“If you miss (theater at) Arts Garage, we’re back! We’re back with a vengeance.”
So says Keith Garsson, who directed the theater program at the Delray Beach storefront performance complex for a season and a half, until the drama component was abruptly curtailed in December because of huge financial losses. And with the end of his quirky, sexy productions there, Garsson’s services at Arts Garage were terminated.
But you cannot keep a producing-directing dynamo like Garsson, 57, down for long. He comes roaring back this month with the revival of his former stage company, Primal Forces, which has announced a five-show season to be performed at two Fort Lauderdale venues, Andrews Living Arts and Empire Stage.
The bitterness Garsson feels over his firing is still evident in the way he addresses the incident. “I didn’t leave Art Garage. My program was terminated at Arts Garage,” he insists. “Just as we were about to do the two most profitable shows, they canceled the season.” Or to use a sports metaphor, he adds, “They forfeited the game, when their big hitter was coming up.”
Garsson does not deny that his second season at Arts Garage was hemorrhaging money, most notably over a vampire play, Cuddles, that failed to develop an audience. But he feels certain he had a moneymaker in his next show, Blues in the Night, featuring Avery Sommers, who starred in the previous season’s biggest success, The Devil’s Music.
“Blues in the Night, eight weeks before it opened, already had about 15% of its budget made back. It was going to be another ‘Devil’s Music,’ which just kept running on and on and on,” says Garsson. “’Blues in the Night’ was that squared. We had everything going for it.”
Garsson had brought his Primal Forces formula – small, in-your-face, little known plays – to Arts Garage, so it was relatively easy to bring it back out of mothballs. “Primal Forces never really went away,” he argues. “And Andrews always said we could come back, the door was always open.”
The Arts Garage management, on the other hand, claims that Garsson’s choices were too edgy for its audience, a charge that gets him fuming. “No, it was not too edgy, it was aimed at the Baby Boomers, as I was directed to do when I first started. Baby Boomers are the product of the ’60s or at least the ’70s. They want to see something new and radical. Had the audience been there for ‘Cuddles’ – the vampire show – I’d have been declared a genius.”
Nor does Garsson feel he was given enough time to establish his brand and develop a following. “Evolution in theater is not one season,” he says. “You don’t throw some seeds in the ground, cover it with dirt, then come back the next day, rip it up and see how it’s grown.”
If Cuddles killed the Arts Garage’s taste for theater, its biggest success was the opening show of Garsson’s first season, a steamy two-character drama called Sex With Strangers. No wonder the new Primal Forces season puts its emphasis squarely on sex.
“I will own that description, with pride,” says Garsson. “What interests me is all the various permutations in relationships between men and women. Or women and women or men and men. There are as many variations on that as there are people. And there are different emotions. So when I say it’s about sex, it’s about the battle of the sexes, of the genders.”
Take, for instance, Primal Forces’s season opener, The Good Girl by Emilie Collyer (Oct. 13-29 at Andrews), which Garsson calls a “future dystopian tragedy.” As he puts it, “You have two young people trying to face the future and they don’t know what to do with it. They don’t know how to relate to each other and they don’t know how to relate to the Orwellian universe that they face. So it’s about sex, but it’s also about society’s imposition of its rules.” Like Garsson’s favorite plays, “You will be able to walk out of that play and go, ‘Wait a second. We’ve got to talk about this.’ ”
The second play of the season is Roz and Ray by Karen Hartman (Jan. 26-Feb. 11, at Empire Stage), which Garsson calls “a little more straightforward. People will be surprised I’m doing something so easy to understand.” Taking place from 1976 to 1991, it follows historic events imposed on the relationship of the two title characters. “But the hook for me is how the relationship evolves or stalls or picks up or does or doesn’t work,” he says. “I like plays that are about two or more people all trying to do the right thing and it’s still a train wreck. It goes through the era of AIDS, but in no way, shape or form is it about AIDS.”
Next up is Speed Queen, a world premiere written by and starring New York cult actress-singer-composer Phoebe Legere (Feb. 9-23, at Andrews). “She’s asked me to keep the topic under wraps, until she copyrights it,” says Garsson. Pressed on the topic, he adds, “She will sing and she will act and it does involve sex.”
The fourth play of the season is Girl Play Too (March 9-23, at Andrews), a series of short plays that Garsson says is informally subtitled Lesbians and Other Sins. “It is women-focused, but it is not restricted solely to lesbian themes,” he adds. In fact, the plays gave not yet been chosen. “We’re not sure if it’s two one-acts or three shorter one-acts. We’re going to go with the best possible material that fits in 90 minutes.”
The Primal Forces season is slated to end with An Accident by Lydia Stryk (May 4- 20, at Empire Stage), about a woman accident victim. “As she recovers in the hospital, her recovery parallels the only other character in the play, the gentleman who accidentally hit her,” notes Garsson. “He emerges as a different person and their confrontations, both funny and in some cases very erotic, don’t go the way you think. This is the most Keith Garsson of the five shows. Go out big, I say.”
If the season seems to emphasize women, that is no accident. “All of my seasons will always be female-centric, says Garsson. Why? “I’m a man and I’m bored with me. I’m not a woman, so they’re much more interesting.”
Garsson’s few staff members are all women. Genie Croft returns as resident director from collaborating with him at the Arts Garage, scheduled to direct Girl Play Too. Also a fixture at Arts Garage was stage manager Jamie Cooper, now joined at Primal Forces by Marj O’Neill Butler.
Production values will be scaled back compared to those at Arts Garage, with Andrews and Empire only seating 50 audience members each. But crucially, Garson has already raised the money to produce his entire season. “I have backers from my other corporate life,” he says. “But they don’t do it as a favor, they want to see results. They don’t need us to do commercial work, but they don’t want to see heavy losses.”
As long as he can serve up his provocative brand of theater, Garsson seems content with this scaled-down company. “There’s nothing on my bucket list that’s any bigger than this theater. I just want to keep doing it. I’m happy in my two- or three-character world,” he says. “And I do like discovering things that nobody else has done in the area.”
Primal Forces plays both Andrews Living Arts, 23 NW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale and Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale. 866-811-4111.