Area Stage Makes a Comeback with Rent

Categories: Theater
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Area Stage Conservatory students rehearse Rent.
Remember Area Stage? Miami critics fawned all over this little theater company on Lincoln Road until it closed in 1999. They recently reopened in Coral Gables, complete with a conservatory for young actors. This weekend, they stage Jonathan Larson's Rent. We spoke with Area Stage's directors about their role in Lincoln Road's bohemian origins, and why they're hopeful about the future of Miami's theater scene.

Ares Stage was a pioneer in Miami's arts community in the 1980s, when the city struggled through demons of violence and drugs towards a cultural rebirth. Lincoln Road had become a derelict stretch of empty storefronts. But the cheap rent attracted artists like Maria Banda-Rodaz and John Rodaz who, along with other pioneers such as the New World Symphony, set up shop on the dilapidated strip and ushered in a cultural revival.

Area Stage opened up its doors in 1989 and became one of Miami's most well-respected theater venues, presenting over 70 productions and winning multiple Carbonell awards. With the success of Lincoln Road's artistic pioneers, commercial development soon ensued, and big-name chain stores began to replace the thrift shops and antique stores.  "When I walk down Lincoln Road I hardly recognize it now," says Maria Banda-Rodaz, Area Stage's Executive Director.
 
By the 1990s, rent on Lincoln Road had more than doubled, and the future of Area Stage was in peril. The city of Miami Beach stepped in to assist with a subsidy, but prices were escalating at break-neck speed and soon, even that wasn't enough. By 1999, Area Stage was forced to close its doors.

After several years of staging plays in temporary locations, the Rodazes moved into Coral Gables's Riviera Theater in 2008. They briefly called themselves Teatro Area Stage before becoming Area Stage Company once again.

These days, Area Stage's expansive new digs are home to festivals, concerts, and a future partnership with a flamenco dance company. The cornerstone, however, is the conservatory, a selective program for high school and college students training for performing arts careers. Rent will be their seventh production.

The famed musical is a portrait of the artist in New York City in the 1980s. It brings the Village and Lower East Side to life. This is back when these neighborhoods were still frontiers for the avant-garde and not filled with Starbucks and Gaps. At this point, "artist loft" wasn't yet a clever term maneuvered by real estate agents. It was the roach-infested, bathtub-in-your-kitchen home of '90s NYC bohemians like in Rent. What's more, the musical takes place at the height of the AIDS epidemic, a time when HIV-positive meant certain death. Artists watched as friends and lovers were silently consumed.

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And whenever high school students put on Rent, a production mired in adult themes, it always stirs up some controversy. Director John Rodaz elected to use the modified school version, which omits some of the language and displays of affection, and doesn't include the song "Contact."

Still, he wasn't naïve enough to believe that a cast of teenagers wouldn't be able to tackle the musical's themes of poverty, drug addiction, and AIDS. "I was surprised by how much they knew. They taught me actually," he laughs. "The community of artists that are represented in the play has caused us to ask questions and explore our own lives in very different ways. It's been an almost therapeutic experience."

And so it is that Area Stage once more goes about its business of pushing the envelope and grooming home-grown talent. "I find [the current theater scene] so exciting," says Maria Banda-Rodaz as her husband directs Rent rehearsals in the background.  "I'm so happy to be part of this community. I'm hopeful. Very hopeful for Miami."

Rent runs this Friday through August 15 at Area Stage Company (1560 S. Dixie Hwy., Coral Gables.) Performances are at 8 p.m. except August 8 when it will be performed at 7 p.m. and on August 15 at 6 p.m. There are no performances on August 9 and August 10.  Tickets cost $10 to $25. Call 305-666-2078 or visit www.areastagecompany.com.


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