Rediscovering the Florida Theater with BackLight Group

April 20, 2010 17 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

Metro Jacksonville discovers the Florida Theater in Downtown Jacksonville being used (and considered) in a new way: As a living part of the Jacksonville theatre community. Robb Clare's recent workshops drew participants from all over the area to learn technique from a master of the craft, and the informal, exciting use of the building may serve as a building block for the future.

It is a simple, gorgeous spring night in Downtown Jacksonville. I have just left a Metro Jacksonville board meeting at the Landing. Our Monday Night's are reserved for the board only, to meet and discuss urban policy, and this one was with Terry Lorince and John Welch of Downtown Vision.

I first ran into John Welch back in the late 80's, just as he and Jack Diamond were beginning to formulate the White Paper whose ideas and goals dominated downtown policy for the next 20 years. I was fresh from high school, and the Florida Theater had just been renovated and programmed for reuse as a city owned (and renovated) property.

The offices of the Downtown Development Authority were located in the building, and even though I was a theatre major at the Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, visiting the offices of Dana Fernetti for Dare Tabloid was the first time I had ever been in the structure.

Strangely enough, I remember walking the same path from the Landing to the Theater; although at that time there were a damn sight more buildings to look up and gawk at. The Landing had been new then, the American Heritage Life Building was in full use (my pal Rusty Tabor's dad was a VP) and the Theater was opulent. The streets were full of loud (and often alarming) people in suits.

These things are all going through my head as I walk down blue-lit, quiet and deserted Forsyth. In my head I still entertain the ghosts of buildings and places that once bustled there. My favorite was a Japanese restaurant called Akaihana: the sushi chef was fantastic.  It's gone. It's a parking lot with a few cars on it now. Empty buses are charging down the street, with a flash of greenish interior lights and dull metallic hulls. A block over, there was another grand theatre building, the Center (or Arcade as it had been known historically) that I once occupied as my first office space (and playground) in 1987.

These wistful ruminations and I walk briskly down the street together.  

It's 7:45 on Monday night, and though the city is effectively closed down, it still has its own beauty: the indigo twilight casts movietone feel over the grey streets and the rustling amber and green outlines of the leaves on trees. Dos Gatos, the completely unmarked (and therefore) chic little bar on Forsyth has a couple of muscular guys in baggy black t-shirts and half mutton chop whiskers darting in and out of its door.

The Marquee of the Florida Theatre is on, blazing with yellow light and energy on a street lined with parked cars but very few other signs of life. I walk inside the door, up the steps and into the Theatre where I am greeted by Devlin Mann, the Auteur and driving force behind BackLight Theater Group. I've been seeing a good bit of Devlin, as we put the pieces of this event together over the past few weeks with the help and aid of Jim Bailey, a Florida Theater Board Member, neighbor (he publishes the Daily Record next door) and candidate for Mayor (I think he has a good shot at the theatre vote).

Devlin is the father of two children with his stunningly attractive wife, Christina Teague Mann. She is not at the theatre at the moment, which is a disappointment, -- although I'd seen her the day before hostessing the welcoming reception for Rob Clare, the man whose class I am about to observe. Christina is a dancer, and a bit of a dynamo. She has taught and performed her work in NYC, London, Paris, Berlin, Portugal, and Beijing, but she is presently teaching at Jacksonville University.

The Theatre is endlessly charming. After all, it was designed to look magical, to have flourishes and details that create a tapestry of fantasy, embroidered in motifs of byzantine fancifulness. There is a stillness inside the space that comes from the slumber and empty dreams of a building that anyone attuned to these old buildings can hear.  

Lively buildings have a noise even in their silence, a soft hum of things happening under the audible level---electrical currents, doors opening and closing, and the sense that there are people talking in unseen rooms all around you. They are like living things, breathing in and out, full of life and lives that are interdependent on its whims and fancies. But the Florida Theatre is a bit like a museum on this Monday night. There are deep places in the quiet as you move around. It feels like it might be impertinent to speak too loudly for fear of unfairly waking something from rest.

