Out of the void, back into the light.
That’s how choreographer-dancer Pioneer Winter sees the arts and culture world’s progression from the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic to the start of a new live 2021-2022 season.
“I want that feeling of the chest being cracked open, the catharsis,” says Winter, whose commissioned “Birds of Paradise” is having its world premiere Sept. 16-19 at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center after a year’s delay. “We’ve had to ask a million times how to begin [live performances] again.”
Throughout South Florida, arts and culture organizations have come up with a variety of answers to that question — answers that keep shifting due to COVID surge fueled by the Delta variant.
The Arsht and Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center will follow strict safety protocols, requiring masking for all and proof vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of an event. Other organizations are likely to follow suit – though some may be hesitant to go that far. Pushing the start of the season into late fall or winter, which some organizations have done, prolongs the uncertainty about how deep the desire for a live arts and culture experience may be. And there’s the money angle: With audiences now accustomed to free or low-cost online cultural experiences, will they be willing to pay a lot more for in-person performances of opera, ballet, concerts and plays?
For Broadway Across America, which will welcome full-capacity audiences to the touring shows it brings to Miami’s Arsht Center and Fort Lauderdale’s Broward Center, the answer is a resounding yes, says president Susie Krajsa. “Our subscribers have been so loyal and patient. Subscriptions have never been better.”
But for others, the answer isn’t quite as clear cut.
Broward Center President and CEO Kelley Shanley is optimistic — but cautious. “What are sales really going to look like? There is pent-up demand, but some people are concerned about being in a room with 2,000 strangers,” he acknowledges.
Says Arsht Center president and CEO Johann Zietsman, “We don’t know where the audience will be when it comes back.”
Most facilities are ready for the return, many with new air filtration systems, hand sanitizer stations, temperature checks, masking and some – but not all – with seating plans that build in social distancing. All are designed to enhance safety and confidence, says Michael Spring, director of Miami-Dade County’s Department of Cultural Affairs, who adds that the measures “come out of a genuine concern for the human beings involved…there’s an acute sense of responsibility.”
For these and other presenters, the key is obviously not just the number of productions but their content and how they’re delivered. Some groups are hedging against the Delta variant by marrying live performances or events with the sort of digital content that became vital to keeping their audiences engaged during the pandemic. Others are leaning into familiar content, hoping it will bring long-time patrons back to performance spaces. Still others have used the pandemic pause to reinvent themselves, keeping an eye on a younger generation that often views the arts as both entertainment and culture.
Even with vital, organization-sustaining support from government grants, philanthropists and grant organizations, 18 months without revenue from ticket sales means that starting over, often with a smaller staff, has required nimble solutions with an eye to long-term sustainability.
The Arsht’s answer has been to book fewer shows than in pre-COVID years, with the option to add more.
Zietsman, his programming colleagues and the center’s anchor organizations are going for a smorgasbord, mixing familiar and much-loved titles — such as Miami City Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” and Florida Grand Opera’s “Rigoletto” – with new offerings by smaller local companies that often appeal to younger and more budget-conscious audiences, such as the Area Stage production of the angsty high school musical “Be More Chill” and Zoetic Stage’s upcoming production of “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord.”
The Arsht is also continuing its Live on the Plaza music series, with $25 tickets; appealing to non-traditionalists with shows such as “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker;” and presenting a free four-show Family Fest series. For 60,000 Miami-Dade students it will offer a trio of original shows including the new mental-health themed “I Am Me” for ninth graders.
“Younger audiences are cultural omnivores. They enjoy new, different, experimental work,” Zietsman says. “And during the pandemic, we made a lot of connections with local artists, so now we have a pipeline to develop things.”
This season, there’s also a bonus for patrons of all ages: For some shows, they can buy $15 tickets in celebration of center’s quinceañera.
Touring Broadway at both the Arsht Center and Broward Center will also be a mixture of vintage titles and newer ones, with musicals for a general audience, some that skew younger and others aimed at families. Booking them isn’t just dependent on what local audiences might want – if it were, we’d be getting “Hamilton” and “Wicked” again – because the routing of national tours comes into play.
At the Arsht, the ‘60s-celebrating “Hairspray,” romantic “Anastasia” and rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” are joined by the musical about a high school misfit, “Dear Evan Hansen.” Broward audiences start with the uplifting “Come From Away,” followed by the movie-to-musical hit “Tootsie,” the Temptations celebration “Ain’t Too Proud” and more.
The region’s theater companies are putting greater emphasis on world premiere plays and musicals, works that add to the repertoire and forever link a company’s name to a successful piece.
At Miami New Drama, that strategy isn’t exactly a new one. Over the past several seasons, founder-artistic director Michel Hausmann and his colleagues have been nurturing or commissioning new plays. For 2021-2022 they’ve hit a long-sought goal: an all-world premiere season.
