After a year without live theatre, Zoetic Stage is ready to make us laugh.
While it was only able to produce one play last year, the resident theatre company of the Adrienne Arsht Center is fresh off a celebrated 2020, winning 12 Carbonell Awards, by far more than any other company, at a virtual ceremony last summer. Starting this weekend, Artistic Director Stuart Meltzer and company will hope to keep that momentum up while trying something completely different.
Feb. 27 marks the first “Zoetic Schmoetic” improv theatre performance, in which a sextet of South Florida actor/comedians, some of them new to the Zoetic family, will perform a night of improvised scenes based on audience prompts. In adherence to CDC recommendations, the performance will take place al fresco, in the Arsht Center’s Thomson Plaza for the Arts just outside Books & Books, with outdoor seating for up to 180. Meltzer spoke to Boca magazine this week about the inspiration behind the new concept, and the unique challenges and joys it brings.
Have you directed anything like this before?
No, I haven’t. It’s really been a collaboration between myself and Elena Maria Garcia. Improv was something I hadn’t really worked on, and during the summer months, when Elena was part of my bubble, we spoke about particularly her strengths, and the things she had done by working in improv early in her career. She jumped on board, and she’s serving as an assistant director and improv coordinator. We’re trying to build it into something to last outside these next three months.
Ultimately, why choose improv as opposed to staging, say, a play outdoors?
We wanted to find our own alternative. There were so many companies doing online programming, and there’s a lot of value to that. But there was so much stuff going on, and I think everybody was oversaturated with online options—which a lot of people weren’t watching anyway. So we wanted to figure out something we could do. And the Arsht had come up with a courtyard program, particularly for music. But they wanted to see what we could do to contribute to that courtyard programming. And we figured, what better way than to make people laugh? Laughter was, and is, such an incredible medicine. But it’s really crazy, because to put together a class of actor/comedians, some of whom haven’t worked with each other, and in three and a half to four weeks to try to gel together, is quite a feat. I really needed to put together a roster of incredible actor/comedians in order to make that happen.
What was it like casting the show—do some of the actors have improv backgrounds?
They all do. Clay Cartland has done Laughing Matters, in Fort Lauderdale, for years. He’s so unbelievably quick, funny, smart, physical—you just don’t realize it, because we see him as one thing, as a musical theatre actor, or as a comic in a play. But we don’t realize the command he has within his own thinking. The same thing with Jeni Hacker: Early in her career, she had done improv, so when she went into this process, she had to blow some of the dust off. But she was always so quick with her repartee. She was always making me laugh. One day we were talking, and she said, we should do improv.
With Elena, Clay and Jeni, I knew that I needed to find people I hadn’t necessarily worked with, like Daryl Patrice. She had worked in a Black improv group for about three years. That’s something that brings a new, different element to our world. A young gentleman by the name of Gabriell Salgado was my student at New World, and has been around Zoetic Stage for four years now. Last year he was supposed to make his professional debut, but everything got postponed. But he’s so wonderfully funny, and his body’s made of rubber. It’s the same thing with Fergie L. Philippe, who was a student of mine at New World, and went on tour with “Hamilton.” He had done a lot of improv in college, and he is so remarkably gifted. He’s so smart, and that’s important to a lot of improv: How smart you are, and how smart are the choices you can make. And sometimes the choices fail, and that’s fine. But a lot of the times, they’re just so silly and ridiculous, and they’re gifts to the other actors.
How do you rehearse for a show like this, when you don’t know what the actors will be saying or doing?
We don’t call it rehearsing. We call it playing games. We’ve had four weeks of playing games, and figuring out which games work, which games aren’t going to work, collectively what are the actors good at, what are they a little bit weaker at. And then we start to see organically how things fall. Example: Jeni is really good with coming up with these one-liners, so maybe she could fall into a game that really supports that strength. Elena and Fergie are so fabulous with different kinds of characters, so maybe they fall into something a little more physical.
Like everything else, it’s been wonderful in the workshop room as far as being able to laugh again. That’s been pretty magical—and medicinal. It’s hard too, because some things don’t work, and you’re like, what am I doing? How can we make it work? So you’re trying to find that combination of chemistry and relaxation. We’re trying to put together something that takes six months in other kinds of environments. But we’re doing it in a much more condensed way, and a much more concentrated way.
What are the best kinds of prompts for the audience to suggest, because won’t the actors likely select from numerous options thrown at them?
How this will work for us is that much of that will happen prior to the actual performing. Somebody’s going to come around asking for suggestions, specifically. And we’ll have them prior to the performance. I’m going to be calling the show.
So you’re like the Drew Carey of this show.
Yes. But I’m going to be shaking in my boots a little, because it’s my first time doing it. I have this entire script, but it’s not going to be the same show. And nothing will ever be the same. So much of that will be predicated on the audience’s participation. We have somebody going into the audience getting locations and occupations and emotions, and they will come to me about five minutes before the show, and I’ll have to quickly put them in order. Then we will rock and roll from that point forward.
What are the COVID restrictions for audiences?
Everybody has to be masked until they get to their table. And they have to be masked if they’re not eating and drinking. The actors are also masked. They’re going to be wearing clear masks for the performance. Our No. 1 concern is to have healthy, safe alternative programming.
What is the staging like, because it’s a different kind of venue for you, isn’t it?
It certainly is. We’re going to be on top, where the Books & Books seating is, on that level, and everybody’s down below. It’s kind of like nomadic theatre in a way. The actors are miked, but there’s some challenges that will happen. It’s downtown Miami. You’re going to hear horns, sirens, music, the urban life that will be adding to the soundscape. But we’re doing our best to not deny that our actors are wearing masks, not deny that we’re outside, not deny that it’s something different and unique. But we’re also going to celebrate it, and we’re going to work with it.
“Zoetic Schmoetic: A Hysterically Safe & Socially Distanced Improv Comedy Experience” runs at 5 and 9 p.m. Feb. 27. Tickets cost $30 for table for two, and $60 for table for four. Future performance dates are March 27 and April 24. Call 305/949-6722 or visit arshtcenter.org.