This is probably because the city just moved its many offices from the building. With the exception of the offices carved out by the theatre management on the 4th floor, the other six are deserted and empty. Every desk, cabinet, phone and shelf moved to the new location of the Planning Department at the Ball Building in Hemming Park. The emptiness projects into the theatre itself.

But tonight, Monday night, April 12th, the theatre itself is a miracle of theatre unfolding.

Rob Clare is holding workshops on Shakespearean theatre interaction in a most unusual location: On the main stage of the city's most historic theatre.

But then again, it's an unusual situation, and Clare is an unusual kind of guy.

For that matter, the event has all kinds of unusual people and elements.

I suppose we should start with Rob Clare.

English. Spare, smart, taut, intense, attentive and almost supernaturally acquainted with Shakespearean text. He is the modern 50 year old. Handsome, tightly constructed, confident, magnetic and possessed of a casual vitality that bespeaks an erudite life experience. The dark alert eyes leave the impression that there is always an interior analysis going on about the world around him. This is not an oblivious man.

His resume is so solid and his credentials so impressive, that it seems ludicrous that he would be semi casually hanging around in Jacksonville, Florida spending time leading the type of workshop that one normally only reads about in one of the world's Theatre Cities.  "Exploring Methods Towards Dynamic Performance". And this in a town where it's difficult to find actors who read non Leghornian Shakespeare. Yet here he is, in the flesh, looking ready to peel a few grapes and make Champagne.

The crowd gathered to see him was just as intriguing (at least to a local like myself)

They were the cream of the serious theatre in this city. Surprisingly, the crowd itself seems a bit eager. A bit self conscious. Actually even a tad nervous---an undercurrent of deliberate casualness that is just a little too casual to be natural.

Gail Featheringill. Staci Cobb. Redgie Gutshall. John Allen Harrett. Dawn Button. Kiki, Del Austin, Tim Kompanchenko, Karrissa Wade. Before the course was over, Gill Johnson, Lee Hamby, Josh Waller and many others would join the group on stage. There was enough talent and firepower in the room to make literally anything happen, on any stage in the city. And they were on stage, and something unexpected was happening.

In the audience, Metro Jacksonville's own Ethelyne was among those present---rows of spectators there just to see someone with as much hype as Clare actually working. Sarah Harper. Myself. And we were watching the unexpected unfold.

I suppose that I thought I would be watching the usual workshop, just  featuring someone with more bragging rights and perhaps a few amusing anecdotes about famous theatres and famous people in moments of flubbery and the like. Some technical notes, I guess. Some insight into the industry, maybe an impressive catalogue of Shakespearean ephemera and trivia.

What actually got delivered on that stage and in that space, against the backdrop of that grand historic structure was something different altogether.
What happened was learning and growth. You could see it in each of the performances of the people gathered onstage, and these were not children, or novices, or casually-interested-in-theatre people. These people help form the backbone of theatre in these parts

Clare is academically amazing.  

The basic format of the workshop was thus: The actors came with a memorized and rehearsed monologue from any of the Shakespearean plays and performed it in front of the group. Then Clare would take the performance apart and discuss with each of the performers (and of course the crowd) new ways to understand the character and how that moment might relate to the audience. Seems simple enough.

What became apparent after a few of these sessions was the dazzling depth of Rob Clare's knowledge. There are 38 plays in the Shakespearean canon. Hundreds of characters, several hundreds of monologues, soliloquy works, and thousands of nuances to the complicated plots and character developments.

Clare was not provided with a list of the monologues chosen by the workshop participants, and yet as soon as the monologue was started Clare was speaking to the intricacies of that particular character's motivation, point of view, state of mind, importance in the story line, and how much of the plot the character should be aware of by that point in the script.

To do this basically requires having a running three dimensional model of each of the plays in his head--- one which allows him to jump in and out of each of the characters and see it from their point of view at any particular point in the text of the play. This isn't just impressive, it's the equivalent of the hafiz in literature. More accurately, it is like 13 hafiz. And Clare doesn't just know the text, he understands it from every point of view within the text.

