New Generation Theatrical builds NGT Studio, a rehearsal and workshop space, at Fashion Square

It might even help rescue the once-renowned retail hub from its zombie-mall fate

New Generation Theatrical executive producer Aaron Safer
New Generation Theatrical executive producer Aaron Safer photo by Seth Kubersky

After a double-decade run presenting Orlando's annual Play-in-a-Day fundraiser — which brings together 10 teams of veteran and emerging theater artists to craft original shows in only 24 hours — recently relocated producer Beth Marshall returned from Colorado last weekend to formally hand the reins over to Clark Levi, who was just named "Best Hope for the Next Generation of Theater" in our 2023 Best of Orlando issue (no pressure, kid!).

With this year's theme being "rebirth," it's fitting that after bouncing from Orlando Shakes to Lake Howell to Oviedo, the event found a welcoming new home at Orlando Fringe's ArtSpace on Church Street, formerly the Mad Cow Theatre.

Although Fringe's new venue was able to host last Saturday's sold-out performance (where writer Katie Thayer's Good Morning took top honors), it simply isn't large enough to also hold all of the necessary rehearsals for such an undertaking. Renaissance Theater graciously came to their assistance, but PIAD is far from the only Orlando show I've seen search for a place to prepare. And when large sections of the Lowndes Shakespeare Center are shut down over the next year for a much-needed overhaul of the building's ailing air-conditioning, the demand for affordable arts rehearsal space in the downtown area — already in scarce supply — is only bound to increase.

That's exactly where executive producer Aaron Safer hopes that New Generation Theatrical's new NGT Studio can step in and help the community. I recently made my first visit in many months to Colonial Drive's moribund Fashion Square Mall, where Safer and philanthropy director Kristen Sheola led me on a work-in-progress tour of the 6,000-square-foot space that they are transforming into a "comprehensive hub for theatrical creativity and production."

Much as Imagine Performing Arts Center (previously Penguin Point) has revitalized its own wing of the Oviedo Mall, NGT envisions their new Fashion Square outpost — featuring a large dedicated rehearsal area, plus a fully equipped scenic workshop and production offices — might resurrect this downstairs dead end near Dillards and help rescue this once-renowned retail hub from its zombie-mall fate.

Regular readers of this column will remember NGT for presenting local playwright Michael Knight's original comedies Gothic Manor and Jesus: Origins, as well as productions of Neil LaBute's Reasons to Be Pretty and Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. So when I first learned that NGT had secured a significant storefront inside Fashion Square, I initially assumed that it would be used as a public performance space. Instead of holding ticketed events, it turns out that NGT is focusing their studio's resources on something much less glamorous, but equally necessary: rehearsal and construction.

"It's a creative hub, as opposed to a showcasing hub, [because] there's not a lot of creative hubs that are accessible to actors that aren't also theaters," Safer explains. "A lot of times in the blocking out of availability of a theater, they prioritize renting to shows, so there's not a place for theater companies to come in and just be like, 'Hey, can we just rehearse for a couple of weeks?'"

Even though most theater patrons will probably never see it, the inside of NGT Studio is large enough to hold two of Orlando's popular black box stages, or the entirety of the Dr. Phillips Center's 300-seat Pugh Theater's performance space.

Safer says that gives enough elbow room to "allow people to create what they want to, and actually rehearse and build," whether that means constructing a tiered wedding cake-shaped stage (as I spotted during my visit for NGT's recent regional premiere of Joshua Harmon's Significant Other) or crafting costumes and props using a full inventory of donated tools.

click to enlarge A wedding cake-shaped stage at NGT Studio - photo by Seth Kubersky
photo by Seth Kubersky
A wedding cake-shaped stage at NGT Studio
click to enlarge The workshop at NGT Studio - photo by Seth Kubersky
photo by Seth Kubersky
The workshop at NGT Studio

Prior to leasing their new space, NGT had staged the Addams Family musical at Fashion Square, and had initially only planned on a short-term rental.

"Then we got here, and we started using the space and we were like, 'This is actually really great, what if we just made this our creative space?'" says Safer. "So we started an extended lease, and now we're here through the end of 2024. ... The management's really cool, they're really laid back. They're just happy to have people back in the mall."

"We have been trying to serve the community in a different way from the beginning," Safer concludes, citing NGT's $20 minimum wage and other pro-worker policies.

"So far, the feedback that we've gotten from our actors is all positive, [and] I feel like this is a safe space; they feel heard and seen, they feel creative, and they come out of their shells really quickly in this type of environment. So now we also want to extend that to the community, so that the community can [say] 'We know NGT ... they are a safe space, and I'd really like to rehearse my show in there."

If you are an artist eager to use the NGT Studio, or a patron interested in supporting it through NGT's new donor program, visit newgentheatrical.org for more information.



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