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In Miami, making live theater work during the pandemic


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: We want to now raise the curtain on an experiment to keep theater alive, while propping up a local economy amid the pandemic.

Miami, one of the country's top tourist destinations, has been hit hard by COVID and the travel shutdown. Officials at Miami International Airport, where some 90 percent of tourists arrive, say traffic is off by more than half. And that affects hotels, restaurants, and hot spots like Miami Beach.

Somehow, though, live theater is happening. In fact, Miami is now home to the largest live production in the country right now.

Jeffrey Brown has our look for our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Actress: He said that he had taught you to value money over everything else.

Jeffrey Brown: Making theater in the time of pandemic, it's the goal of Miami New Drama in a project called "Seven Deadly Sins," seven 10-minute plays presented to a limited outdoor audience, performed by actors inside empty storefronts.

Venezuelan-born Michel Hausmann is the company's co-founder and artistic director.

Michel Hausmann: It was a moment of reckoning for the whole industry, but it was also a moment for us to realize, OK, what it is that we do, right? Are we in the business of filling venues with people, or are we in the business of live storytelling?

And I think the paradigm shift opened up the way we were able see the possibilities of what we could still do.

Jeffrey Brown: The five-year-old company, described by Hausmann as a theater of color proudly representing its diverse city, normally performs a lively mix of new plays and classics in the Colony Theatre, a restored 1935 art deco gem in Miami Beach.

When COVID forced its closure, Hausmann had a revelation while riding his bike along nearby Lincoln Road, Miami Beach's famed pedestrian street of shops and restaurants.

Michel Hausmann: I saw all the empty storefronts on Lincoln Road. I thought, hmm, there might be something there.

Jeffrey Brown: Empty storefronts, the impact of the pandemic and earlier economic shifts, and now a new kind of theater, performed twice during the evening.

Audience members gather at an outdoor bar aptly named Purgatory. They're divided into small groups of no more than 12, each with a guide, and move storefront to storefront, play to play, with socially distance seating and earbuds that connect to wireless receivers. There is a kind of screen involved, but Hausmann wanted to get beyond the virtual experience.

Michel Hausmann: I think it's as close as the real thing as you can get. The actors are seeing the audience and they're seeing the audience's response to the work. And I think this is theater with a capital T.

Jeffrey Brown: It's also an artistic outlet and source of income for artists in need of both.

Hausmann commissioned seven acclaimed playwrights, five Latino, two Black, to write short plays performed by one or two actors.

Carmen Pelaez: When Michel Hausmann first called me to tell me about the idea, I was just like, yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Yes?

Yes. Yes, sign me up.

Carmen Pelaez: And the people that surface in memory, people that cut you to your core.

Jeffrey Brown: Playwright, filmmaker and actor Carmen Pelaez, a Miami native, performs in one play, "Memories in the Blood," written by Dael Orlandersmith.

Actor: They say I'm to be placed in a center of study, of learning.

Jeffrey Brown: And she wrote another, titled "Strapped."

Carmen Pelaez: I was excited to get my creative juices flowing again. So, I thought it was fairly ingenious. And I thought it was a -- it was a huge relief for me, not only to be able to address some of the things that I'm seeing going on and feeling artistically, but to know that I was going to have a paycheck.

Jeffrey Brown: Strict protocols are followed, including weekly COVID tests.

Backstage, actors prep in pods' with their own ventilation system. Those performing in pairs are also isolating together.

Actress: If you have come to the Red District at this hour, you must have a need.

The writers picked one of the classic seven deadly sins and created mini-dramas, some, more personal, like Pulitzer winner Nilo Cruz's "Amsterdam Latitudes."

Actor: It only takes one shattered storefront for you to shake your head in condemnation.

Jeffrey Brown: Others directly address current events.

Carmen Pelaez chose pride as her sin and wrote a piece, performed by Stephen G. Anthony, in which a statue of the 19th century politician John C. Calhoun, a defender of slavery, comes to life as he's being pulled down.

Actor: And now you gather here today to try and take me down. Well, go ahead. My foundation is 400 years' thick.

Jeffrey Brown: You were watching the same news stories we all were seeing, these monuments being pulled down, and then the playwright in you thought, what if this -- what if one of those statues could actually speak now?

Carmen Pelaez: Right, because, if one of those statues could actually speak and be full-throated in the defense of themselves, we would also actually see what they were defending.

So, when you see the banality and the cruelty of what they were actually defending, are you willing to still see that statue up?

Jeffrey Brown: Artistic expressions, but also an economic engine. Sold-out performances, with ticket prices at $60 and $75, are covering the nonprofit theater company's costs, and, for Lincoln Road, an upscale commercial center all about shopping and cultural experience, a new sign of life.

Miami's mild climate helps, of course, but Michel Hausmann points out that theater has always adapted and changed.

Michel Hausmann: The way I look at it, theater has been around for 2,500 years. And even at the most horrible moments of humanity. There are different and new ways of telling stories that don't necessarily mean that we all need to gather in a building, and that the lights dim, and then there's intermission.

The theater, it is a very vast art form that is very generous and it's very big. And we just need to keep exploring the outer rims of it.

Jeffrey Brown: And it's no sin at all to hope for the success of this and other experiments in live theater.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

Judy Woodruff: So good to see some good things coming from this pandemic, in this case, something creative.

Thank you, Jeffrey Brown.

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