Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Stage

Jobsite brings back 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' while celebrating 20 years

The first come-to-Jesus meeting kicked off in November, as the Jobsite Theater faithful sipped beer and wine at a local pub and tried to come to grips with the future.

This was, of course, inextricably tied up with its recent past, a season that started with canceled performances due to Hurricane Irma and went downhill from there. But Jobsite, which turns 20 this season, hadn't lasted this long by giving up, by not being flexible or not adapting to changing times.

The resident theater company of the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts has defined itself as plucky and fiercely independent, starting with its plain "-er" ending of "theater," a refusal to go along with most "theatre" peers. Producing artistic director David Jenkins and friends insisted on accessibility and story lines that served the next generation.

But with the state of Florida cutting into already razor-thin profit margins by reducing arts funding, it was getting hard to see where next year's budget would come from.

"It was me having very blunt conversations about finances," Jenkins said. "I had to level with people."

PREVIOUSLY: As Florida dramatically slashes arts funding, theaters and museums scramble

But when faced with challenges Jenkins compared to the plagues of Egypt, Jobsite is responding by throwing a monster party of a season opener: the anti-rock musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

The show reprises the theater's 2013 hit, which ran just before the two-actor show by John Cameron Mitchell had a successful Broadway run starring Neil Patrick Harris. Director Jenkins has brought back the same cast, with Spencer Meyers in the title role as a transgender rock singer and Amy Gray as her controlling husband, Yitzhak. Four musicians who played in Lizzie will return, as will set designer Brian Smallheer and costumer Katrina Stevenson.

Early ticket sales could indicate a lot of love from locals, just like last time. In the initial run, people reacted to this one-of-a-kind show by coming back with friends in tow, sometimes in the same weekend. The atmosphere was somewhere between a play and a live concert, with audience interaction and a sledgehammer to the "fourth wall" barrier that traditionally separates audiences from performers.

"It was nice to see regular faces coming back," Meyers said. "Those are the people you try to deliver something extra to. We'll see if the second run will have the same momentum or more."

That said, a couple of important differences stand out this time around. Jobsite is opening its season with the splashy musical, not sandwiching one in midseason as in previous years. And it will be staged in the 98-seat Shimberg Playhouse, not the adjacent Jaeb Theater, which holds more than three times as many.

In better times, Jobsite jumped at the opportunity to play the bigger hall. The theater had enough money to build a stage big enough for the venue and hire enough actors to belt out songs that would resonate through three levels of seats. The Straz Center even kicked in with marketing help, looping in the annual Jobsite musical in its own advertising budget, including a billboard on Interstate 275.

But with less cash available, meeting those costs became more difficult. Last season's The Threepenny Opera in the Jaeb lost money. Worse, state budget cuts reduced Jobsite's grant assistance from $16,795 two years ago to $2,000 for the 2018-19 season, part of a 90 percent overall cut to arts funding.

So Jenkins opted to move the annual musical back to the Shimberg, where costs to produce a play run lower. And more cuts were to come. Jobsite has hired performers from the Actors Equity union when it can, but "I've told all of the union actors, 'Things are going to be a little tighter this year, so I'm not sure I'm going to be able to offer you a contract,'" Jenkins said.

The Jobsite crew met monthly at Southern Brewing and Winemaking, continuing to work out a future. From the sound of it, there was no shortage of buy-in. The theater themed its 2018-19 season ad astra per aspera, a Latin phrase that means "through hardship to the stars."

Jenkins, who first encountered the phrase in Catholic school, liked the words so much, he had them tattooed on his chest.

And what show better embraces hardship and joy than Hedwig and the Angry Inch? It progresses between songs in a concert by Hedwig Robinson, a former East German teenage boy named Hansel who fell in love with a soldier.

Hansel reluctantly agrees to sex-reassignment surgery to marry the soldier and escape. The operation is a failure, resulting in that "angry inch" and a profound abandonment. A breakthrough later makes it easy to forget that Hansel became Hedwig to get out East Germany, not to complete herself.

"I've had friends who are in transitions say, 'I'm so excited she is trans,'" Meyers said. "I tell them Hedwig is not about gender or labels. It's specifically about removing those labels, saying we shouldn't have those labels."

It's ambiguity Hedwig embraces, and that embrace suited Jobsite just fine. In 20 years, the theater has managed to stay afloat telling good stories that challenge the status quo. The last meeting left Jobsite regulars feeling as though months of grappling with hard issues had brought them closer together, Jenkins said, able to cope with whatever might happen this season or beyond.

"I just felt a deep love from all of us," he said, "and a deep concern that I hadn't felt for quite a while."

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