Four years ago, Paul Carbonell stood on the stage of Polk State’s Fine Arts Theatre, and saw possibilities stretching before him like the rows of multicolored seats in the cool auditorium.
This was a department, he felt certain, that could take on the toughest Shakespeare, that could become the first choice of local high school drama students, that could attract outstanding, experienced faculty.
It was a department that could grow — and fast.
The upcoming performance season, Carbonell said, will put on public display the remarkable potential Polk State Theatre has already realized — and give a glimpse of the places it will go next.
“This is going be an edgy, contemporary season unlike any we’ve ever done. More than anything, the season reflects how much we’ve grown. We wouldn’t be able to put on these types of shows if it weren’t for the talent we’re attracting,” said Carbonell, professor of speech and theatre who joined the College in 2009.
Quantifying the growth of Polk State College Theatre is easy.
There’s the 1,600-square-foot former distance-learning lab in the Winter Haven Fine Arts building that is being transformed into Studio 117, a “black box” venue for intimate performances.
There’s the Theatre Department faculty and staff. When Carbonell was hired, he was the department’s only professor, and the department’s only other employee was technical director James Sharp. Now four adjuncts — Thom Altman, Ilene Fins, Mark Hartfield and Kirk Stalnaker — are on board, bringing with them years of theatre experience. Also, two Polk State Theatre students have been hired as part-time assistants; Michael King assists Sharp in the scene shop and Tina Mitchell assists Carbonell in the production office.
Then there’s the number of scholarship applicants — perhaps the number that is most gratifying for Carbonell. This year, 51 students vied for scholarships to study with Polk State Theatre, nearly quadruple the number of applicants in 2011.
“The pool of applicants is really diverse, too,” said Carbonell, explaining that scholarship applicants were nearly even in terms of male and female — significant because most theatre programs struggle to attract males — and represented a variety of ethnic backgrounds.
Carbonell attributed the program’s influx of scholarship applications to its strengthened outreach with area high schools. Carbonell has forged connections with high school drama teachers and has begun offering workshops for their students, covering topics such as stage voice techniques, the audition process, and finding work in the local entertainment market.
Next month, the College plans to host the annual All-County Theatre Contact Meeting, where public school drama teachers gather to share best practices and discuss their upcoming seasons. Also, the College plans to host next year’s Polk County Fringe Festival, a competition for high school and middle school drama students.
Nadine Love, theatre director at Haines City High School, said her program appreciates its new relationship with the College. Carbonell attended her students’ performance of “Little Shop of Horrors” earlier this year, and he spoke with students about the College’s Theatre Department and scholarship opportunities.
“It was an exciting experience for a professional to come and take an interest in them,” Love said, adding that she and Carbonell are collaborating on workshops for her students in the coming year.
Love’s former student, Rico Borrero, said Carbonell’s visit to the school made him decide to study at Polk State; he is one of this year’s scholarship students.
“I liked that (Carbonell) wanted to do more adult, mature plays,” said Borrero, 18, a resident of Poinciana, who is currently rehearsing for Polk State Theatre’s first show of the season, “Sonnets for an Old Century.”
“I’m loving the atmosphere and the people I’m working with. I definitely made the right choice.”
Though the Theatre Department has already realized some benefit — increased scholarship interest — from its strengthened relationship with area schools, it’s surely just the beginning, Carbonell said.
“If during their middle and high school years, our county theatre students could participate in five or six festivals, and then have taken workshops and seen shows at Polk State Theatre, don’t you think they’ll want to come here?” he said.
Polk State College Theatre Presents…
Carbonell and his Theatre Department colleagues carefully considered the rapid progress of Polk State Theatre in building the upcoming performance schedule, and it’s one they say wouldn’t have been possible a few years ago.
The season kicks off Aug. 6 and 7 with “Sonnets for an Old Century,” written by Jose Rivera. In the play, recently deceased characters — for whom the stage is purgatory — deliver a series of monologues about their lives.
The performance will be the first in the new 40-seat, “black box” Studio 117, located in room WFA 117.
The term “black box” refers to the room itself — the walls have been painted black and black curtains have been installed — but also to a type of pared-down performance in which actors perform on black platforms, without any of the elaborate sets, lighting or sound of larger-scale shows. It’s just the actors surrounded by their audience, sharing in an intimate experience that, for its aesthetic simplicity, is surprisingly challenging.
