By Christine Dolen, Herald Theater Critic
Three well-known names in theater -- the Florida Shakespeare Theatre, Acme Acting Company founder Jean F. Cejas and veteran New York producer Arthur Whitelaw -- have joined to launch what they hope will be a vibrant, state-of-the-art theater space this fall at Coral Gables' historic Biltmore Hotel.
Cejas, who pronounced theater "a dead art form" when he resigned as Acme's artistic director in December 1994, has just accepted the artistic directorship of Florida Shakespeare Theatre. During his hiatus from theater, the 31-year-old actor and director has done movie work, founded a print production company, toiled on his film adaptation of the play Of The Fields Lately and managed to "swim 50 miles."
"I was burnt out," Cehas said Thursday in the sleek, 162-seat Shakespeare Theatre space he helped design. "I needed a break. Now, I feel like a mole on Marilyn Monroe's cheek: I'm just happy to be here."
Transforming the Biltmore space from from dream to reality has been a two-year labor of love and persuasion for FST executive director Ellen Beck, former artistic director (and now board member) Rose McVeigh, board chairman Kiki Courtelis and a large network of supporters.
Changing a former hotel meeting room to a striking theater space has cost $550,000, with funding coming from grants (a State of Florida Hurricane Recovery Grant, a Metro-Dade Cultural Affairs Council Grant), contributions and donations of architectural, engineering, electrical, plumbling and structural services.
Less than a month ago, another element of FST's future fell into place when Whitelaw, a New York theater, film and television producer who'd moved to Coral Gables, decided to get back into the theater business. Producer of such shows as Butterflies are Free, Strider and You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Whitelaw is also on the advisory board of American Theatre Group in Dorsett, Vt. Looking for a place to try new shows, to transfer shows from the Vermont company and to restage some of his own properties, he hooked with the FST.
"We're calling our company Americas Theatre Group," said Whitelaw, artistic director of his new not-for-profit and a co-producer with FST. "I'm looking at this long-range. I hope to do things here that will then be done for TV. Each of us adds something the others don't have."
Although the 1996-97 season must still be approved by the FST board, the preliminary lineup is scheduled to begin in October with John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, directed by Cejas. Then, from Whitelaw's group, come repertory productions of the musicals You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown and its sequel, Snoopy. After that, FST will do two William Shakespeare plays -- Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra -- in its outdoor courtyard theater space, which will seat 450 to 500 theatergors. Cejas will follow that by directing a production of Eugene O'Neill's The Hairy Ape. Then, Whitelaw's group will do a new play, followed by a revue celebrating the music of George and Ira Gershwin.
Together, the companies will spend more than $1 million ($600,000 for FST, $500,000 for Whitelaw) producing theater year-round at the Biltmore.
Through FST's long producing hiatus -- its last production in temporary quarters at El Carrusel Theatre in the Gables was Sharman McDonals's Shades in April 1994, with only student-oriented productions of Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet in the interim -- looks headed for a happy ending, Beck said making the Biltmore space a reality has been a struggle. She acknowledges that FST will have to rebuild its audiences and subscriber pool.
"This has been a rebuilding time, and we often had to work all day and night," said Beck, explaining that McVeigh resigned her post as artistic director "because it interfered with her personal life. It ate me up, too. I know there was one period for three days straight when I did nothing but sob. I mean, we got rejected by the screw inspector."
With McVeigh gone, Beck and the board interviewed artistic director candidates from all over the country. But they kept wooing Cejas, who at first kept saying no.
"There's nothing going on here that I haven't done before; the only difference is about half a million dollars," Cejas said. "The four times I've set up theaters before, the combined cost was less than the lighting equipment cost here. How many times have I been to the gate as far as building a theater? But they did it. They had support."
"I can make a salary and earn a living, and of course that had a lot to do with it. And I'm not alone here. Ellen's running the administrative end, and I get to focus on productions. This has all the ingredients to succeed: no massive overhead, shows that can run as long or as briefly as we want, a board that's really behind us, and terrific sound and lighting systems that will be a great toy for me. This is what I do."