Louis Tyrrell, a South Florida champion of new works for the theater, has been an artistic director for almost four decades. First at the Theatre Club of the Palm Beaches, which morphed into Florida Stage, then at the Arts Garage and most recently at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab, where he currently one of a four-member staff.
But Tyrrell has now passed the baton on to Matt Stabile, who takes over the artistic reins at the three-year-old professional stage company on the Boca Raton campus.
“I have no idea when he started thinking of me as the heir apparent,” shrugs director-playwright-actor-educator Stabile, who recently turned 40. Stabile was involved with running the Arts Garage’s educational programs for two seasons, during which time Tyrrell became impressed with his versatility and work ethic.
“I think over those two years, he kind of saw that A) I had the ability to do the business end of things but B) I could also do the artistic side. And I was willing to do any job,” says Stabile. “In my time at Arts Garage, I acted in a show, I ran crew for a show, I bought props for a show, I did dramaturgy for a show and I didn’t mind cleaning the bathrooms.”
At FAU, Stabile became more involved in the mainstage productions, directing Allison Gregory’s Motherland and Lauren Gunderson’s The Revolutionists. Like Tyrrell, Stabile has a particular passion for developing new plays. “Playwriting has always been foremost of my interests,” says Stabile. “I love watching a play as it goes through its many stages.”
He also feels strongly about the importance of arts education. “I think every artist should teach. I think it’s our responsibility. The people we all revere, like (Russia’s Konstantin) Stanislavsky, they were teachers. I also believe that when you teach, you get better at your art,” says Stabile. “And also, if we don’t get kids interested in this, we’re not going to be doing it a whole lot longer.”
Tyrrell is very confident in the successor he has chosen. “Matt is one of those very unique people that has that necessary vision, in addition to all the skills needed. Those skills are artistic, but they’re also organizational and managerial. You have to have a real understanding of building a budget, of the realm of programming that can operate within that budget.
“Matt is ready. He has all the maturity – personally, artistically, operationally – to take Theatre Lab to the next level.”
For his first season’s play selections, Stabile relied heavily on Tyrrell. “It’s kind of collaborative,” he explains of the process they have evolved. “There’s usually one that we both instantly know we want to do. That happened with (Deborah Zoe Laufer’s) ‘Three Sisters of Weehawken’ and (Peter Sagal’s) ‘Most Wanted.’ This season it was (Tammy Ryan’s) ‘Tar Beach.’ Then there’s usually one that he feels really strongly about and there’s one that I feel really strongly about. And we make our case to each other.”
Without meaning to, a theme for the season emerged. “Kind of unintentionally, it became a season about young women finding their power and their voice,” notes Stabile. “We didn’t set out to pick that. These were the three plays that we felt resonated the most with our audience, but the common theme is nice to have.”
Asked to describe his taste in plays, Stabile says, “I really like the stuff that can transport you back to feeling young, that makes you feel like you’re 8 again, those plays always tug at me. And I love puppets. I’ve got to put puppets in stuff. There’s a difference between Lou and I. I’m not sure he’s as fond of puppets as I am. Like in ‘Revolutionists’ last season, that was all me, adding in the puppets. That’s my esthetic. I like big imagination. I tell playwrights to go ahead and write impossible stage directions. That’s the fun, figuring out how to get it onstage.”
One of his strengths as a director is his openness to collaboration, he feels. “A really great director, I think, is aware that the best ideas in the room can come from anywhere. He gets a really good team in place and then sets them loose. Having been an actor, I never wanted a director who was going to tell me when and how to move. I wanted them to let me be free and then guide me and shape me.”
Stabile was well showcased in several supporting roles in Most Wanted last November, but he feels certain that in the future his onstage appearances at Theatre Lab will be rare. “Acting is something that I’ve always liked, but it’s never been at the top of my list of what I want to do in a theater,” he concedes. “There are very few roles anymore that really call to me. That I feel I’ve got to do. So I won’t mind putting that aside.”
