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January 30, 2004

South Florida's New Theatre: New Plays by New Playwrights

The New Theatre in Coral Gables, Florida has brought the local, regional and national premieres of more than 130 plays to South Florida since its start in 1986. Co-founders Rafael and Kimberly de Acha saw their theatre reborn in 2003 with the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, ANNA IN THE TROPICS by Nilo Cruz. The play was commissioned by, and had its world premiere at, New Theatre in October 2002. Moving to Broadway gave national recognition to this 104-seat gem of a theatre.

Nilo Cruz, the first Hispanic playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, was born in Cuba and came to the United States on a Freedom Flight, as did Rafael de Acha. Nilo grew up in Miami and attended Miami-Dade College, later getting his Master's degree in playwriting at Brown University, where he studied with Pulitzer Prize winner Paula Vogel (HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE). Rafael boasts of how Nilo wrote ANNA… on the porch of his house, while living with the de Achas as he wrote. ANNA IN THE TROPICS was created with the assistance of a Theatre Communications Group's Playwright-in-Residence grant as well as a grant from The National Endowment for the Arts.

"I enjoy working with the New Theatre because when they commissioned ANNA IN THE TROPICS, they committed to actually producing the play before I had finished it and there are not a lot of theatres in this country that do that kind of thing," says Nilo Cruz. "One of the things that I find about North American theatre is that they prefer a long development of a play and they can workshop a play to death. So here is a theatre that was willing to take a risk with a new script which only had a couple of readings. This is a theatre that is willing to take chances, to take risks, and they surely have with my own work, which is why I love working there. We're working on my new play now."

From the first play produced by the New Theatre, the producers have been committed to cast with the best possible South Florida actors, regardless of race or color. Their actors reflect the community, in new plays not seen anywhere else, by new playwrights. In 2002, the theatre was selected by New York's Drama League as "One of the Fifty Best Theatres in the Country." Its actors have received several Carbonell awards from The South Florida Critics, along with awards from The Miami Times. The Miami Herald and The Sun Sentinel have singled out New Theatre in their Best of the Year listings again and again.

The theatre has been operating on an Equity Small Professional Theatre (SPT) contract since 1990. At least four Equity actors are cast in each play and auditions are held every January for their new season. Rafael previously had worked in the education department at The Coconut Grove Playhouse. So, not surprisingly, the New Theatre's audience includes students from the city's schools and universities and that student segment makes up over 20% of New Theatre's total audience.

How It Started
Rafael de Acha won a scholarship to Juilliard as a singer, but realizing he was an okay singer, but a better director, he followed his instinct and worked as an assistant director at The New York City Opera. Then he and Kimberly freelanced for several years, cruising and seeing over 100 countries before coming to their final destination—Miami, where they joined Rafael's parents. They were determined to start a theatre—a "new" theatre. Using their backgrounds as singers, actors and directors, they started a brave storefront operation. Their first play, WOYZEK represented what was to become a theatre doing "stuff" no one else did.

Rafael works as Artistic Director and directs most of the plays. Kimberly works behind the scenes and occasionally performs, under her Equity name, Kimberly Daniel. Their hope is for the theatre to outlive them as their legacy. Kimberly describes it as the “jewel of her life.”

What the Actors Say
In conversation with a few of the actors who have worked at the New Theatre, we learn from David Kwiat that Rafael creates a rehearsal atmosphere that allows actors, playwrights and designers to feel like they have arrived at their artistic home. David admires him because he never anticipates what his audience wants to see; rather he has set out to accomplish the mission of educating a community to an aesthetic that he wants to see on his stage. "I don't think New Theatre will ever be guilty of 'pandering to an audience,'" says David.

From Lisa Morgan: "There is a wonderful sense of family at New Theatre, which Kimberly and Rafael nurture so well. There is a real sense of safety Rafael manages to create. He always allows an actor a wonderful freedom to explore and push boundaries with a character and yet he still shapes the production with his own vision and creativity."

And from James Randolph: "This has been the best opportunity I've had working in theatre. From being able to portray Othello, Belize in ANGELS IN AMERICA (Carbonnel Award) to Steve Arnold in TAKING SIDES. Here your race or color is never a factor. An actor's dream."

All this and cutting edge theatre in new, innovative works. Now a theatre's dream is once again a reality with the world premiere of Nilo Cruz's new play, BEAUTY OF THE FATHER. The future for New Theatre only holds the promise of more discoveries as our South Florida actors enjoy the discovery of creating new characters, portrayed for the first time.

By Iris Acker

(A transplanted New Yorker, Iris Acker was the original South Florida Area Liaison and helped to develop the idea of creating casting hotlines in the Regions. She currently produces and hosts a television program for PBS entitled On Stage, which promotes the performing arts.)

Cast of "Beauty of the Father" at the New Theatre L-R) Roberto Escobar, Teresa Maria Rojas, Playwright Nilo Cruz, Ursula Freundlich, Euramis Losada Back row: Carlos Orizondo
Photo: Eileen Suarez


Cast of "Beauty of the Father"
Photo: Eileen Suarez

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