seat theater at a revamped Coconut Grove Playhouse was bolstered by fans of GableStage, the company that would run it. But an alternative plan to build a larger theater is still on the table.

A long chorus line of theater fans, actors and professionals turned out Thursday to extol GableStage's bid to run a revived Coconut Grove Playhouse as a mid-size regional company during an extended Miami-Dade committee hearing that appeared to bolster the official county plan to revamp the closed historic theater.

At the same time, an alternative proposal by a veteran arts patron that would add a second theater to the historic site possibly with the involvement of actor and producer Kevin Spacey remained very much alive.

Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, responding to a two-theater plan outlined by Commissioner Xavier Suarez, whose district includes the Grove, issued a memo that agrees in principle to incorporate the larger auditorium proposed by Arsht Center trust chairman Mike Eidson into the county's long-gestating plan to reopen the playhouse under the aegis of Florida International University and GableStage provided the millions of dollars it would take to build and run it can be raised in full from private sources.

Eidson, who is acting independently of the Arsht, has said Spacey is interested in helping guide the storied playhouse's revival, possibly as an advisor or consultant.

At the end of the two-and-a-half hour hearing, with some common ground laid out, the four members of the economic prosperity committee still on hand agreed unanimously, without discussion or a recommendation either way, to pass on to the full commission for evaluation two contracts that would put the county plan in motion: an operating agreement with GableStage, a small but critically lauded company based at the Biltmore Hotel, and a proposed $2.4 million design and planning contract for the playhouse resuscitation with Grove-based Arquitectonica.

Among the architectural team's tasks will be evaluating whether a second theater can be accommodated on the site, and how much of the deteriorated 1920s Mediterranean playhouse building an architectural and cultural landmark that's designated historic by the city of Miami can be saved and reused.

The two contracts were last-minute additions to the hearing agenda, which originally included only a public discussion scheduled by Suarez, the committee chair, to air out community views on the proposals, which have been surrounded by rumors that have raised significant consternation among arts boosters, Groveites and preservationists.

Suarez had previously suggested he would try to hold up the GableStage agreement because he's not persuaded they're up to the job. But he said at the opening of the hearing that his immediate concerns were allayed by Gimenez's memo as well as assurances from the county attorney's office that that contract could be cancelled at any time for any reason.

"I think we moved things quicker than we usually do," Suarez said after the hearing.

The committee got an earful, overwhelmingly from supporters of the award-winning GableStage and its longtime artistic director, Joe Adler, who was variously praised as a "cultural giant" in Miami, "a force," and, according to one speaker, "God."

Some, including Adler, suggested that county leaders should not become enamored of imported stars as cultural saviors, denigrate homegrown talent or fall into the thinking that says that bigger is better.

"True regional theater creates stars," Adler said. "We need to do that here in Miami."

Several speakers with professional theater backgrounds urged caution on the larger, 700-seat theater proposed by Eidson, noting halls that size can be difficult to fill. Some said that theaters in big cities like London, where Spacey is credited with resuscitating the Old Vic, are reducing seating to create more-intimate spaces.

"We don't need another large facility," said Ann Anthony, executive director of Miami's Mad Cat Theater Company, listing Actor's Playhouse in the Gables' Miracler Theater as well as the Arsht Center's two big auditoriums.

But others, including noted preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, who has sketched out a blueprint that would accommodate both the 300-seat hall proposed for GableStage as well as the larger theater Eidson wants while saving most of the historic playhouse building, said there's no reason not to try for both.

The state-owned playhouse, run at the time by a nonprofit group, closed abruptly in 2006 amid deep financial problems that some blame in part on the difficulty and expense of running a 1,100 seat theater. The state turned the property over to FIU after extensive negotiations with the university and the county, which sis overseeing the revival planning. The county has $20 million in voter-approved bond money for the job.

The state-approved plan, years in negotiation, calls for a 300-seat theater to be run by GableStage. But Eidson's and Suarez's intervention, including some critical remarks directed at Adler and his company, prompted an outcry among supporters concerned the plan would be upended.

"I love the Coconut Grove Playhouse. I miss it. I want it back," Grove activist Nathan Kurland, a leader in efforts to save the theater, told commissioners on Thursday. "It's time to stop dickering and bickering. We're all here for the same reason."

Eidson said Thursday his intention was only to bring back the "flagship theater" Miami lost when the playhouse shut down.

"We want Coconut Grove Playhouse back the way it used to be" when it drew 150,000 people a year at its peak, Eidson said.

He added that Spacey "lectured" him about the legends that strode its stage when Eidson dared ask him for help.

"Kevin Spacey believes in the Coconut Grove Playhouse," Eidson said. "We can do this."

Miami Herald
By Andres Viglucci
Photo by Marsha Halper