Inside the Reborn Theatre at Arts Garage

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South Palm Beach County has lost four—count ‘em four—regional theater companies in the past year. Two moved to the Broward Center (Slow Burn and Outre), and we wish them well, and two others folded (The Women’s Theatre Project and Parade Productions).

If there is a glimmer of cultural hope, it’s that we were poised to lose a fifth company, the Theatre at Arts Garage, until the venue’s president and CEO, Alyona Ushe, announced two new directors to fill the shoes of outgoing artistic director Lou Tyrrell.

Tyrrell’s announcement, in March, that he would be leaving Arts Garage was not wholly surprising—audience numbers for his provocative and cerebral plays this past season had been dwindling—but it was certainly disappointing. Luckily, Ushe’s replacements are similarly respected in the South Florida theater community for mounting works that are both challenging and accessible. Beginning next month with a play reading and continuing with a full season in October, Keith Garsson, lately of the Primal Forces company in Fort Lauderdale, and Genie Croft, his partner in crime from Boca Raton Theatre Guild and, previously, the Women’s Theatre Project, will take over the Arts Garage reins.

(From left: Genie Croft, Keith Garsson and Alyona Ushe)

“Keith read something about Lou leaving, and he reached out to us in terms of seeing what kind of partnership we could put together,” Ushe recalls. “We got to talking, and it just felt so natural. What he’s envisioning and what he’s done so far is exactly along the lines of what Arts Garage is all about. I think he’s going to make a phenomenal addition to our team.”

At the time of the announcement, Garsson’s Primal Forces was just cementing its brand as a purveyor of thoughtful, contemporary plays with a focus on the lingering impact of the ‘60s counterculture. In Fort Lauderdale’s Andrews Living Arts Studio, Garsson produced David Mamet’s “The Anarchist,” Lanford Wilson’s “Redwood Curtains” and a critically revered version of Dominique Morisseau’s “Sunset Baby,” which was nominated for a Carbonell Award. He says to expect more of the same when he takes over the Theatre at Arts Garage in October with Laura Eason’s steamy comedy “Sex With Strangers.”

“We will continue to do more of the oddities that I liked doing [at Andrews], but without the limitations of the size of that stage,” Garsson says. Indeed, rather than trying to box ambitious shows into a small stage, Garsson will have the freedom, at Arts Garage, to choose between producing shows on the main stage and in an expanded black box space formerly occupied by the Puppetry Arts Center of the Palm Beaches.

“Sex With Strangers,” about a 20-something male sex blogger who tracks down his idol, an obscure female novelist in her ‘40s, will kick off a season focused loosely on the inappropriate desires of lust. In January of 2016, Zayd Dohrn’s “Reborning” hugs the border between comedy, drama and thriller, in a story about a sculptor and his mysterious new client. “The Devil’s Music,” opening next February, dramatizes the last concert by the inestimable blues siren Bessie Smith; and Kim Davies’ “Smoke,” opening in March 2016, is a thriller set in New York City about the ludic possibilities of human sexuality.

Garsson respects the achievements Tyrrell has made in establishing the Theatre at Arts Garage, but he says he’s approaching the season from a different perspective. “Lou, from what I know, was in a way the most daring of everyone, completely gambling on all-new material,” he says. “I am not that much of a risk-taker. I’m maybe 80 percent of the way there, taking material that hasn’t necessarily been seen in New York but maybe has been seen elsewhere—little-known works, along the lines of the old Ripley’s Believe it or Not.”

Of Primal Forces/Arts Garage’s place in the South Florida theater scene, Garsson describes it thusly: “The Wick has the market cornered on the classics. Slow Burn’s got the market cornered on the offbeat recent musicals. Those two things do not interest me right now, as a producer. You’ve got Island City, which specializes in predominantly gay material. You’ve got people like Mark Della Ventura specializing in millenials. You’ve got Palm Beach Dramaworks specializing in the classics. There’s an empty area there for new stuff with a ‘60s feel.”

“I think we’re growing,” adds Ushe. “Every season we’re getting bigger and better. I think with the selection of plays that Keith is putting out, it will help us reach younger audiences as well. They’re a little edgier. We’ll continue what we’ve been doing so far and build on top of it and try to get more folks aware of us. This is our mission. I think we’re getting there.”

For more on the Theatre at Arts Garage’s 2015-2016 theater season, and to purchase season tickets, call 561/450-6357 or visit artsgarage.org.