I have immense respect for theater people. They entertain us, they enlighten us, and they live out all our dreams in a manner that turns mere words into vibrant reality. There are other tasks, however, that I wouldn't be so quick to entrust to them ... like taking over my insurance payments or having my rug steam-cleaned while I'm on vacation.
Canara Price smiles at that. As the founder and executive director of the two-year-old People's Theatre, she has heard at least as many actors and directors as I have utter the apologia, "I'm not a business person," then go on to engage in behavior that proved it. Yet Price appears confident that her troupe will defy the stereotype in its newly assumed role as the resident company at the Studio Theatre, the 99-seat black box in the Theatre Garage on West Amelia Street. Under a deal worked out between People's Theatre, the Downtown Arts District Commission and the Central Florida Theatre Alliance, Price's group will not only use the venue as a headquarters for its performing and educational programs but also will take over a good chunk of its operations as well, renting the space out to every other theater company that wishes to use it.
The DAD commission has granted People's a rent subsidy of $1,400 per month, a sum that arose from the recent, profitable auction of LizArt sculptures. (Price denies that she bought one of the oversized reptiles herself to stack the deck. "But I will be happy to pose for one," she offers, her tongue firmly in cheek.) And while she considers herself "very blessed" to call the Studio Theatre home after producing almost two full seasons there, she has no illusions about what the setup does and does not represent. It is a one-year trial arrangement that begins in July.
For evidence that People's Theatre will be a good steward of the space during those 12 months, Price points to the makeup of the organization's board.
"We have people that have extensive backgrounds in so many different areas," she says, including law and industry. (Price herself is an industrial hygienist with a background in construction engineering.) Organizational skills will be paramount as the company addresses its initial challenge, a basic renovation of the facility. Whenever People's Theatre has performed a play at the Studio Theatre, Price says, it has issued comment cards to the audience. The most common observation: "This place is like a dump," or some linguistic variation thereof. So the countertop that visitors currently see upon entering will be removed to make the area look more like a legitimate lobby, and a wall will be knocked out to improve backstage access. Fresh paint and carpeting enhancements will also help to make the theatergoing experience a more positive one. There are plenty of other renovations Price would like to undertake -- like rotating the stage 90 degrees -- but she says they will only occur when and if the residency is extended.
"Do you put $50,000 into a place you only have a one-year guarantee on?" she asks, rhetorically.
Keep a bag packed
Price is pragmatic about every aspect of her tenancy. Unless it proves markedly beneficial for all parties involved, she sees herself again looking for a space come July 2003. Further, she believes that People's won the Studio Theatre by default: By her calculation, hers was the last local group to be producing a full season's worth of shows and still not have a home.
Her up-front personality should serve People's well in its newfound function as the keeper of the venue's keys. Price stresses that the Studio Theatre's stage will remain accessible to outsiders: People's will adhere to the same, five-shows-per-year schedule it had followed before cutting the deal. Often, putting one theater company in charge of doling out performance space and times to others is a recipe for resentment and recrimination. But, with a myriad of other issues on her to-do list, Price says she is not even thinking about the political ramifications of her new position.
"As an African-American woman, I deal with that kind of stuff all the time, on both ends. To be true and honest is going to be the foundation that I stand on."
The delegation of rental responsibilities at the Studio Theatre to Price's group raises questions about the direction of the Central Florida Theatre Alliance, which formerly performed that task. Jim Morris, who became executive director of the CFTA just over one month ago, wants the alliance to fulfill more of a nurturing role by promoting local theater to the public and "empowering" performing companies to handle more of their nuts-and-bolts operations themselves.
One example Morris cites of this up-by-the-bootstraps ethos is Temenos Ensemble Theater, the group that presented the interactive, largely improvised ensemble piece "Joe's NYC Bar" in a vacant building on West Church Street in April and December 2001 and February 2002. Last week, Temenos consummated months of direct contact with the area's economic movers and shakers by signing a two-year lease on the building. It's to become a west-side performing-arts center that will house regular performances of "Joe's" in the main bar area and guest productions by like-minded local troupes in a black-box space to be constructed in an adjoining room.
Temenos will share its on-site office space with Chad Lewis's Invisible Arts Project, the group that is masterminding the Kids' Fringe portion of this year's Orlando International Fringe Festival. It's no surprise, then, that Temenos has donated the black-box space for use as the official Kids' Fringe venue for the next two years.
Temenos principals Christian Kelty and Arwen Lowbridge credit a battalion of Orlando business heavyweights with advancing their cause, from Carolina Florida Properties' Aida Martin (who procured the building for them) to Bank of America's Bob Carmichael (who helped them to assemble a business plan and ratchet up their networking options). That these bottom-line types have elected to champion a left-of-center undertaking like "Joe's" as a potential economic windfall for the West Church Street neighborhood restores my faith in the ability of big money and big artistic ideas to coincide.
Isn't it ironic?
A matter of hours before the lease was signed, Kelty told me that it would take "an act of God" for the deal to fall through. Just a few days later, a fire gutted the former Bryan Hotel next door. But there was no damage to the Temenos property.
Very funny, God. Now cut it out and get back to steam-cleaning my rug.