“We’re starting with [the pandemic-delayed Louis Armstrong musical] ‘A Wonderful World’ the first three weeks of December. Then we’re doing Winter Miller’s ‘When Monica Met Hillary,’ which is a behind-the-scenes look at what women have to put up with. Next is Carmen Pelaez’s ‘The Cuban Vote,’ a play we commissioned; it’s a modern version of ‘The Taming of the Shrew,’ and she plays a candidate for Miami mayor. Last is ‘Papá Cuatro,’ a world premiere musical by Juan Souki and the Grammy-nominated C4 Trio.”
Last winter, Hausmann and Miami New Drama commissioned and produced “Seven Deadly Sins,” short plays in which actors performed inside storefronts on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road as small audiences gathered safely outside. The show brought the company national attention, earning it a Drama League award as the country’s most outstanding interactive or socially distanced theater offering.
For Zoetic Stage artistic director Stuart Meltzer, the pandemic became a time of “reevaluating who we’re communicating stories to. We heard the need for lots of social change in the arts, and we asked how do we change and create more opportunities?”
Zoetic’s more expansive view involves working with local playwrights to develop, workshop and present pieces that flow from a diverse South Florida. Meltzer thinks those new works can excite people – young people, especially – to see theater as a fresh night-out experience.
His new season combines spectacle, a piece of Stephen Sondheim’s musical art and two plays (one a world premiere) by women with Miami ties.
Meltzer will now start with what he calls a “thrilling theatrical spectacle,” Nick Dear’s “Frankenstein,” the National Theatre version of the well-known monster tale. That will be followed by the commissioned world premiere of “GringoLandia” by New World grad Hannah Benitez and the Sondheim-Hugh Wheeler musical “A Little Night Music,” both originally scheduled for spring 2020. The season will close out with the recent Off-Broadway hit “Our Dear Dead Drug Lord” – about diverse teen girls who try to summon the spirit of Pablo Escobar into a dilapidated Coral Gables treehouse – by Miami-raised playwright Alexis Scheer.
At GableStage, producing artistic director Bari Newport is balancing pandemic concerns with the delicate task of taking over from a legend, the late Joseph Adler. She is dedicated to fulfilling the company’s mission – presenting artistically excellent and innovative classic, contemporary and new works that challenge multicultural audiences while confronting issues and ideas – and is doing so from the perspective of a younger woman artist with her own kind of edge.
Her answer: seven projects that are new to GableStage — and in some cases, new to the world. They include Arthur Miller’s “The Price” (which was to have been Adler’s last show), Claudia Rankine’s provocative “The White Card” and the world premiere two-character musical “Me Before You.”
“Each is special and risky in a good way,” she says. “It’s about how to take the theater’s mission statement, Joe’s legacy and my vision forward, while trying to get the zeitgeist of the town, the cultural world and the time we live in. They’re all stories about different aspects of relevancy.”
Opera has its own particular challenges. For classic grand opera, large indoor audiences are needed to offset high production costs. And newer titles or more experimental pieces that may appeal to younger audiences aren’t what older traditionalists want.
For Florida Grand Opera’s general director and CEO Susan T. Danis, the strategy is part economic, part artistic.
The fall will launch “soft” with a series of concerts in more intimate community settings, running the gamut from jazz to zarzuelas. With performing arts centers closed during the pandemic, Danis says, she discovered “the powerful emotional response to these incredible singers going into different genres” in smaller spaces.
Utilizing several less costly venues and presenting concerts in more intimate settings helped the opera trim its budget by 25%. After presenting its first two operas in its traditional homes at the Arsht Center and Broward Center, FGO will travel to the Lauderhill Performing Arts Center (which, Danis notes, offers free parking) and Miami’s Scottish Rite Temple for the fourth, offering bus service to the new venues.
When the company resumes full-length operas in January, Danis’s programming will mix the traditional with more daring choices. Among them are Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” his operatic version of Tennessee Williams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning drama; Verdi’s “Rigoletto” and Handel’s baroque-style “Agrippina,” presented at the Scottish Rite Temple with a twist: a diverse cast, ala “Bridgerton.” Two are sung in English; all have projected translations in English and Spanish.
After a long virtual season, other musical organizations also are getting back to the business of playing for live audiences, though digital programming and live streaming will continue to enhance what they offer.
The Miami Beach-based New World Symphony has announced a full in-person schedule this year, with both indoor concerts and its wildly popular free Wallcasts (enhanced this season by a mobile wall in different neighborhoods). Then came the news that its celebrated artistic director and co-founder Michael Tilson Thomas would step away from engagements this fall following surgery to remove a brain tumor. President and CEO Howard Herring confirmed that the concert-rich season will go on as originally scheduled, with other conductors filling in for Thomas as needed.
“We program for the [musicians]; they play music that Michael believes will be of value to them. You’ll hear music you expect from the standard [symphonic] repertoire given a new context, a new understanding,” Herring says. The goal: honor the past while shaping the future.
The season will include scores from the turn of the century and post-World War II/mid-century, as well as new music. The American premiere of a Kurt Weill concert suite, the world premiere of a new version of George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, a celebration of the Harlem Renaissance and a clarinet festival are all part of New World’s season.
