A Dramatic Transformation

The UM theatre department teams with the Adrienne Arsht Center to provide a full-immersion experience for aspiring professionals

In Mary Zimmerman’s Tony Award-winning play Metamorphoses, based on Ovid’s accounts of Greek and Roman myths, most of the onstage action takes place in a swimming pool. It’s not a marketing gimmick; the pool is both a reference to the maritime culture of the Greeks and potent symbol for transformation and change.

It’s fitting, then, that the University of Miami Department of Theatre Arts has chosen to stage Metamorphoses for its third collaboration with the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts of Miami-Dade County, one of the country’s premier professional arts and cultural organizations.

“This is a perfect show for UM theatre students,” says the Arsht Center’s executive vice president Scott Shiller, “because this is really a transformational moment for many of these students from studying their craft to becoming professional working artists.”

When Henry Fonte became the new chair of the theatre department in 2010, he brought a bold vision for raising the public profile of UM’s excellent conservatory program and preparing his students to become working professionals. Fonte’s plan was built around three ambitious goals. The first was to produce new works.

“If we don’t do new productions, we’re going to run out of plays,” Fonte says. “We have to create new work all the time, because you can’t do Oklahoma every season.”

“We dated only once, but it was a really good date,” jokes Fonte. Shiller echoes the sentiment.Fonte was born in Cuba, but grew up in Miami. After 30 years of acting, writing, directing and teaching outside of Florida, he returned in 2010 as the new kid in town. A UM colleague set up a lunch meeting with Shiller of the Arsht Center, a hub for performance and artistic engagement in the greater Miami region. Fonte and Shiller hit it off immediately and walked away from the lunch meeting with plans for the first co-production.The other two goals centered on collaborations with professional artists — actors, directors and writers — and professional arts organizations. What Fonte needed were the right partners.

“Our mission at the Arsht Center is to enlighten, educate and entertain, which fits really nicely with the mission of the UM theatre department,” says Shiller. “Not only do we strive to bring the best artists from around the country to Miami, but to nurture and develop new talent right here in South Florida.”

That first co-production between the Arsht Center and UM was a new translation of Federico Garcia Lorca’s tragic 1930s drama The House of Bernarda Alba. Fonte calls the co-production a “triple whammy” for hitting all three goals for the department.

First, Bernarda was a new translation from Pulitzer prize-winning playwright and Miami native Nilo Cruz, who served as a UM distinguished professor in 2011. Second, three cast members were professional actors, including Isabel Moreno as Bernarda, the imposing matron and title character. And third, the play was co-produced with the Arsht Center and performed in its black-box Carnival Studio Theater as part of the organization’s premiere Theater Up Close series.

The UM theatre department stages its own productions at the 400-seat Jerry Herman Ring Theatre on the Coral Gables campus. And even though The Ring operates on a regional theatre company model, there’s a significant difference between playing for the loyal “home crowd” on campus and performing with a professional cast and crew before a highly discriminating audience at the Arsht Center.  

“Isabel Moreno, who is an extraordinary talent, still calls me up and asks, ‘How are my girls doing?’” Fonte says, referring to the UM actresses — a few only sophomores at the time — who played her onstage daughters. “She always comes to see the shows and talk with the students. We have a relationship with an artist.”While UM acting students, stage management students and technical theatre students already follow union rules at The Ring, working alongside real union members really put their education to the test. They also found generous mentors in the professional actors and technical crew at the Arsht Center.

Of course, there’s a greater risk when you perform on a professional stage. For one thing, there is much more press coverage, including reviews from Miami newspapers.

“Risk is OK,” Fonte insists. “There’s a risk that the show or a student could get a bad review, but that’s called life in the theatre. We make sure our students are going into this with the right perspective. They know that they are moving into a different sphere when they go work at the Arsht Center, but we really work hard to teach them how to work like professionals.”

Not to worry. Not only was Bernarda well-received by the critics, but it was a bona fide hit with the Arsht audience.

“This is a complicated Spanish classic, a relentless tragedy,” says Fonte, “and it broke all box office records on the Carnival stage.”

The success of the first collaboration led to an even more ambitious choice for the 2012-2013 season, the world premiere of the rock musical Girls vs. Boys. The 2013-2014 season brings Metamorphoses with its famous — or infamous — swimming pool.

“The challenge of building the pool will be a tremendous experience for our technical theatre students,” says Fonte, who will be directing the co-production. “We’ll have four professional actors and at least 10 student actors. We’ll also add elements of moving images and projection, because I want our students to see firsthand how that’s done.”

Shiller from the Arsht Center mentions yet another benefit of the working partnership with UM.

“This collaboration over the past three years has given us the opportunity to work with some really impressive UM faculty members,” Shiller says. “But it’s also an opportunity for UM students to see their professors in a new light, as accomplished artists practicing their craft outside of the classroom.”

Learn more about the conservatory-style degree programs in acting, musical theatre, stage management and more at the UM Department of Theatre Arts

August 15, 2013