For the first half of his 14 years as a professional actor, Michael McKeever suffered from pre-show jitters. Today, this man of many talents — he’s also a playwright, designer and successful commercial artist — swears he no longer gets stage fright before he performs.
But that calm as an actor doesn’t mean he’s cucumber-cool about the Thursday opening of South Beach Babylon at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. Yes, he is acting in the play. But he’s also its author.
“I get nervous when I have a new play opening,” says McKeever, whose newest work takes on the South Florida art scene and the shadow cast by mighty Art Basel Miami Beach. “I always think one of these days it will get easier.”
With South Beach Babylon, his nerves may have more to do with what’s at stake this time around. The play isn’t just one more script from the prolific, much-produced Davie writer. This world-premiere work is also launching the Zoetic Stage Company, a troupe founded by McKeever, his partner Stuart Meltzer, playwright Christopher Demos-Brown and Demos-Brown’s wife Stephanie.
Putting on a play is one thing. Producing a play that is meant to establish a theater company and begin defining its artistic identity is quite another.
Zoetic’s opening artistic salvo focuses on a group of South Beach artists in the days leading up to Art Basel. Through different characters, three sorts of artists are represented. Tony Everette (Stephen G. Anthony) is a successful photographer who has stayed true to his creative vision. Chillie Zangora (Erik Fabregat) is a wildly successful pop artist ala Romero Britto . And Simon Gardner (McKeever) is a choreographer-performance artist whose statement-driven work has brought him neither acceptance nor fame.
Also part of the pre-Basel scene are hot model Lennox Montel (Amy McKenna), Chillie’s girlfriend (the fit McKenna says she’s “not eating until Dec. 13,” the day after the play closes); manipulative event planner Semira Mann (Elena Maria Garcia) and neophyte artist Jonas Blodgen (Andrew Rosenberg), a just-down-from-New York stranger in an image-obsessed land.
One section of McKeever’s trenchant comedy involves the presentation of Simon’s newest work. The piece-within-a-play has been created by South Florida choreographer-dancers Octavio Campos and Rosie Herrera, who will also perform it. Their participation, Zoetic artistic director Meltzer observes, “makes this a richer event.”
The idea for Zoetic, which means “pertaining to life,” came from Meltzer, a faculty member at Miami’s New World School of the Arts. In 2008-2009, he worked as artistic director of City Theatre and its popular Summer Shorts festival. But after he and the company parted ways, he considered a number of professional and academic opportunities that would have meant leaving South Florida. Instead, Meltzer and McKeever, who had met the Demos-Browns when the playwrights won a page-to-stage competition at Coral Gables’ Actors’ Playhouse , decided to create the sort of company they felt was missing from the region’s theatrical landscape.
“Our mission is to help give new works a starting point and launch those new works out into the world,” says Stephanie Demos-Brown, who, like her husband, is a lawyer and serves as president of Zoetic’s board of trustees. “We would also like to give Miami and South Florida artists one more reason to stay in Miami instead of taking their talent elsewhere.”
To that end, Zoetic has assembled an ongoing company of actors, directors and playwrights, not that being part of Zoetic precludes those artists from working at other theaters. The company’s inaugural four-play season includes two world premieres — South Beach Babylon and Demos-Brown’s Wrongful Death — plus the Florida premieres of David Adjmi’s Stunning and Carlos Murillo’s Diagram of a Paper Airplane. To achieve a higher-profile launch, Zoetic has partnered with the Arsht, presenting McKeever’s play in the Carnival Studio Theater during topically hot Art Basel Miami Beach.
Zoetic’s founding couples also dream of an even richer variety of work ( The Seagull, anyone?), a winter new play festival, a space the company can call home. But those things, of course, take money.
“All government and corporate money is unavailable until you establish a track record, so we’ve been tapping individual donors,” says Christopher Demos-Brown. “But we believe that once the product is out there, the work will sell itself.”
To get started, Zoetic held a series of fund-raising performances titled “McKeever’s Briefs,” staged readings of the playwright’s funnier short plays. The theater’s board also solicited donations, aiming to hit $100,000 before the opening of South Beach Babylon, which will cost an estimated $80,000. Meltzer says Zoetic is slightly short of that sum but adds, “We only began fundraising in June. If we sell 60 percent of the tickets to this show, we can make [an additional] $30,000.”
The cast, a mix of company members and other actors, is betting on Zoetic.
Because he had worked with Meltzer before, Fabregat said yes to playing Chillie before he had read a word of McKeever’s script. Anthony, who really is a photographer as well as a Carbonell Award-winning actor, agreed to join Zoetic before he knew many details about plans for the company’s future.
“Any time one has the opportunity to be in on the founding of something that could be great, you say yes. It’s great to be part of a repertory company, where the work is tailored to the actors,” he says. “This is my second time working on a new McKeever piece, and I knew he would be amenable to all sorts of things. He’s a great collaborator. . . . He has a great ear, a sixth sense for what people will engage with.”
Garcia, another Carbonell winner who also teaches at New World, thinks South Beach Babylon explores “the side of the art world we don’t see — the dark side. When the Average Joe goes to look at art, he has no idea that some people got screwed or that the kid whose work deserves to be up there is out collecting tickets in the front. “
As for Zoetic, Garcia also jumped onboard with no hesitation.
“A woman my age, a breeder, is like a dinosaur in theater. I wasn’t being cast,” she says. “Stuart and Michael are coming from the right place. Their rhetoric is consistent. There aren’t egos here; everybody came in understanding what’s expected. This is a group that’s mature.”
Demos-Brown says he doesn’t mind that his fellow founder-playwright is getting Zoetic’s inaugural slot.
“I don’t think I have a bigger cheerleader than Michael, and the opposite is true too,” he says. “Because this is about South Beach, I think there’s a good chance it will be produced elsewhere.”
Whatever the critical and popular fate of South Beach Babylon, Zoetic will continue to face challenges in its first season. The company will have to raise money for its next shows. Where they will be produced isn’t yet clear, as the Arsht is co-presenting only the first play. Nomadic theater companies, the Zoetic founders know, have a far harder time building an audience.
Still, Meltzer thinks Zoetic has a shot at starting strong with a play that began as a more serious examination of art and artists then, after he asked McKeever the sorts of questions directors ask, wound up much funnier.
“I look at it from an artistic director’s perspective,” Meltzer says. “This is a very grim time. I don’t know that an audience wants to shell out $40 to see something it won’t have fun with. If we want to hit a home run, we should make them laugh.”