Drama with an Edge

An Interview with Joseph Adler, Artistic Director of GableStage

By Mike Clary//Photos by Robert Sullivan

October 2019

In more than two decades as producing artistic director of GableStage, Joseph Adler has used his Coral Gables theater to push the limits of what can appear on South Florida stages to a point where it may seem there are no boundaries yet to cross. Nudity, simulated sex, blood-chilling violence, rough language, even cannibalism? Yep, done that.

But as Adler prepares to launch his 23rd season at the helm of the cozy 150-seat theater in the Biltmore Hotel, he has more provocation in mind, especially with a staging of “Fairview,” a 2019 Pulitzer Prize winner that he says is “probably the most controversial play we’ll ever do. It disturbs the audience, especially the white audience. And I love making audiences uncomfortable.”

Born in New York and raised in Miami Beach, Adler studied drama at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and graduated from the Film Department at New York University. Under Adler’s direction, what was formerly the Florida Shakespeare Theatre has won more than 60 Carbonell Awards – recognizing excellence in South Florida theater – and Adler has been named best director 11 times. Productions are regularly taken to other county stages and performed for the Miami-Dade Public Schools’ Cultural Passport Program. And, should the Coconut Grove Playhouse’s planned $21 million restoration ever actually occur, GableStage is slated to become the theater-in-residence.

Sitting down to talk one recent afternoon in the theater at 1200 Anastasia Avenue, we asked Adler about his philosophy as a dramatic director.

CG: Why do you insist on challenging audiences with material that is often hard to forget?

I decided pretty early we wanted to do theater that is usually called “cutting edge.” What you see is what’s going on outside the theater, life as it’s being lived, the type of things not being done then on a regular basis in South Florida theater. We built our theater by pioneering edgy, contemporary shows.

CG: Did audiences take to it right away, or were they turned off when, for example, in 2000 you did Tracy Letts’ “Killer Joe,” a play set in a trashy Texas trailer park that is chock full of sex and violence?

We had to build an audience for that. I think what you do is drive out the people who want conventional theater. They quickly decide this is not for us. They don’t like the language, the concerns of the play. There are people who say, “We live in a time with so much stress. We want to see a musical, a light comedy, a play I can enjoy and by the time I get to the parking lot, get in my car, can forget about.” Great. But that’s not what we do.

CG: What do you do?

We want you to get in the car, go to a restaurant and argue about it. And hopefully, if it’s disturbing, still be disturbed by it, be challenged by it, the next day. And a lot of people don’t want to go along for that ride. But the amazing thing to me, the encouraging thing, is how many people were starved for that kind of theater. Over the years, we were able to build a loyal base of support which has stayed with us. We’re very lucky that way.

CG: GableStage is a nonprofit, reliant on gifts and grants for its $1.5 million annual budget. Among its sponsors are Miami-Dade County, the City of Coral Gables, the Knight Foundation and many others. Do you get pushback? For example, has the city ever told you to tone it down, that what you’re presenting is not consistent with the image of the City Beautiful?

No. Even in down years. No draconian cutbacks. We have never, ever had difficulty getting grants from the City of Coral Gables, or had any people with the administration come to me say they are unhappy with material. Groups and foundations, yes, there is some reluctance.

CG: You have a reputation for working with unknown actors, especially young actors. Among the best-known is Oscar Isaac, who did several plays with you before going on to Hollywood to star in films such as Inside Llewyn Davis and Star Wars sequels. Do you set out to discover new talent?

I love giving actors their first professional gig. Nothing makes me happier. To see them go on from that, and continue in the field, and get more work – that means the world to me. Acting is such a demanding profession. To be an actor, you have to be open to your emotions, be vulnerable. But how to stay vulnerable, when facing constant rejection? That’s the dilemma. The bottom line is that it has little to do with talent. It takes luck, and probably having the temperament to go through long periods when the phone is not ringing.

CG: What is your approach to directing, bringing actors of various ages and experience together in service of the play? 

That’s the challenge, how to create a space, the environment, where people feel comfortable taking risks, where people can do their best work. You have to find a way to orchestrate all those temperaments and training and get them on the same page. Acting is about making choices. I allow people to make choices that serve the play better, and create the conflicts that need to be there.

CG: You used to direct every play in a season. You have pulled back from that, in part because you have been busy with the new theater that could result in GableStage moving from the Biltmore Hotel to the site of the Coconut Grove Playhouse. What’s the timetable for that?

The money is there, plans drawn up, the designs are ready to go. But some roadblocks have been placed in our way by people who think it is not big enough. I’d be sorry to see us leave Coral Gables. But we will be here for at least two, possibly three more seasons. And I have been working on finding a successor. I can’t do this forever. I am ready to bring in other directors, find people who can move in and take my place.

CG: Your liberal politics are out front. In fact, some are plastered in stickers on the box office window.

We have done benefits for Planned Parenthood, the Women’s Emergency Network, the ACLU. And I have expressed my politics, at times from the stage, and had people walk out. That was a mistake. The audience comes to see the play, not to hear my opinions. But my politics don’t get in the way of choosing plays that express points of view that are contrary to my own. I say to young actors all the time, “If we don’t stand up for First Amendment rights, who will?”

CG: You have been open about your past troubles with substance abuse. Tell me about that.

I was a functional alcoholic and drug addict. People think that’s good; it means you can keep doing it. It’s not. 27, 28 years ago, I picked up a phone, called a treatment center, and then walked into a bar and said to the bartender, “Give me an Absolut on the rocks. This is my last drink.” He asked why, what’s the matter? “Because I’m alcoholic.” And then I checked into rehab. I also smoked three packs of cigarettes a day, and threw them away at the same time. I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to continue doing what I loved to do. The passion is just as great now as it was then.

CG: What’s on your bucket list?

To celebrate my 75th birthday, I jumped out of a perfectly good airplane at 10,000 feet. It was on my bucket list because it was something that has always terrified me. But sitting on the edge of that seat, I was wondering, “Why am I here?” I’m glad I did it. But I wouldn’t do it again.

2019 Fall Season Plays & Events 

Wiesenthal by Tom Dugan

September 21 – October 20, 2019

Filled with hope, humanity and humor – this is the riveting true story of Simon Wiesenthal, who devoted his life to bringing more than 1,100 Nazi war criminals to justice. Intelligent, funny, flawed and noble – his unbelievable dedication and tenacity over decades is honored in this play, which gives equal weight to his wisdom and wit during his long, purposeful life.

Hillary and Clinton by Lucas Hnath

November 23 – December 22, 2019

In New Hampshire during early 2008, a former First Lady is in a desperate bid to save her troubled presidential campaign. Her husband sees things one way; her campaign manager sees things differently. This play is a profound and timely look at two of the most controversial figures in American political history.