How realistic is the dialogue in the Grove Playhouse drama?
Written by Michael Lewis on March 18, 2015
The best theater in Miami is at Coconut Grove Playhouse. Imagine how much better it could be if the playhouse were actually open.
The vacant site tops the bill of a drama for control between tiny, high-quality GableStage and the chairman of the county’s largest arts hub, Mike Eidson of the Arsht Center.
Spearheading the GableStage cause is Michael Spring, county arts chief and a key advisor to Mayor Carlos Gimenez. Carrying the spear for Mr. Eidson is Xavier Suarez, the district’s county commissioner and a potential mayoral contender against Mr. Gimenez.
It’s a great cast: all stars and no bit players, all heroes and no villains.
Does one side lose, or can protagonists craft a happy ending where everyone – including theatergoers and taxpayers – wins?
The script is being written right now.
Last week a county committee hearing packed by vocal supporters of Joe Adler, the artistic genius behind GableStage, booked the next act for a full commission meeting.
The commission must decide whether to let Mr. Adler’s team alone take over a rebuilt Coconut Grove Playhouse with a new 300-seat theater to replace what was once a 1,500-seat regional theater or to add to the playbill a 750-seat theater controlled by a foundation that Mr. Eidson is forming.
The old playhouse crumbled in 2006 under the weight of $4 million debt. The structure was built on sand – the theater was made of beach sand, and salt had corroded the supports to the point that even before it fell vacant it was decaying.
The county named star architects Arquitectonica to consult on a new structure. Mr. Spring picked Mr. Adler to bring his acclaimed theater to a larger 300-seat venue. And Mr. Eidson, looking for theater with general appeal, quietly lobbied to get 750 seats and stated that actor “Kevin Spacey said he wants to help us.”
It’s a bit like Florida International University’s drive to take over the lease of the Youth Fair: a county-named incumbent is battling a powerful team that says it has a better idea. Again, no bad guys but an apparent collision course.
FIU is an player in the playhouse drama, too: it shares official control with the county under a lease from the state. Mr. Adler and GableStage had gotten their nod to run the theater before Mr. Eidson made public his own idea.
Dividing the space as Mr. Eidson suggests is like cutting a baby in half, but it could actually work. That would require coordinating schedules of two theaters, parking and building use.
More important, it would involve two groups producing excellent but very different shows. Divergence would be assured by the visions of the operators-to-be, as Mr. Adler focuses on the serious works he has produced for years and Mr. Eidson looks for a market with far broader appeal.
The county has $20 million to build a theater for GableStage and Mr. Eidson says he’ll create a foundation and raise $35 million to $40 million for the other stage. We can count on the county money. Mr. Eidson’s foundation is a nice scenario, but we’ve seen many arts groups promise big and come up short – and this foundation isn’t yet tangible.
Far more important than construction funds is operating cash. Miami keeps building great structures and then scratching to keep them open.
Theaters aren’t cash cows. They can sell out yet lose money. Mr. Adler has been raising operating money on a much smaller scale, and Mr. Eidson’s group doesn’t yet function to raise any operating funds.
Mr. Eidson has brought a lot to the table: Kevin Spacey is a big name, and $35 million to $40 million is a lot of money.
But we have only one man’s word that either Mr. Spacey or the money will materialize. No matter how confident Mr. Eidson is, we haven’t heard word one from Mr. Spacey about Coconut Grove or seen dollar one of those millions.
Appeals to the commission aren’t always reliable. Remember another big name, Jeffrey Loria, who told commissioners in 2009 that the Florida Marlins were losing their shirts and needed a county-funded stadium to survive when they actually were making the biggest profits in baseball.
We’re not demoting these participants to Mr. Loria’s league, but the issue is the same: Mr. Loria never opened his books and commissioners took him at his word.
We trust all involved in the playhouse drama, but let’s see both GableStage and the big-theater side show that they have enough money not only to open a theater but to run it a long, long time without turning to the county for multi-million-dollar subsidies like the Arsht Center, whose board Mr. Eidson heads, has gotten every year despite pledges that it would never need county aid. The Arsht, though, isn’t acting in the Grove theater drama: that’s Mr. Eidson’s show.
Two theaters could revitalize the Grove. They’d have broader economic and cultural impacts, too. And they’d end years of waiting for a reopened playhouse in some form – any form.
Nothing is wrong – and a whole lot is right – with two economically sound operators producing differing high-quality programs on Main Highway. Operators should have been chosen in open competition, but probably few quality candidates exist.
Mr. Eidson says that neither constructing nor operating a 750-seat playhouse would cost taxpayers a penny. We’d like proof, just as we’d like to see Mr. Spacey step on stage, contract in hand, and tell us that his dream career involves a new Coconut Grove theater. We’d also like to see how GableStage will fund its theater in years ahead.
All this drama, and more, is coming soon to a commission dais near you. We expect theater supporters to fill a lot of seats. We look for a lot more evidence than just dialogue to support the protagonists. And we’d applaud Mr. Spacey seeking a starring role.