As you plan your next fall or winter getaway, whether for pure relaxation or to see basketball megastar LeBron James play with his new team, the Miami Heat, include a stop in West Palm Beach to experience Florida Stage (www.floridastage.org), the nation’s largest theater company devoted exclusively to producing new American plays. “The debt that American theatre owes to Florida Stage, one of the few theatres dedicated to new work, is inestimable,” declares acclaimed playwright Nilo Cruz.
Currently playing at Florida Stage’s new home at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts is the sizzling hot and sexy cool blues musical revue Low Down Dirty Blues, written by Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman. This original work from the creators of Tony Award-nominated It Ain’t Nothin’ But the Blues features songs by such blues legends as Howlin’ Wolf, Pearl Bailey, Muddy Waters and Ma Rainey. Award-winning Broadway star Felicia P. Fields leads the cast, which includes, Tony Award nominee and blues giant Mississippi Charles Bevel, accomplished jazz vocalist Gregory Porter and powerhouse gospel vocalist Sandra Reaves-Phillips.
According to a June 18 article in The Washington Post, while the names of major American playwrights often are familiar, even to those who never attend the theater — Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee and August Wilson come to mind — “less well known is the traditional status of these playwrights as itinerant workers. They hand over plays to theater companies for a fee, show up for rehearsals and opening night, then move on,” the article, titled “Arena Stage Gives Playwrights Higher Billing by Putting Them on the Payroll,” states.
Not so in the case of Florida Stage, which has nurtured emerging playwrights for 23 years. Freelance playwright Carter W. Lewis says he was invited to participate in the company’s festival even before he had a finished play in hand. “This means a great deal to a writer — to have a theater trust you so much that they want to develop your work before you even know what that work is,” Lewis says. He recalls a conversation with Florida Stage founder and producing artistic director Louis Tyrrell that occurred during a round of golf, after an opening and just before Lewis flew home.
The conversation, Lewis says, went as follows:
Tyrrell: What happens when you get home?
Lewis: I’ve got some time, so I’m going to start on something new.
Tyrrell: What are you working on?
Lewis: I’m not sure yet.
Tyrrell: What’s it about?
Lewis: Don’t know.
Tyrrell: Any idea how many characters, or what type of characters?
Lewis: Not really.
Tyrrell: Ideas, themes, issues?
Tyrrell: Hey, let’s put it in next year’s festival.
“Anyone who is part of the new-play scene that doesn’t know about Florida Stage doesn’t really know the new-play scene. Theaters that produce new work exclusively are so rare,” Lewis says. Florida Stage treats each project as if it were the only project of the year, which is a huge part of its success, Lewis says. “If I need someone to work on a project with me, they bring that someone in. If I need my play to get into the hands of other theaters, they pursue that. How extraordinary,” he remarks.
Want to catch a glimpse of the next August Wilson, Tennessee Williams, George C. Wolfe, Edward Albee or Kenny Leon? There’s a place in South Florida where these diamonds glitter: Florida Stage.