GableStage evicted at Biltmore
By Christine Dolen
Theater company losing six-year, rent-free lease
Miami Herald Theater Critic
Published Tuesday, December 5, 2000
GableStage, the award-winning and critically acclaimed theater housed at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, will find itself homeless at the end of the summer if hotel management sticks by its decision not to extend the theater's lease.
Saying it needs the space for storage, offices and operating facilities, Biltmore general manager Dennis Doucette said Monday that the hotel had decided it had to reclaim the 3,000-square-foot space in August, when a one-year extension to GableStage's original five-year lease expires.
"The Biltmore has been wonderful to us, and I hope that they'll give us a reprieve," said GableStage producing artistic director Joseph Adler, who was recently honored by the South Florida Critics' Circle for making his edgy company one of South Florida's most artistically successful theaters.
"Normally, when something like this happens, it's about the quality of the work or the lack of an audience. But there are people filling our seats, telling me that they love our theater and love being a part of it."
Although Adler appeared surprised by the hotel's decision, Doucette said the theater has known for a year of the Biltmore's intention not to extend the rent-free lease. The situation came to a head last month when the Coral Gables City Commission voted not to award GableStage a $7,500 grant for its current 2000-01 season, which is to end in August with the world premiere of a play the theater commissioned.
Instead, the city gave the money to Coral Gables Senior High for its 50th anniversary gala. City Manager H.C. Eads Jr. said that since the theater's lease would run out in August 2001, it might no longer be in Coral Gables.
Subsequently, Biltmore president Gene Prescott said publicly that because of the growth of business and expansion within the historic city-owned hotel, the Biltmore needed GableStage's space for its own use.
"We're a little bit heartbroken, too," Doucette said. "This is strictly a situation where we're outgrowing our confines. We've been very happy with GableStage. They've been extremely successful. But we're elbow-to-elbow in the back of the house."
Former GableStage executive director Ellen Beck, now assistant dean for development in the University of Miami's School of Education, said Monday that it was her understanding that "as long as things were going well, GableStage could be at the Biltmore."
Doucette challenges that.
"I love Ellen to death, but she's the eternal optimist,'' he said. "We've looked this over tenfold. They've known for at least a year."
The company, founded in 1979 as the Florida Shakespeare Theatre, spent $550,000 in funds and in-kind services to turn a former Biltmore banquet room into a 150-seat theater. It opened in September 1996 with a production of Stephen Metcalfe's Strange Snow under then-artistic director Juan F. Cejas.
HOPE FOR LENIENCY
"You don't put a significant investment like that down for just five years," Beck said. "We thought it would take five years just to turn the corner. The picture has changed at the Biltmore [since GableStage was launched]. It's become very successful. I hope the hotel will be lenient and understand how important GableStage is to the community. I think it's a priceless asset."
Rafael de Acha, artistic director at the intimate New Theatre in the Gables, recently concluded a four-year search for a larger space by signing a lease on the Astor Art Cinema. He said the prospect of GableStage's having to find a new home in nine months is "very, very sad."
"I'm stunned. I can't believe the operators of the Biltmore wouldn't allow them to have time to plan," he said. "But whenever you have a freebie [no rent], it's dangerous. You're beholden to someone who's doing you a favor."
GableStage, which has produced at Vizcaya and several smaller spaces during its 21-year evolution, has taken off in its two years under Adler's artistic guidance. Its provocative, in-your-face style of theater has led to a threefold increase in memberships to 1,200, and its 22 nominations at this year's Carbonell Awards for theatrical excellence were the most for any South Florida theater.
"We have managed to lose two other wonderful theaters, Acme Acting Company and Area Stage, due to this issue of venues," said Rem Cabrera, a deputy cultural affairs director for Miami-Dade County and a GableStage patron. "To say it's a shame is an understatement. I find it incomprehensible that the Biltmore won't even negotiate."
Adler is prepared to pay rent on the space if the Biltmore would consider an extension. He would prefer to have two more years at the current location to identify and raise funds for a new, larger space, but he says an assistant to Doucette told him the hotel needs the space, not the money.
"I know that theater is always complicated and risky, that crisis management is what theater is all about," Adler said. "I do not intend to preside over the death of a theater. I refuse to believe we cannot find a solution."
Christine Dolen is The Herald's theater critic.