Grove Playhouse Officials Consider Taking On University Partner
By Eric Kalis
Directors of the dormant Coconut Grove Playhouse are discussing with consultants and Miami-Dade County administrators the viability of taking on a local college as a partner to operate the 80-year-old theater.
Following the example of Miami Dade College’s takeover of the Miami International Film Festival, playhouse directors are exploring scenarios in which a university or college would be brought in to help revive the shuttered theater, said vice chairwoman Emily Cardenas. The playhouse was closed in April 2006 when a $4 million debt made insurance inaffordable, leading to the forced resignation of longtime artistic director Arnold Mittelman.
County commissioners approved a $150,000 grant last year so the board could hire consulting firm AMS Research and Planning to draft a long-term vision for the theater.
"Partnering with an educational institution is not a new idea," Ms. Cardenas said. "Due to the evolution of the playhouse and where we are now, when taking a good hard look at the future, it is a natural recommendation. Whether an educational institution or some other institution [is involved], for the playhouse to rise out of the ashes, it will need some stabilizing force."
A university can benefit greatly from being a partner with a regional theater, said Michael Spring, county director of cultural affairs. At Yale, the university operates a theater with heavy student and faculty involvement but focuses on attracting professional performers, Mr. Spring said.
"One of the key reasons a university would get into the business of operating a regional theater is it can be a mark of excellence, like having a great museum," Mr. Spring said. "It shows a commitment to giving faculty and students education through a great cultural asset. Students are exposed to the highest standards of theater craft."
The idea will remain in the discussion stages until the playhouse board finishes a clear plan for eliminating the $4 million debt, Mr. Spring said. "Before we can actually go to a college and ask them to be a partner, we have the responsibility to come up with an effective plan to address the debt," he said. "No one wants to take on that burden."
County officials are determined not to let a proposed $3.5 million cultural affairs budget cut in the wake of statutory property-tax reform affect the department’s ability to assist the playhouse, Mr. Spring said. The county is responsible for $15 million in bonds intended for physical improvements to the playhouse once it shows signs of economic vitality.
"We are concerned about the affects of property-tax reform but are as resolved as ever to work with the playhouse," he said. "This requires us to be more resourceful, creative and industrious. We are not looking at the issue of reform to discourage us from our goal and are both optimistic and committed to seeing great regional theater occur on stage."
Board members are encouraged by recent developments, Ms. Cardenas said, including an anonymous $470,000 donation to save a portion of the playhouse property from foreclosure. The board hopes to make an announcement within 90 days as the long-term revival strategy is ironed out.
"We are feeling really good about" the latest debt-recovery efforts, she said. "We have been able to accomplish a lot with a working board who can get together and roll up our sleeves and tackle hard issues."