A Miami native, Stabile now lives in Delray Beach with his Carbonell Award-winning actress-wife, Niki Fridh, who is likely to be a frequent presence in Theatre Lab productions. “I always say she’s better at her job than I am at mine,” he readily offers. As to potential charges of nepotism, he adds, “It’s funny, I have worried about that. But then I go back to, ‘But she’s one of the best actors around,’ so I worry less about it. You can’t care about what people think, but I also don’t want another producer not considering her because she will only want to work here. When the role is right, I’m going to go after the best actor, and I’ve got an in with her.”
“When we began at FAU and he made that move with me, it became very clear very quickly that he had all those skills and the passion of an artist at the height of his powers,” adds Tyrrell, 68, who takes on the new title of founding director and will be staging one of this season’s productions.
“We kind of finish our artistic sentences. We have very similar tastes, I think. We both love literary work, deep character studies, stories that can live with us for years. I think the audience is going to find the same commitment to surprising, exciting new work. He is taking the little torch that I am passing to him and building that flame in brave new ways.”
Tyrrell may be stepping down as artistic director, but he is not stepping out. “He likes to say, ‘I’m still here. I haven’t gone away.’ And he hasn’t,” says Stabile with a sigh of relief. “There’s so much that goes into being artistic director, there’s still a lot for me to learn. Fundraising is something that I’m still learning and Lou is great about helping me with that. Or dealing with agents.
“I’m really fortunate because I’ve got this mentor who’s kind of been doing this forever. So when a question or a situation comes up, typically Lou has seen that occur before.”
Asked about Theatre Lab’s financial health, Stabile says, “Well, it can always be better, but we’re in great shape right now. We have (the) Hecksher (Foundation) supporting us for our education program, which enables us to leverage some other support. We have two seasoned benefactors that have been with us since the beginning here. They continue to renew their gift.
“We have a lot of Inner Circle members who have become recurring donors, which is fantastic, and we just started the new Theatre Lab Alliance, a way that people who maybe don’t have the financial means to give a thousand dollars can still feel like they’re a part of this. Our ticket sales, we keep seeing growth and hopefully it will be even better this year.”
Still, Theatre Lab is a much smaller operation than Florida Stage was. “Florida Stage had a $4 million budget at one point. We’re running at a little over half a million. So it’s about shrinking what we’re doing. I want the budget to grow, but (it is) unlikely to ever get up to $4 million.
“If there’s one thing I’ll always take from Lou, it’s that you make sure that the top priority is taking care of your artists. So we try to make sure that our artists are compensated at a rate that is livable and that is equal to – if not better – than other places in the area,” Stabile explains. “We want them to feel that their work is valued because we’re nothing without them. To put out the product that we want for our audience, we’ve got to make sure that the majority of our budget goes into our productions and our artists.”
One thing Stabile is adamant about – his new role as artistic director is not intended as a stepping stone to a job elsewhere. “Our contracts are annual, because they’re all about our individual funding. But in terms of how long I’ve signed on for it, I’ve got a 5-, 10-, 15- and 20-year plan,” he says. “So I’m in this for the long haul.
“I’ve always been in love with South Florida, very dedicated to South Florida. I think my biggest mission has become trying to stop the talent drain that happens here. I want to stop the running narrative that if you want a career, you’re going to have to leave. And if you’re here, it’s because you couldn’t make it somewhere else,” says Stabile emphatically. “It’s become this mission for me to support South Florida arts and artists. I’m thrilled to be doing this here.”
As to whether the audience will notice any differences at Theatre Lab under the Stabile administration, he thinks that is doubtful. “I don’t think there’s going to be a whole lot of difference. Lou always had a team philosophy. It’s not like the audience didn’t see me here regularly. Lou would go, ‘You make the opening speech today.’ We’re trying to do this transition so it’s not jarring. We don’t want to frighten anybody. We don’t want them to think that Lou’s not involved anymore.
“It’s going to be the same Theatre Lab that they’ve come to love. Virtually the same team with a little adjustment. And maybe there’ll be a little more puppets,” Stabile adds with a laugh.
The Theatre Lab opens this season’s productions Sept. 8 with Ronia: The Robber’s Daughter, by Allison Gregory, in its U.S. premiere. The show runs through Sept. 30, with shows at 10:30 a.m. Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $15. Call 561-297-6124 or visit www.fauevents.com.