BY MICHELLE PAYER | PHOTOGRAPHS BY CARLOS HIDALGO
The Colony Theater is bringing world-class theater to South Beach’s Lincoln Road.
Michel Hausmann bounds up the stairs of the 415-seat Colony Theater and surveys his new home from above: the refurbished seats, the stage, the lighting and the restoration of a gem that was once one of Paramount Pictures’ most glamorous movie houses. Situated on Lincoln Road and Lenox Avenue, its glory days faded in the ’70s, and although it was never abandoned—on the contrary, was renovated twice—The Colony Theater was never utilized as the grand dame deserved.
If one believes in destiny, it was in the cards that a year ago, internationally celebrated artistic director Michel Hausmann’s journey brought him to Miami as co-owner and artistic director of Miami New Drama, which now operates the Colony. It was the musical he wrote and produced, The Golem of Havana, that convinced City of Miami Beach commissioners that Hausmann was the one to re-energize one of the country’s finest Art Deco treasures with a resident theater company. The production broke all records, selling out every night for four weeks to an audience of more than 8,000. Hausmann assured the city he was here to stay.
To understand the journey, one must start at the departure point, which for Hausmann was in his native Caracas, Venezuela, where he was artistic director at one of the city’s most established theater companies. “What I loved about work in Venezuela is that we were part of the community, part of society,” he says. “When we would do a show, people were talking about the themes, and those themes would permeate into the editorial pages. Our impact in the city and in the country was huge.”
Such impact was noticed by the Chavez regime, which staged a tear gas bombing inside Hausmann’s Caracas theater during a 2010 performance of Jesus Christ Superstar. It propelled him to close the theater and leave for New York, where he earned an MFA in Theater Directing from Columbia University and began a new life. While he loved the creative energy of New York’s storied theater scene, “I didn’t feel like I was really needed,” he says. When he looked toward Miami, a city he knew from visiting as a child, people said, “Why leave? New York is the best!” “It is,” Hausmann would reply, “but what did you have to do with making it the best city in the world? Nothing. You’re taking from the tree. Let’s plant a tree somewhere else. Miami is the city of the future; it’s the city where projects like this can happen. The land is fertile. People are hungry and are generous,” says a man excited about standing on the precipice of great artistic change.
That’s when Hausmann began what he describes as his “charm offensive” and along with Miami New Drama Artistic Associate, the Emmy award-nominated director and playwright Moisés Kaufman, made friends with city commissioners, Lincoln Road Business Improvement District Executive Director Ivannia Van Arman, the Knight Foundation and potential board members as he laid out, with signature excitement, a vision. “Miami New Drama is unique because Miami is a unique city,” says Hausmann about bringing theater to Miami Beach that resonates with the multicultural community. “We have to do work here that reflects our diversity,” he says, “about cultures coming together, or we have to do work that is completely related to what is happening in the country. It’s not just theater for the sake of theater.”
The recent production of TERROR asked the audience to judge whether an Air Force pilot who shot down a commercial jetliner full of passengers heading to a crowded sports stadium was guilty because she disobeyed orders. Ninety percent of the audience delivered a “not guilty” verdict. Every night. “Do you follow the law, even if it’s not the right law?” asks Hausmann, deep in his quest to inspire thought and conversation through Miami New Drama productions.
This summer, he’s bringing a show from Venezuela about legendary French cabaret singer Edith Piaf. In October, with support from the Knight Foundation, Hausmann is bringing to the Colony Theater Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, possibly the most produced play in America, but with a twist. “For the first time in 80 years, they allowed someone to alter the text,” says Hausmann. “We have created a multilingual version of the show about two families. Each family will speak a different language,” he says. “It’s going to be a play that feels like Miami. In a way, it’s telling our story.” During Art Basel, he’s producing a modern adaptation of Miss Julie, a play written in 1888 that is set on mystical, magical Midsummer’s Eve on the estate of a Swedish Count.
It’s all a piece of the artistic puzzle that was heretofore missing on Miami Beach.
With all its renowned cultural icons, including Miami City Ballet and New World Symphony, Miami Beach “has been missing quality live theater,” says Commissioner Joy Malakoff. “We are pleased we now have an outstanding first-class resident theater company presenting in the Colony Theater on Lincoln Road.”
Miami-based actors are equally enthused. Gregg Weiner, a lead actor in the production of TERROR, sums it up best: “Our theater scene has lost too many companies in the last decade. Michel, Miami New Drama and his mission to create art that is relevant to the international community here in Miami and topical to today’s ever changing world is welcome and vital,” he says. “I’m excited to see what the future brings for him and the company as he builds his audience and creates a true home for new and engaging, relatable and effecting theatre.”
Michel Hausmann is nearly out of his seat when he describes his vision and mission to bring people to Lincoln Road for date nights of world-class theater performances. It comes naturally to the man who hosted the world premiere of Tarell McCraney’s Moonlight in little Colony Theater, not knowing it would blow up and win an Oscar. “Art doesn’t change lives,” says Hausmann with a twinkle in his eye. “Great art changes lives.”