Venue Changes, Edgy Work Mark Broward’s Evolving Theater Scene

by Christine DiMattei for WLRN

When nominations for South Florida’s equivalent of the Tony Awards – the Carbonells – were announced recently, Broward County theaters snagged a quarter of them.

That comes as no surprise to Bill Hirschman, founder of and chief critic for the website Florida Theater On Stage.

“There is some outstanding work that’s being done,” says Hirschman. “People are doing things specifically aimed at getting younger and more diverse audiences in.”

Until recently, Broward’s theater scene resembled the dot com bubble of the early 2000’s — companies would make a great start and then fold after only a few years. But a number of defections from Palm Beach County suggest Broward’s status as a theater mecca is on the upswing.

The most high-profile venue changes involve the Slow Burn and Outre Theatre companies. Over the last five years, Slow Burn has built a loyal following and garnered critical praise with its ambitious musicals mounted in a high school auditorium in western Boca Raton. Outre’s edgy work has appeared in venues throughout Boca, including Mizner Park. But recently, Slow Burn partnered with the Broward Center for the Performing Arts as a resident company for its Amaturo Theater, while Outre rents its new space in the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room.

In addition, smaller venues continue to make a fresh start. Thinking Cap Theatre, which had been operating for five years in a tiny Fort Lauderdale venue (the “size of your living room,” according to Hirschman), renovated a church in the city’s downtown. Now christened The Vanguard, the space is home to Thinking Cap and has opened itself up to other arts events.

Other theaters are distinguishing themselves with cutting-edge drama. Island City Stage, an LGBT company, scored a big win last season with its production of “Daniel’s Husband,” a play about marriage equality by Michael McKeever that opened to rapturous praise and played to sold-out houses.

However, Broward theater still continues to struggle with funding problems, lacking both the generous government grants and deep-pocket donors found in other counties. “There is a tradition of giving to the arts that exists in Broward, but it’s not remotely as strong as it is in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach County,” says Hirschman.

So what will Broward County have to do to survive as a theater destination?

According to Hirschman, it will need savvy publicity and advertising imaginative enough to convince people that good theater is worth a drive from one county to another. “[In Broward] there’s theater that’s as edgy as anything you find Off-Off-Broadway, and then there’s mainstream theater that your grandparents would like,” he says. “When people ask me, ‘What should I go see?’ I say, ‘What do you like?’ ”