She so loved Beach play with Spanish/Creole parts that she wrote the director a letter

·7 min read

Janet Melk’s connection with Miami New Drama began in the fall of 2017 when she went to the Colony Theatre to catch Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

The company’s version of the 1938 Pulitzer Prize-winning play was just its third production since the troupe was launched by its cofounders, artistic director Michel Hausmann and director-playwright Moisés Kaufman, in early 2016. But the resonant, movingly executed, fresh interpretation of an American classic about birth, life and death in a small New Hampshire town at the turn of the 20th century so impressed Melk that she sent Hausmann a handwritten letter.

Michel Hausmann, co-founder and artistic director of Miami New Drama, is pictured outside the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, where its plays are performed.
Michel Hausmann, co-founder and artistic director of Miami New Drama, is pictured outside the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach, where its plays are performed.

In it, she called the innovative production — which had the play’s key Webb and Gibbs families respectively speaking Spanish or Creole at home, another touchstone for a diverse audience — “extraordinary.”

And she added: “I was so impressed. It doesn’t get any better than that!...I want you to know how serious I am about the arts and would love to have an opportunity to meet with you to see if I could be helpful to Miami New Drama.”

Ever since, Melk has been exactly that to both Miami New Drama and Miami’s much-lauded Nu Deco Ensemble — helpful, generous, supportive.

Chicago roots

Melk’s passion for the arts and her efforts to make a difference through philanthropy and board participation go back a long way.

Growing up in Milwaukee, Pittsburgh and Albany, Melk came from a family of modest means with a rich appreciation for arts and culture. Her father played the cello, and in high school, she played clarinet and oboe in the band and orchestra. She married young, skipping college to build a life with her now-former husband, developer John Melk, who would later team with H. Wayne Huizenga in the Waste Management and Blockbuster Video companies.

While raising sons Tom and Dan and daughter Cindy, the couple lived in London in the 1980s and regularly chose outings to the symphony and theater over going to the movies.

“I was born interested in theater and dance and music,” the elegant Melk says during a long conversation on the terrace of her Fisher Island home, which she bought three years ago.

In coming back to Fisher Island, where her former husband, their son Dan and a partner were owner-developers from 1998 to 2004, Melk moved on from more than three decades in Chicago, the city in which she came into her own as a force in the arts world following her divorce.

Melk served for 15 years on the board of the Tony Award-winning Steppenwolf Theatre there and was a Broadway investor in ensemble member Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 play, “August: Osage County.” She also served for 15 years on the board and the Women’s Board of the city’s Joffrey Ballet, and the two organizations as well as other Chicago arts institutions have been recipients of her financial support as well as her time and energy.

Janet Melk was an investor in the Broadway production of Steppenwolf’s ‘August: Osage County.’ The play won a Pulitzer Prize.
Janet Melk was an investor in the Broadway production of Steppenwolf’s ‘August: Osage County.’ The play won a Pulitzer Prize.

Steppenwolf, which has been undergoing a multi-year $73 million expansion of its theater and educational facilities in Chicago’s Lincoln Park, has been able to grow because of donors like Melk.

“Jan Melk is a powerhouse,” executive director E. Brooke Flanagan said via email. “Known as one of Chicago’s most beloved arts patrons, her involvement at Steppenwolf spans more than 30 years. During that time, she has supported generations of theater artists and helped establish our company as America’s preeminent ensemble theater. As we prepare to open our new arts and education center in November, we are honored to celebrate her enduring legacy of support for our company and generous gift to our historic capital project.”

Since shifting her focus to South Florida, Melk has joined Miami New Drama’s board, supporting the theater company as well as Nu Deco Ensemble with her presence at performances, making donations to initiatives large and small, and hosting fundraising parties at her Fisher Island home, with its sweeping view of the Miami skyline.

