The Key West Theatre Festival rises, phoenix-like, July 28 for its 10th annual slate of new plays and readings following the loss of its major funder — and its dissolution — in 2000.
In fall 2000, artistic director Joan McGillis reluctantly announced that due to loss of sponsorship, the Actors' Equity affiliated festival in the Southern chain of Florida islands was history. By February 2001, however, new funding was in place and a call for submissions was reinstated.
Setbacks such as the threat of two hurricanes in 1998 and 1999, plus the death of festival advisor and friend, the playwright Gary Bonasorte, dampened the spirit of the festival organizers, but the sun is out again.
"It's been a community-supported resurrection," McGillis said by phone, in between taking reservations for tickets. "Last fall our office was closed and files were tossed. We're inventing the wheel again."
Earlier this year, when the festival had no hope, McGillis got a call from Bill Andersen, president of the Florida Keys Council of the Arts, who introduced her to an anonymous donor who offered a matching grant, encouraging McGillis to get additional funding. McGillis wrote letters and made phone calls and the money was matched — "and then some," she said. The dissolved board is being re-formed with new blood and by laws are being drawn up. The first order of business this year was to get the festival up, McGillis said. She admits she wants an additional week of rehearsal added to the 2002 festival budget (the budget this year for the nonprofit fest is $150,000).
Additional money came from Florida Department of State Cultural Affairs Department, Keys and Key West Tourist Development Council.
Andersen, of Florida Keys Council of the Arts, told Playbill On-Line he took the shutdown of the festival as a major blow to the region, which has a literary history as home to Ernest Hemingway and Tennessee Williams: "I thought it would be a tragic loss for the Key West community, which is really in a meteoric rise in terms of a being a national and international arts and cultural destination. A number of community leaders and individuals stepped forward to assist them in putting together their funding."
Key West has 80 art galleries, a symphony, theatres throughout the island chain and a literary festival. Andersen said 20 years ago it was a college-kids' "drink-and-puke" destination. Now, the t-shirt shops are being replaced by restaurants and galleries and the porn shops are disappearing in the name of the arts, he said.
Andersen said the death of the Key West Theatre Festival was ultimately "a healthy thing."
"The theatre festival had been [supported by] a number of small donors with one large donor," Andersen said, adding that the entire festival was ultimately dependent on that major donor. "Now, we have spread support across the community and it has drawn others in."
Artistic director McGillis admitted that due to budget constraints, the 2001 festival offers one less play than it did in 2000. The three mainstage playwrights — Julie Jensen, Jack Heifner and Michael McKeever — have been represented in past Key West Theatre Fests, but their works this season are all world premieres.
"If we don't nurture new playwrights were not gonna have theatre," McGillis said.
The 2001 Key West Theatre Festival, June 28-July 8, includes productions of:
• Julie Jensen's Cheat, a "provocative look at women surviving on the home front during World War II," directed by McGillis, June 29, 30, July 2, 5, 7 and 8, at the Waterfront Playhouse.
• Michael McKeever's Apron Strings, "five humorous vignette illustrating the eternal confusion caused by the most enigmatic of relationships — mother and child," directed by Barry Steinman, June 28, 30, July 1, 3, 6 and 7, at the Waterfront Playhouse.
• Jack Heifner's Earth to Bucky, a "funny and heart-warming" work about "Bucky, a sheltered 30-year-old [who] gets his first taste of independence," directed by Thomas Caruso, June 28, 29, 30 and July 3, 5, 6, 7 and 8 at the Red Barn Theatre.
Free readings in the festival (at the Waterfront Playhouse) include Oedipus of Lucius Anaeus Senecus freely translated and adapted by Michael Elliot Rutenberg (July 2), Hellgig by Bill McCarty (July 3), Cape Cod Souvenirs by Paul Rusconi (July 5) and a TBA (July 6).
This year's free Playwrights' Forum welcomes Jon Robin Baitz (Ten Unknowns), Tina Howe (Painting Churches) and David Marshall Grant (Snakebit) and the resident festival playwrights, noon June 30 at the Waterfront Playhouse.
Tickets to full productions are $25. For reservations or information, call (305) 295-9278 or visit the website at keywesttheatrefestival.org.
— By Kenneth Jones