Let me state, up front and center, that Stephanie Lerner Ansin is a swell person to interview. She's warm, willing, charmingly girlish and very funny. I'm a fan.
Twelve noon and I was on stage in the Miami Theater Center (that's the refurbished former Miami Shore's Theatre for you oldsters) being pushed around the floor in a mini grandstand. Forty-nine other volunteers filled the raked seats as the grandstand was twirled to the left, then to the right, and back again. And again.
Great fun and a very pleasant sensation, gliding around in toto. And the reason? Technical Director Ron Burns was trying to determine how many stage hands would be required to turn the seating area, so that the 50 person audience would have a perfect view of each act of Chekhov's Three Sisters soon to be performed directly before them on the same stage. The ultimate in intimate theatre and the idea of Stephanie Ansin and Fernando Calzadilla. Stephanie is the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of the The PlayGround Theatre, now the all encompassing Miami Theater Center. Fernando Calzadilla is the Resident Artist.
Later I shared coffee with Stephanie in her upstairs office where she agreed to tell all her secrets to miamiartzine. Well, maybe not all, but she did admit to being both anxious and curious throughout her life. Anxious? “Perhaps it's genetic,” she said. “I grew up that way. I feel it in my body, together with my warm heart and curious mind...and cold nose.” And since she started PlayGround she's become even more determined and curious about what makes people passionate.
A Miami girl, born 40 years ago in Baptist Hospital to Toby and Edmund Ansin, Stephanie has two brothers, James and Andrew. She attended Gulliver, Ransom Everglades, Brown for her B.A. and Columbia for her M.F.A.
Her pets growing up included three goldfish, all deceased, and a step-dog. She played the piano as a child, reaching her peak at eleven years old with a performance at an arts camp in Lennox, Mass. Her mother, Toby had attended the same camp as a child. Stephanie still plays today. “But it's lonely playing the piano.”
A memory: in the 9th grade at Ransom she was scheduled for an outward bound style trip to the Everglades, but her father forbade it because of his fear of her possible allergic reactions. “That was my biggest failure,” she said, “not insisting on making the trip. I would have made so many friends.”
I asked her what she considered her biggest success. An instant answer: “My daughter.” Stephanie married Russian Oleg Kheyfets in 2001. Prior to their divorce in 2007 they started the PlayGround Theatre and Stephanie is still heavily influenced by Russian theatre. They met when Stephanie attended one of Oleg's classes in Boston. Coincidentally, the class was on Three Sisters.
Her daughter is also the source of her proudest moment: at a recent back-to-school night the teacher told Stephanie how wonderful and nice her daughter is.
And she's least proud of the fact that she's slow to return phone calls. “It's because I have no time. When I call my friends I want to talk and talk and I just can't. I'm not proud that I end up not calling at all.”
Stephanie feels a connection to her Jewish heritage, but she is not very observant, and is open to other religious beliefs. Nor is she overtly or aggressively political, although she is a Democrat. And likes sushi, dark chocolate and fresh berries and her favorite color is purple.
Not many people know that she is legally blind in her right eye. “It's like a wall there. I can see nothing beyond it.” She does not drive. “It's too scary.”
As to whom she most admires in theatre, she answered immediately “Ariane Mnouchkine, who founded the Theatre du Soleil in Paris in 1964.”
And what delights her? Her fiancé, Spencer Stewart's imaginary alter ego, Gerald, who has a botox addiction and difficulty in speaking.
Although they will still produce children's theatre, PlayGround is now part of Miami Theater Center. So is The Sand Box, a small black box in the same building that is primarily used for furthering young, adventurous companies. O Cinema, the art film house in Wynwood is now in partnership with MTC and will be showing films there that tie in with the stage production.
I finished my coffee and as I was going out the door I asked Stephanie to tell me a joke. A big grin. “Sure. What did the waiter say to the table of Jewish women?” Beat. “Is anything alright?” I could hear her laughing as I went down the stairs.
And by the way, it takes four stage hands to move that mini grandstand.
photos by MTC