An ‘ideal donor’

Nu Deco artistic director and CEO Sam Hyken says of Melk, “Jan is very much an ideal donor. She’s a fan who comes to every concert and gets every recording. She emails us — throughout the pandemic, she was a wonderful cheerleader for us….She has a passion for music. She sponsored our bassoon chair Gabriel Beavers and donated to Nu Deco NXT [allowing a young violinist to take a three-week online songwriting course from Michigan’s Interlochen Center for the Arts]. The flexibility of private philanthropy allows us to go to an individual for special projects and new opportunities.”

Hausmann believes that Melk arrived at exactly the right time in Miami New Drama’s evolution.

“When she came to see ‘Our Town,’ we were undergoing an expansion of the board to people who weren’t in my circle. Her excitement fit with Miami New Drama,” he says. “She got the purpose of the play and the company. I invited her to observe a board meeting — and she hasn’t missed an opening since then.”

Managing director Nicholas Richberg says of Melk, “She’s very involved and knowledgeable. She understands the challenges of a quickly growing company. During the pandemic, she’d call and say, ‘I’m here for you if you need me.’ She meant financially, but in other ways as well.”

When Melk first encountered Miami New Drama through that 2017 production of “Our Town” — which she calls “the best production of the play I’ve ever seen” — she knew that, unlike Steppenwolf and the Joffrey, the theater was just getting started. But she jumped in wholeheartedly and has been happily involved ever since.

“Michel is a risk taker, and that’s what you need,” she says, citing the company’s large-scale, award-winning world premiere production of “Seven Deadly Sins” on Lincoln Road during the pandemic.

Mia Matthews and Gerald McCullouch in the Greed installation of ‘Seven Deadly Sins,’ Miami New Drama’s award-winning COVID production.
Mia Matthews and Gerald McCullouch in the Greed installation of ‘Seven Deadly Sins,’ Miami New Drama’s award-winning COVID production.

Collins Park Cultural Center in Miami Beach

On the horizon for Miami New Drama is its most ambitious initiative yet: a partnership with the city of Miami Beach to create the Collins Park Cultural Center on the ground floor of the 513-space Collins Park Garage. Situated on 23rd Street between Park and Liberty Avenues, the facility would feature a 200-seat black box theater, rehearsal space for the company’s larger productions at the Colony Theatre, offices, gallery space and a restaurant/café. It would be a hub for programming day and night, further activating a neighborhood that is already home to Miami City Ballet, the Bass Museum and the public library.

The space has been designed by Miami New Drama board member Enrique Norton of TEN Arquitectos, and getting the financial support to turn it into a reality presents additional challenges in a region where many residents come from countries where governments, not private philanthropists like Melk (who says she is “excited and thrilled” about the new space), support the arts.

“Giving is so personal,” Richberg says. “People have to think about what has given them joy in their lives, then think about preserving that for the next generation. It’s not only about making the next generation of artists. It’s about creating humans who are more aware, empathetic and open to joy.”

Hausmann points out that arts patronage is as old as the arts themselves, but he feels the support of people like Melk and developer-art collector Jorge M. Pérez is critical in a comparatively young city like Miami.

“We are solidifying our image as an arts capital, especially on Miami Beach,” he says. “The more we invest in the arts, the higher our quality of life can become. This can become the next great American city of the 21st century.”

These days, the adventurous Melk spends her time traveling, visiting her three children and six grandkids, entertaining with a purpose in her home. But on opening nights for Miami New Drama, Nu Deco and other South Florida arts groups, the chances are high that you’ll spot her in the audience.

“The arts equal joy, the creative spirit. Experiencing the arts is a joy in itself,” Melk says. “I have such admiration for people who can play, direct, act. I don’t have those talents myself. Being an appreciator — that’s my role.”

How to help

To become a subscriber-member or donate to Miami New Drama, visit Visit the website or call 305-674-1040 for information.

To support Nu Deco Ensemble, visit Nu Deco Membership and Sponsorship programs for information about membership and donations or call 305-702-0116.

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