You likely learned in high school civics class that the man who shouts “Fire!” in a crowded theater is called a criminal. But what do you call the man who says “Fire Hazard!” in an empty theater? If you’re trying to put on a show in the city of Winter Park, you call him “Captain Fire Marshal, sir.”
That’s one of several expensive lessons learned during the past year by Paul Castaneda, artistic director for the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre. Last winter, the nonprofit group (better known as GOAT) was celebrating its first Christmas in the fledgling performance space it had founded at 669 Cherry Street. Late last month, GOAT acknowledged that it was abandoning the space, after spending nearly all of 2010 attempting to cure a variety of city code violations. This week, Castaneda led the Orlando Weekly through the saga of his group’s stunning setback, in hopes of warning any starry-eyed producers looking to pitch a tent in Winter Park without proper preparation.
GOAT’s story goes back three and a half years, when it presented its first productions – The Odd Couple and The Mousetrap – in a College Park bingo hall. In October 2008, it moved into the former “Cruises Only” building on Colonial Drive, calling the repurposed 1940s cinema by its historic name: Cameo Theatre. GOAT mounted A Streetcar Named Desire, Godspell and Proof at the Cameo, and it was beginning to build an audience there when it abruptly moved after eight months. The Cameo was operated as a co-op with many different groups using the space. “I understand their vision but it was hard to do theater around so many other things,” Castaneda says, “[but] trying to rehearse with an acting class on other side of wall [was] disrespectful of both parties.”
Faced with imminent itinerancy, GOAT co-founder Leesa Halstead found an available warehouse/office space adjoining the Art’s Sake acting studio on Cherry Street, just off Fairbanks Avenue in Winter Park. It appeared to be an ideal opportunity for the group, and in June 2009, GOAT announced that it was moving to a new “permanent home” with a three-year lease. GOAT volunteers labored over several weekends to clear the space of tools and furniture left behind by the evicted former tenant and transformed it in time for the July 2009 debut of Reservoir Dogs, a stage adaptation of Tarantino’s cult crime film. That was followed in the summer and fall by Closer, Picasso at the Laipin Agile and a production of Jekyll & Hyde that was extended so many times that cast members referred to it as “the first Halloween/Christmas musical.”
GOAT operated on Cherry Street for six months without any problems from the powers-that-be. Then one day last January, shortly before its planned premiere of RENT, the Winter Park fire marshal and four inspectors “just came out of the blue,” Castaneda recalled, and “basically said ‘You can’t do theater in here.’” Violations ranged from bathrooms deemed inches away from Americans with Disabilities Act compliance specifications, to set pieces not built to structural code, to seating risers lacking handicap access.
Captain Scott Donovan, fire marshal for Winter Park Fire Rescue, was not available to answer questions about the situation by press time.
In the following weeks and months, Castaneda says he met with city representatives “roughly 10 times” and had numerous phone and e-mail conversations in an effort to resolve the problems. GOAT held a number of fundraisers to finance renovations and was working with contractors and an architect, Eric Kuritzky, who was doing pro bono consulting on the project. But it eventually proved cost-prohibitive, and in November GOAT gave up on its efforts to return to the space it had briefly called home.
Even though his company spent upwards of $5,000 on the failed renovations (not counting sweat equity and unrecoverable improvements to the tech booth and greenroom), Castaneda emphasizes that he harbors no hard feelings toward GOAT’s former landlord (and portable toilet mogul) John Sharp, who “was awesome” about not charging GOAT rent while the theater was unusable. Nor is he resentful of Fire Marshal Scott Donovan and his inspectors, who were “just doing their jobs,” and who were always available to meet or answer questions.
But Castaneda does voice frustration about the perceived opacity and inconsistency of the process. “I didn’t get a document saying you have to fix these 25 things ... . Rules are rules, but some of these are incredibly stringent [and the city’s] attitude is your architect should know the rules,” Paul says. “Nobody who goes into theater is an expert at law or architecture, nor do they want to be ... . It got to the point with me where I said ‘What does all this have to do with being the artistic director of a theater?’”
The Orlando Shakes stepped up and offered the Goldman stage to rescue RENT, and that’s led to plans for a series of GOAT productions at that venue, including Elton John’s AIDA (opening Jan. 28). But Castaneda still dreams of someday having a space of his own, perhaps in collaboration with other like-minded groups. In the meantime, in case another company is considering following in GOAT’s footsteps, here is a sampling from what Castaneda sardonically calls his “27 Things to Never do When Building a Theater”:
Don’t have other tenants adjoining or above you, unless there are firewalls rated for two hours in between each business.
Don’t exceed 49-person occupancy (including patrons, cast and crew) or you become an “assembly” and are subject to more stringent codes.
Don’t rent anywhere with a septic tank instead of city sewage.
Don’t assume a building has an occupational license until you see it.
“I wouldn’t open a theater in [Winter Park] right now unless I had an architect on board to look at everything before I signed a lease. It’s just too dangerous,” Castaneda concludes. “If someone called me [saying they were] looking at spaces in Winter Park, I’d say ‘Do yourself a favor, stay in Orange County.’”