“It’s a good training platform. A lot of actors learn to act facing out toward the audience, but those are movements that are not natural. When you do a performance in the round, you have to be aware of the audience on all sides, you embody your character with a 360-degree mindset, you have to act with your whole body,” said Hartfield, who is directing the show.
Next up for Polk State Theatre will be Neil Simon’s “Barefoot in the Park,” which debuted on Broadway in 1963 starring Robert Redford, who later starred in the 1967 film version. “Barefoot in the Park” tells the story of a newlywed couple — a straight-laced lawyer and fun-loving woman — who live in a tiny New York apartment. Their honeymoon bliss quickly fades into comical discord, peppered with complaints from a meddlesome mother-in-law.
“It’s a classic comedy and a great tool to allow young students to deal with good comedic timing,” Carbonell said.
“Barefoot in the Park” takes the stage at the Winter Haven Fine Arts Theatre on Oct. 4-6 and 10-13.
The hilarity of “Barefoot in the Park’ will be followed by William Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third,” which will mark Polk State Theatre’s second Shakespeare performance after last spring’s “The Taming of the Shrew.”
“The Tragedy of King Richard the Third” is a demanding performance that poses new challenges for Polk State Theatre, Carbonell said.
“Our first Shakespeare, ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ was a comedy. Some of Shakespeare’s comedies are easier to digest for the audience and easy to track as an audience. But the histories are incredibly difficult. The challenge is to take a tragic history play and get it across in a way that engages the audience,” Carbonell said.
“This is really difficult material for student actors and for audiences new to Shakespeare. The trick to tragedy is to make it even more entertaining than a comedy. The secret is to play up the humor…yes, the humor. We can create this ‘entertaining tragedy’ by playing up the fun factor of watching Richard enjoying his evil rollercoaster ride. It’s like we love to hate him as he rides the swells to murderous heights while attaining the crown, and then quickly crashes down to a bloody pulp alone on the battlefield, sword-less, horse-less and crown-less. Now that’s entertainment.”
Polk State Theatre is ready for the challenges that “Richard the Third” brings because it has the professors on hand to help students learn the complex, archaic language and poetry, and also coach them in the physical demands of making their historic characters accessible to today’s audience, Carbonell said.
“The Tragedy of King Richard Third” will run from Nov. 7-11 and 15-18 at the Winter Haven Fine Arts Theatre.
The season takes a turn into local culture with Nilo Cruz’s “Anna in the Tropics,” slated for Feb. 6-9 and 12-15. The Pulitzer Prize-winning “Anna in the Tropics” made its Broadway debut in 2003 starring Jimmy Smits, and is set in an Ybor City cigar factory in 1929. In the play, employees of the factory are introduced to poetry and Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” leading the workers to reexamine their lives and how they view the world.
Polk State Theatre will wrap up its season with Joe DiPietro’s “All Shook Up.” The musical, which reviews have described as having Shakespearian overtones, uses Elvis Presley hits such as “Jailhouse Rock” and “Love Me Tender” to tell the story of 10 romantically entangled characters.
“All Shook Up” made its Broadway debut in 2005, and will take the Polk State stage April 11-14 and 18-21.
Looking at the season as a whole, Carbonell said it will be satisfying for performers, crew members and audiences alike.
“Planning a season is like planning a meal. This one has some up-front sweetness, the meat and potatoes and a phenomenal desert,” he said. “This season, Polk State Theatre is going to experience all the intellectual and emotional palette that you can get in the theatre.”
All shows are at 7:30 p.m. except for Sunday matinees, which are at 2:30 p.m. Shows are free for Polk State students, faculty and employees, as well as high school students with school ID’s. All other tickets are $7. Performances take place in the Fine Arts Theatre on the Winter Haven campus, 999 Ave. H N.E. The box office opens 30 minutes prior to each show. There are no advanced ticket sales.
Polk State Theatre will have auditions for “Barefoot in the Park” and “The Tragedy of King Richard Third” on Aug. 21 at 3:30 p.m. and Aug. 22 at 7 p.m. in WFA 117, on the Winter Haven campus.
For more information about the upcoming season or Polk State Theatre, contact Carbonell at email@example.com or 863.292.3631.
In addition to Polk State Theatre, Polk State Fine Arts includes the College’s Music Department. Both the Music and Theatre departments enjoy outstanding statewide reputations.