A Germinal Idea

Planting an acorn and hoping for an oak

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Levi Kaplan is determined to start a major regional theater in Tampa.

The 27-year-old Miami native and graduate of the masters program in directing at Chicago's DePaul University is negotiating for a theater building in downtown Tampa. Levi has conferred with Mayor Pam Iorio and with potential corporate funders, and has also come up with a mission statement envisioning a first complete season of six to eight plays in 2004-05. He has a business partner in Walt Disney World lighting designer Stefan De Wilde, a vision for community outreach and education programs, and a name for the new institution: the Acorn Theatre.

Kaplan borrowed the name from a phrase in the book Regional Theater by Joseph Zeigler. "He states that around the 1960s, when critics were talking about the original regional theaters, and by that I mean the Alley [in Houston] and the Arena Stage [in Washington] ... they were originally called 'acorns' because they were groups of people who just had a germinal idea. And these acorns were put in shallow soil because these theater companies had no money, no name for themselves, and really nothing more than a desire to do theater. And that propelled them, and they grew into the fixtures of the regional theater scene as we know it in this country today. ... We want to sort of recall the power of just wanting to do good theater, and really blossoming. We hope to become a permanent fixture in Tampa."

This may be the best place to point out what Kaplan is not talking about starting: some tiny 99-seat operation barely eking out a season from year to year. In fact, he's already negotiating for the purchase of a downtown Tampa building that can hold 400 to 600 seats and can be transformed from a proscenium theater to a black box as productions demand. About the space that he wants, he'll only say that "it was originally an old vaudeville performing arts theater, and then it was turned into a movie house." But he's clear about what he intends to do with it: transform it into a major stage on the level of the esteemed Goodman and Steppenwolf theaters in Chicago. "In Chicago, theaters like Stageworks and Jobsite and Gorilla Theatre would be considered 'storefronts,'" he says. "And that's not in any way a pejorative; it just means that they are small professional theaters in the city. ... As I envision it, we'll be more in a league with the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center as far as level of production or level of professionalism. ... The outreach programs that we intend to have, the education programs that we intend to have, I think all put us in a very different arena."

So where, you might ask, will the money come from to support the Acorn venture? Kaplan's already begun seeking corporate sponsorships, private donations and grants. He has Mayor Iorio's blessing: "She was very excited about our theater company and has given us a letter of support that we can use in all our endeavors." Further, he says he and colleague De Wilde are spending every nickel they have on this company and are getting lot of private donations from family members and friends. "So we are very personally invested in this company." Then there's the income he hopes to see from ticket sales, theater classes and rentals of theater property. In any case, Kaplan says he won't let money stop him: "What we'll do to begin with, we'll tailor the productions and the production aesthetics to the funds that we get. So instead of saying, well, if we don't have X number of dollars, we can't do a season, we'll say, we have X number of dollars, what season will we do?"

Which naturally brings us to the subject of Acorn's programming. "Our motto is to challenge, to engage and to enrich," says Kaplan, "so basically we're going to choose shows that do that." He adds that he wants to choose texts "from the classics of Shakespeare to the great American classics of Miller and Williams to plays of today that are, you know, maybe destined to be classics, like maybe some Suzan-Lori Parks or David Auburn's Proof, things like that." He also mentions favorites such as Moliere and Strindberg, and says he believes the ancient Greeks had a vision of humankind that's not so different from the contemporary outlook. Further, he says that the Acorn will develop plays by local writers, starting with workshops, graduating to staged readings, and then, when the plays are ready, moving on to the mainstage. "I'm really dedicated to new plays and to cultivating that," he says. "And I want this company to be seen as a celebration of the talent that's in the area, and not some bigwig from a huge city coming down to show us how it ought to be done."

Kaplan's commitment to local talent extends to actors also, though after awhile, he says, he'll probably add performers from Chicago and maybe New York. He assumes that he'll direct several of the shows in a typical season, but he imagines reaching out to local, and eventually, nationally recognized directors. As for the division of power with colleague De Wilde ("He's a huge player in this theater company"), he says that at first he'll be artistic and executive director, while De Wilde will be managing director, human resources director and, in time, business manager.

Kaplan's a Chicago resident for another month or so, but soon, he says, he'll make Tampa his permanent home. He's excited about the prospect and sure that he's chosen the best site for his new theater. "I started researching the cities," he says, "and looking at the population and the growth, and the arts and culture in the towns already, and Tampa just seemed like the best logical choice. It's got such a diverse arts and culture scene as it is, and it's a young, youthful, exuberant population.

"So I think it's a great match, to pick Tampa."

Performance Critic Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888 ext. 305.

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