Miami’s genre-bending, inventive Nu Deco Ensemble will return to the North Beach Bandshell and the Arsht Center for five concerts from November to April. CEO and co-artistic director Sam Hyken plans to continue streaming those concerts live, allowing for “more storytelling” and instant feedback/interaction, he says.
The difference this year is that the concerts will have sizable in-person audiences, which Hyken considers vital to what Nu Deco does: “The audience is the 27th member of our ensemble.”
Dance, too, is returning to live performances for large indoor audiences, after a season of exploring digital possibilities and open-air options.
Celebrating her 10th season as artistic director of Miami City Ballet (MCB), Lourdes Lopez will start online in October with the digital premiere of MCB’s 2016 underwater reimagining of George Balanchine’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The company goes off to the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Nov. 24-28 to dance its much-loved production of Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” (last season, it performed an outdoor multimedia “Nutcracker” for socially distanced audiences in the Downtown Doral Park). MCB then returns to South Florida for live December performances of “The Nutcracker” at the Broward Center, the Arsht Center and the Kravis Center, the three venues in which it will perform this season.
For the rest of its in-person season, MCB will mix familiar titles and productions with new ones, all aimed at exciting ballet fans about coming back.
In what Lopez calls “the cornerstone of our season,” MCB will perform the United States premiere of choreographer Alexei Ratmansky’s version of “Swan Lake” in February. Next is a South Florida favorite, Balanchine’s three-act “Jewels,” in March-April. The season closes in April-May with a four-part program: Balanchine’s beloved “Prodigal Son,” the company premieres of William Forsythe’s “Herman Schmerman” and Christopher Wheeldon’s “After the Rain” pas de deux, and a world premiere collaboration between choreographer Claudia Schreier and filmmaker Adam Barish.
“This is a momentous season for any performing arts organization,” observes Lopez. “Whenever that first performance starts, the ability to do what we do, to congregate, to bring joy and inspiration – I think the energy will be felt throughout the world. I wish we could all begin again at the same time.”
South Florida’s art spaces are starting the season with an advantage. Utilizing a combination of strategies, including timed entry and routing through their spaces, most were able to reopen sooner than performance facilities.
Augmented by greatly increased digital content, the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) has multiple ongoing exhibitions, including “Meleko Mokgosi: Your Trip to Africa,” “Allied with Power: African and African Diaspora Art from the Jorge M. Pérez Collection,” Felipe Mujica’s textile series (in collaboration with the Miccosukee tribe) “The Swaying Motion on the Bank of the River Falls” and “Marco Brambilla: Heaven’s Gate,” described by PAMM director Franklin Sirmans as exploring “how cinema can be a mirror for our own lives during COVID.”
Opening soon are “Jedd Novatt: Monotypes and More” and what Sirmans calls the kinetic and carnivalesque “Zhivago Duncan: Pretentious Crap[CQ].” Both exhibitions had been under discussion for a long time, the Novatt since Sirmans arrived at PAMM six years ago.
“We try to be as nimble as we can within the moment, and the Novatt was a no brainer. We have two of his major sculptures on either side of our building in the Sculpture Garden, and this exhibition ties them to his work more explicitly,” Sirmans says of the wall drawings and smaller sculptures that will be displayed in a gallery with a window overlooking Novatt’s large-scale “Chaos SAS” Outside.
Recently, PAMM announced the acquisition of works by 13 diverse artists – 11 of them women – for its permanent collection. The museum is also poised to welcome back international visitors and locals during Art Basel and Miami Art Week, Nov. 30 - Dec. 5.
“People want to get here, to be surrounded by art and each other,” says Sirmans. “It’s exciting – there’s a buzz around it.”
The NSU Art Museum Fort Lauderdale has drawn upon its vast permanent collection for some of its key exhibitions this season, several focusing on South Florida artists.
“We have had a focus on South Florida artists since the 1990s,” says director and chief curator Bonnie Clearwater. “The local is the global now. We have such a strong, multigenerational community to draw on.”
In fact, Clearwater says, the pandemic meant “minimal change in our exhibition planning process, and we factored in shipping prices when we budgeted…We are very fortunate to have such a unique and in-depth collection to mine.”
Among the new exhibitions are “Jared McGriff: Where We Are You” (the first museum solo exhibition for the Miami-based painter), “Margarita Cano” (in celebration of the Cuban-American artist’s 90th birthday) and “Keith Haring and Pierre Alechinsky.” The latter explores the influence of the Belgian Alechinsky on a young Haring, and was sparked by the museum’s largest-in-the-country collection of CoBrA art.
As much as arts and culture organizations have budgeted, strategized and adapted to come up with viable new seasons, not one hopeful arts leader feels absolute certainty that 2021-2022 will go exactly as planned.
Says Miami New Drama’s Hausmann, “I’m working on this season, and now there’s the Delta variant, so I’m also working on a Plan B. I’ll never again take a season for granted. I’m a little afraid of traditional spaces. You always need to have a Plan B.”