For the South Florida theater community, June 6, 2011, is a day that will live in infamy. This was the day, less than 24 hours after the closing of its best production of the season, that Florida Stage announced that it had filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection and would cease operations.
The news hit the cultural community like a sledgehammer. To outside observers, Florida Stage was a beacon of prosperity; it recently had migrated to larger confines at the Kravis Center. In addition, it was one of the most consistently rewarding theater companies in the region, a glistening enclave for world-premiere plays that regularly scooped up awards. Some angry commentators blamed the Kravis for the bankruptcy; many simply expressed grief.
“When there is a death in the family—and that’s exactly how it felt—you’re paralyzed for a little while,” recalls Lou Tyrrell, Florida Stage’s artistic director. “But there was always kind of a philosophical acceptance that a life cycle is a natural thing, whether it’s human or cultural or corporate. That’s what happened for Florida Stage.”
Tyrrell, 61, used his time away from the stage lights to think about the next phase of his career. Through a mutual contact, he found an ideal partner in Alyona Ushe, the executive director of the Arts Garage in Delray Beach, a cultural hub in Pineapple Grove that celebrates its one-year anniversary in April.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom about starting up an arts institution in a cash-strapped market, the Arts Garage has managed to turn a profit ever since it opened its doors on the ground floor of a parking garage last year. It instantly became a haven for live jazz music from national and international recording artists, and collaborations with the South Florida Symphony, Palm Beach Opera, Alliance Francaise and other organizations expanded the venue’s disciplines—as well its seemingly boundless potential.
Ushe, 43, who founded a theater company in the nation’s capital before moving to Palm Beach County, always had wanted to include professional theater on the Arts Garage’s plate. She was only too happy to grasp the silver lining around Florida Stage’s cloudy closure.
“Lou brings so much experience and passion and vision and talent and expertise,” Ushe says. “So when we were talking about the future, it was a natural from the first meeting. Just as the Arts Garage evolved organically, so did this relationship.”
Regular programming from Tyrrell will begin this spring, but more optimistic news looms in the future for the Arts Garage. Sometime in the next two years, Ushe expects to relocate from the current 5,500-square-foot space into a 15,000-square-foot warehouse located two blocks northeast. This is the building—once home to a muffler shop—that brought Ushe to Florida in the first place.
“Currently, we can only do one performance at one time, whereas there, we’ll have more flexibility,” she says. “That’s the idea; let’s create something that’s exploding with action 24-7.”