People work their entire lives without doing this. Rob Clare has managed to do it, master it, and then teach it to others in just a couple of decades. The appreciation of this settled in almost simultaneously with everyone in the room. They were being instructed by a man whose accomplishments no one in the room would likely equal in their entire lifetimes. You could see a profound respect settle across the stage. I felt it seep in myself.

That respect was a game changer for the participants. Suddenly it wasn't about getting a cool little workshop in that might give them a pointer or two, suddenly it was the real thing. They let go of their preconceptions and pretensions and let this man teach them. It was thrilling to watch so many already actualized adults become like engaged children being taught by a brilliant instructor. Suddenly there was actual theatre happening on that stage.

Perhaps this is the norm for a member of the Royal Shakespearean Company and an expert in the field, if so, then we could use a hell of a lot more of it.

What Clare did was to make each of the actors stop trying to simply recite Shakespeare and instead concentrate on their character's relationship to the play, all the while reminding them that Shakespeare intended the roles to be performed to and oftentimes with the audience. He opened each of the too-well practiced recitations up to the possibilities and chaos built into the original text.

A room full of smooth and practiced performers sat silent --- not interrupting with questions, and most of them furiously scribbling notes --- as Clare went through performance after performance. The audience in the house found themselves grinning like jack-o-lanterns as they watched the performers go through transformational changes in their little vignettes and monologues. Each one started with various swooping caricatures (by comparison) and simply by paying attention to the emotional nuance, translated their own moment into something moving (believe it or not there were people in the seats around me that got choked up over the "Band of Brothers" speech----for the first time in their lives.)

Clare delivered two lessons that night. One was purely the simple joy of being taught to better understand your craft by a master, and that lesson was given to people who had paid for his class. But he delivered a second, unanticipated lesson to several of us in that gorgeous space.

This is supposed to be what it's all about, this theatre business. And this is what these spaces are supposed to be used for. Theatre and performances aren't supposed to be caricatures of themselves. It's not about just memorizing lines and blocking and getting to your cues on time. It's about getting a greater understanding of the world around you. It's about working and inspiring a community. Preserving and honoring the works of our cultures, and reinventing and creating something new.

It's about being taught by masters in a craft to be empowered and grow and go out and do something original and thrilling. It's about fostering experiments and growing ideas.

And there was no better setting for this energy and event to happen than the Florida Theatre itself. The Stage, the feeling of the room, the presence of the seats and the balconies.  Being in them allowed for the participants to see and feel what the instruction was all about. Clare could probably teach anteaters Shakespearean technique using a flashlight, a tin can and a pair of goggles in an underground rendering plant, but there were aspects of the workshop that wouldn't have been possible in any other venue, which brings us to the circumstances of this class being held at the Florida Theatre at all.

This is what this building was born to do.

What made it possible was the alertness and willingness of Jim Bailey,  Erik Hart (the executive director of the Florida Theater) and the Mayor's Office in the person of Lisa Rinaman, to work with Devlin and Christina's group.

Normally the costs would have been prohibitive for any group like this to use the space. Usually the building simply stands inactive and dark. But with encouragement from the Mayor's Office, some kind of mysterious help from Bailey, and the willingness of Hart, Jacksonville was home to something real and meaningful.

There is a serious discussion about the future of this building, hurting as all non-profits are in this economy, and placed in the center of a collapsed downtown. In the new economy the operation is going to have to evolve in order to survive, and filling that palace of a building -- every nook and cranny of it -- with the kind of energy that was in it with the Clare Workshop...

This is the kind of solution that John Welch and Terry Lorrince should be working to create.  It's what would have solved all the problems identified with the White Paper of 20 years ago. It's the solution now. People coming to the core to participate in something that they are themselves creating. Organic, engaged use. At the end of the day, that's what it all boils down to.

Couldn't possibly be a better use of this landmark that belongs to all of us.

By Stephen Dare