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20 Questions with David Arisco

Acting: it's in the blood! Whether it's directing, producing, writing - no matter what capacity theatre artists may find themselves doing, there will always be a moment when they yearn to be performing once again.

After an eight year absence from the stage, Actors' Playhouse Artistic Director David Arisco has returned to the boards to portray Tevye, the beleaguered dairy king in Fiddler on the Roof, which plays through April 11th. He has been the playhouse's artistic director since its inception in 1987. His career spans over two decades as a actor, director, choreographer, and a symphonic conductor. Arisco is a graduate of the University of Connecticut. He resided in New York for eight years, and has been living in Miami for 15.

I recently spoke with Mr. Arisco about his stage return, his duties as artistic director, and his future for the company:

As Fiddler is being revived on Broadway, do you think that the musical has been overdone?

I don't think a classic can ever be overdone. We've never done Fiddler in our 16 years of existence, and the time seemed right for both myself and the play. There's always a new audience to hear the message and feel the theatre experience of a Fiddler on the Roof.

What makes Fiddler relevant for the 21st century?

100 years later and we still need to be reminded of what can happen to a people, a race, an ethnic group when persecuted. There's also something to be said in a new century for families trying to hold onto their cultural traditions and morals in a changing world.

What made you decide you were the right Tevye for the job?

The time was right. I'm in my very late 40s ... I've raised four children, two of them now in their early twenties, and I felt the person I had become was ready to tackle this role. Plus, if I stayed away from performing any longer I was afraid I might never be an actor again.

How long has it been since you appeared on stage?

Eight years. Fourteen years since I've performed in a musical.

Has it been difficult to direct yourself?

My co-director Barbara Flaten, who has been my choreographer for nine years, directed me ... I conceptualized with designers and staged the show with her.

What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened on stage during your tenure here?

During a tech-dress of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I was demonstrating how I wanted the fight scene to get more physical. I had an actor kick me backwards and I went sailing off the stage, landed on the concrete floor, and broke and sprained a few things. It was awful ... but funny now. I thought another actor would catch me but he didn't realize I was doing it for real. He's been hired again after years of therapy.

It has been documented, that even though your production of Floyd Collins was a critical success, audiences walked out. What do you think happened?

My audience just isn't ready for that piece. Many theaters would have the same problem. It's brilliant and we had a great production, but it is tough on the average musical ear and it is a dark tale. I'm very proud of that production. One of the best pieces of theatre I've ever been a part of. Maybe the best.

What elements go into choosing programming each season?

A combination of what turns me on and what will sell. I also try to keep each season as varied as possible. Hard to do for 600 seats. Discussions with staff, Executive Director Barbara Stein, Founder and Chairman of the Board Dr. Larry Stein follow and then we present choices to the Board.

Do you listen to your audience when choosing your shows?

Yes and no. We certainly listen to what they did not like in the previous season. We haven't done a survey in a while.

How much of a break in time do you get before moving on to the next project?

Not much. Most projects overlap. Casting and design are done earlier than the next shows are in rehearsal.

With all of your assignments and duties, what do you do to maintain your mental and physical health?

Not enough. From time to time I'll get back to the gym and a walking routine. Family time is rare and I try to grab as much as I can.

When a guest director is working in your stead, what are your duties then?

Artistic Director duties are always waiting ... it seems I'm always behind. I try to be there for the director and whatever he or she may need from me. I check in on the progress of the production ... but it is their show.

What is your relationship with your board of trustees?

Excellent. Although Executive Director Barbara Stein meets more regularly with the board than I.

Do you feel that the South Florida theatre scene has changed since you started two decades ago?

Yes, most definitely. Many companies have come and gone, but the ones that have endured are doing far superior work than 15 years ago.

Has the talent market improved?

Every year we lose some great young talent to their quest for what else is out there, and every year some terrific talent relocates to South Florida from New York or elsewhere. We always cast a portion of our casts from outside of South Florida and we hear from many talented actors who have heard from others that we do good work and treat people well.

Due to the current state of the arts in Florida, what needs to be done to keep theatre thriving in this region?

Just keep doing the work and fighting the fight. Feel the passion. Work hard. Continually let the potential audience know we are here and we have something special that doesn't exist anywhere but live on stage.

Who are your heroes, your inspirations?

My dad ... a hard, hard worker with limited education ... focused, tough, but a good heart. Fair.

In the theatre world, many, many, many, who have taught me and influenced my style.

What makes Actors Playhouse stand out above other regional theatres?

Committment to excellence. Hard work. Loyal gifted employees. Collaboration. Art working with Business. Barbara Stein, our Executive Director, her husband and Founder Dr. Larry Stein and our Children's Theatre Director Earl Maulding and myself have been together 16 years. That's rare. Our stability in that regard sets us apart.

Are there any important things on the horizon for this company?

Next year's season includes regional productions of Beauty and the Beast and Aida. Huge shows. My favorite next year will be Ayckbourn's House and Garden, two plays performed by the same cast on the same night in adjacent auditoria. I can't wait.

Where do you see Actors Playhouse going in the next 20 years?

A home and haven for new musicals. It's our next big battle. To get those same audiences that come to see Fiddler and Beauty and the Beast to see and support new musicals. Some will not work ... a few will soar, but we have to move in the direction of presenting at least one new work a year. We're almost there. It's on the horizon.

Actors' Playhouse at the Miracle Theatre can and should continue to grow into one ot the finest regional theatres anywhere, and I hope I'm here to see it.

David Arisco and his Actors' Playhouse has won Carbonell awards for Best Musical and Best direction of a musical four years straight between 1997 and 2001. They also won last season for their production of Floyd Collins. Arisco's next project is Steve Martin's adaptation of Carl Sternheim's The Underpants, which opens May 12th.

See the current theatre season schedule for southern Florida.

-- Kevin Johnson

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