Stephanie Ansin’s Miami Theater Center goes where many local theater companies don’t dare tread.
By Michelle F. Solomon
In Miami Shores, a repertory theater company is creating bold, new works. Actors work six days a week, and on rehearsal days they attend workshops.
As the Miami Theater Center mounts another one of its original productions, artistic director Stephanie Ansin and her collaborator, Fernando Calzadilla, are already plotting what’s next.
They’ll write shows from scratch if they have to — and they usually do. Calzadilla will design the costumes — the last show had a headpiece inspired by Alexander McQueen’s fashions — and they’ll do what they have become known for since Ansin moved back to Miami from New York in 2004 and started her theater — they’ll create highly stylized creative works from the ground up.
“We want to do a play about Yemaja, the Yoruban goddess of the sea, and also a play using Ganesh as the springboard. Ganesh is the elephant-headed god in the Hindu religion; he’s the Indian god of obstacles. I’m also trying to get the rights to The Seven Year Itch, and maybe Hedda Gabler, or A Doll’s House,” says Ansin.
There are not many theater companies in South Florida that do what Miami Theater Center does — which is basically produce their own work — and who are able to consistently fill the seats of their 300-seat theater. The theater does a mix of productions — “a balance of shows” is what Ansin likes to call it . . . “for adult audiences and also for multi-generational audiences.”
Ansin tried to stay out of making theater her profession, but she says, it “kept calling her.” She lived in Boston and was “trying not to do theater. I was producing television news.” In 2004, the Miami native returned to her hometown after earning her MFA in Theater Directing at Columbia University.
“I am connected to Miami. It’s a place where I want to make a difference. You start a theater in New York — you are one of five million theaters. You start something like this in Miami — you can make an impact.”
Ansin’s roots in Miami run deep. Her father, Edmund Ansin, co-founded Miami-based Sunbeam Television, which owns television stations including WSVN, Ch. 7, and two TV stations in Boston. “My dad is a loyal fan of the theater,” she says. The Ansin Foundation and WSVN are supporters of the Miami Theater Center.
Her mother, Toby Lerner Ansin, helped found the Miami City Ballet with Edward Villella.
When Stephanie returned to Miami, she founded the Children’s PlayGround Theater in Miami Shores. In 2012, the organization became the Miami Theater Center.
“We focused on young audiences with The PlayGround because we wanted to help grow the theater community in Miami, and we developed a great partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools that enabled us to bus in 20,000 students a year for weekday morning performances.”
Ansin’s idea to rebrand the theater as Miami Theater Center was a way to create a more multi-faceted theater concept. She opened up the Sandbox Theater, a 50-seat black box performance space, a smaller space than the main stage — where other theater companies and artists can perform.
Last August, Mad Cat Theatre Company — a 13-year-old Miami troupe that is known for its edgy, hip works — took up residency in the SandBox. This past April, Miami playwright Juan C. Sanchez’s Paradise Motel premiered at MTC. “It was quite a success,” said Ansin. The play is told in seven scenes, each of which takes place in the same room of a fictional Miami motel, but in a different decade. From June 13th through the 28th, Miami choreographer Carlota Pradera will stage Bare Bones, a performance that strips down culture and dissects the game of power.
“We’re very interested in new work and supporting other groups that are creating new work,” said Ansin.
MTC has also formed a partnership with O Cinema, a non-profit independent cinema, which also has a location in Miami’s Wynwood Arts District. Ansin said that O Cinema, which was founded with a matching grant from the Knight Foundation, approached her about a partnership. “It works out when we don’t have a show playing on the main stage,” said Ansin.
Miami Shores seems like an unlikely place for a repertory theater company to thrive. “There are people who are encouraging growth here,” says Ansin. “There are young families moving in.”
As part of the opening festivities of its original play, Everybody Drinks the Same Water, which premiered in May, MTC rolled out a family-friendly, four-block-long street fair. “We wanted to create a dynamic community celebration,” says Ansin.
It’s just another display of the passion and drive that Ansin brings to everything associated with her Miami Theater Center. The theater is known for its thorough and twice-as-long-as-other-local-shows rehearsal processes. To get the actors entirely on board with her play Everybody Drinks the Same Water, Ansin immersed her cast in studying its context and setting. Miami Herald theater critic Christine Dolen reported that the performers watched a documentary about the rise and fall of Islamic Spain and had access to the research that Ansin and Calzadilla used. Plus, the pair took the cast on field trips of synagogues, churches, and mosques.
Long-time Miami publicist Charlie Cinnamon believes the strength of MTC is Ansin’s ability to “stretch boundaries scarcely visited by others before her.” Marjorie O’Neill Butler, who has acted in two plays and worked behind the scenes on seven productions at MTC, says that “working at MTC is the ultimate process. Everything is in place because of the long rehearsals and thoroughly worked through before opening.”
Ansin and Calzadilla aren’t shy about saying what they believe will keep MTC moving forward and allow them to create original works for years to come.
“What we do is not retell old stories — we really look at them with today’s eyes and figure out how we make them relevant to our audiences, especially 21st century Miami audiences,” says Calzadilla.
Will ever a production come out of MTC that hasn’t been, in some way, shape, or form born inside the Miami Shores theater?
“That would just bore me — so it’s not an option,” she says.