Theatrical struggles 

Outwardly at least, everyone agrees that there should be more live theater in Orlando. So why isn't there?

In 2000, the usual culprits were responsible: Lack of funds. Organizational hassles. A paucity of venues. The fear of putting challenging subject matter before a basically conservative community. And let's not forget the city's apparent disinterest in nurturing endeavors that fall outside the narrow geographic confines of its proposed arts district.

Witness Performance Space Orlando, the Mills Avenue black-box theater that closed last fall after two years of playing host to many of the area's struggling companies. When PSO's perpetual financial woes finally reached the crisis point, it had no safety net to fall into: The theater was located a few meager feet from the delineated cultural habitat.

Not even a position within the protected zone, however, would have been an automatic reprieve. One block north, the Civic Theatres of Central Florida played out its own death scene, and on a far grander scale: The three-stage Loch Haven Park complex drowned in a deluge of red ink that repeated taxpayer bailouts couldn't reverse.

Not every organized initiative was doomed. The Central Florida Theatre Alliance chalked up a strong year as an advocate of (and resource for) troupes of all sizes, many of whom availed themselves of the CFTA's Studio Theatre facilities. But the Alliance's success in launching full-time theaters ended there. Its tandem search with the city's Downtown Arts District Board turned up only two more (supposedly) viable sites, and neither has yet seen a ribbon-cutting. Not as a theater, anyway: The once-vacant storefront at Pine Street and Orange Avenue has been turned into an art gallery/studio.

As the arts-district program dragged on, self-reliant groups forged ahead. In September, iMPACTE! Productions opened a privately funded space on East Semoran Boulevard. Theatre Downtown, the North Orange Avenue collective, furthered its run as one of Orlando's few stand-alone successes. Another is the Mark Two Dinner Theater, which remained solvent as always by emphasizing the traditions of musical theater over artistic self-indulgence.

The limits of art were tested in a fall flap that befell the long-running collaboration between Seminole Community College and the Orlando Theatre Project. Worried that their joint production of the drama Wit was to climax with brief, resolutely nonprurient nudity, the school pulled its funding. The show went on as a strictly-OTP offering, but how encouraging is it when our definition of supporting artistic freedom extends only so far as "allowing" it to go on?

For once, SCC found it had something in common with the Casselberry go-go bar Club Juana. Last March saw the return of "Les Femmes Fatales," the flesh-baring revue first brought to the club's stage in May 1999 as a challenge to Seminole County's anti-nudity ordinance. Despite the objections of the Casselberry police, the "Femmes Fatales" revival proved hard to quell, and the show now enjoys an ironic rank among Orlando's few theatrical perennials.

At Loch Haven Park, the delay of the Orlando-UCF Shakespeare Festival's construction plans allowed the vagabond Mad Cow Theatre Company to settle with Shakespeare into a temporary home. The nearby Orlando Science Center got into the act by opening up its Darden Theater to two other nomadic tribes, Trilemma Productions and the Orlando Black Essential Theatre.

Even more significant is the launch of the UCF Civic Theatre, which represents the merger between the university and the (essentially defunct) Civic Theatres that was announced last spring. We'll have to wait a bit longer to see its fruition: According to Don Seay, the chairman and artistic director of the UCF theater department, its debut season has been pushed back from February to August 2001, reflecting the time and elbow grease required to complete a million-dollar repair campaign.

"No one had any idea of the amount of work that it was going to take," Seay points out -- an admission that encapsulates the entire theatrical community's slow, often agonizing progress toward maturity.


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