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Miami Motel Stories: Little Havana’s History Through Immersive Theater

MIAMI MOTEL STORIES, Juggerknot Theatre Company at The Tower Hotel, 1450 7th St., Miami. October 26 through November 12, Thursdays-Sundays only.  786-521-6017.

Miami’s Tower Hotel, described as the “hospitality centerpiece” of Little Havana, has had many incarnations since it first opened its doors in 1920. From a hotel to a World War II Veterans Administration hospital to an apartment house to a YWCA to a moribund building gone to seed, the Tower is currently undergoing renovation to emerge in 2018 as a boutique  hotel-hostel. 

Before the Tower Hotel begins to welcome international tourists, Miami’s acclaimed experimental Juggerknot Theatre Company will use the evolving building as the site of its initial installment of Miami Motel Stories, an immersive, improvisational theater piece performed within the guest rooms of the historic lodging venue. The project is the recipient of a $30,000 Knight Foundation Arts Challenge grant.

Miami Motel Stories is…

Writing the play is South Floridian Juan C. Sanchez, who grew up in Little Havana and currently lives four blocks from the Tower Hotel. His play, Paradise Hotel, was given a reading by Juggerknot in New York two years ago andMiami Motel Stories is an extension of that earlier work. Still, he insists, “This is very different from anything I’ve done before. This is really keeping the audience at the forefront. It’s physical and it’s visual. It’s very immersive and unexpected.” 

The project was an unfocused idea until Tanya Bravo, the dynamic artistic director of Juggerknot Theatre Company, a 19-year-old Miami-based stage company dedicated to producing local playwrights,  came upon the Tower and heard of its imminent renovation. She approached Bill Fuller and Martin Pinilla, partners in an architectural firm called The Barlington Group, who had bought the vacant building with the hope of restoring it to its former glory. Fuller and Pinilla are established supporters of the arts, and Bravo convinced them to allow her troupe to rehearse and perform inside the Tower during the final months of construction.

Performances will take place in October, a calculation based on a target construction completion date in early December. Says Bravo, “They’re kind of fitting us in right before they hand it over” to the Selina group, which operates hostels throughout Central and South America. The Tower Hotel will be Selina’s  first venture in the United States.  

Crucial to the birth of Miami Motel Stories was the inclusion of New York-based freelance director Tamilla Woodard, a veteran of many site-specific immersive productions. As facilitator and editor of the evolving plays, the working relationship between Woodard and Sanchez needed to be  key. Fortunately, they formed an instant rapport. 

“After our first meeting, we spent a lot of time together,” recalls Sanchez. “We kind of interviewed each other, basically. What plays do you like… we found a lot of common ground. I can usually gauge who I’m collaborating with if I can understand their feedback. Sometimes it doesn’t happen, I don’t get what you mean, y’know? Can you be clearer? I understand exactly what she means. I think she understands the tone of my work.” 

“I think both of us are pretty tenacious, which is really necessary in this particular kind of work,” Woodard explains. “You have to go to the mat for things and press, press, press until it reveals itself. You have to trust that it’s going to reveal itself, but only if you push real hard.

“We already have a shorthand, which is great,” Woodard adds. “I feel very confident about how this is going to happen. Like there’s not going to be a lot of jostling to get there. I think it will be more of a dynamic dialogue between artists.”

Asked for an example of how Woodard’s suggestions have affected what he is writing, Sanchez mentions, “I had written this monologue for a woman who keeps losing things. Today, she’s lost the rent money which is due tomorrow. She comes home and discovers that she’s also lost her cat. I told Tamilla that one of the things I really wanted to explore is this idea of loneliness. This woman has suffered endless loss over time. And Tamilla said, ‘Even though the cat is gone, what if she’s still talking to the cat?’ Like she is in denial about having lost the cat. So just that quick note, it spoke to me emotionally on a very deep level and I went back and rewrote the whole thing with this in mind.” 

Woodard has plenty of praise for Sanchez. “He’s amazing, he’s wonderful and he’s also a considerate artist,” she offers. “A lot of the work that is necessary for a project like this is being able to listen, with your whole body. To allow it time to marinate and fester, so it becomes something else. I felt like we were able to commiserate in terms of how we work.”

Although he had been aware of the Tower Hotel his entire life, Sanchez wanted to understand its full history. He hit the books, doing research in such places as the History Miami Museum, in search of dramatic situations to illustrate the changing personality of the hotel over its nearly 100 years of existence. 

When he heard about the great jazz vocalist Billie Holiday’s history with the Tower, Sanchez knew he had a solid beginning.

“There’s one room that I absolutely love, the Billie Holiday room. The guy that owned the hotel was Henry Schechtman, and he also operated the Ball and Chain,” a popular nearby jazz and blues club. “One of the reasons he opened the hotel, this was in the 1940s and a lot of the Black musicians that would play here had to be taken back to Overtown, because that’s the only place where they could stay,” says Sanchez. “(Schechtman) was very progressive and he wanted a place where he could sneak in the talent.

“He developed all these relationships and friendships and Billie Holiday was one of them. She had an apartment at the Tower and the other rooms were for the musicians. The biggest room was actually where Schechtman and his family lived. He had two kids at the time, 6- and 7-year-olds, and when Henry would be at work, Billie Holiday would babysit the kids.” 

Such an intersection of celebrity and local culture almost writes itself. “Yeah,” agrees Sanchez, “it’s that kind of history that we sort of play with and explore and figure out how we theatricalize that in some way.”

 Ultimately, Miami Motel Stories has taken the shape of nine tales – one per decade – to be performed simultaneously in nine rooms on the Tower’s second floor. In addition, there will be a more general “free-floating” scenario on the first floor – performed on a loop continuously throughout the evening – that describes the Tower’s neighborhood. 

The upstairs march through the past century includes a 1935 scene of a young Jewish professional and his life in the building, a look at what the neighborhood was. Very simple. In 1956, we meet owner Henry Schechtman, who risks his livelihood and his life housing a Black musician at the Tower. Next, we are introduced to Billie Holiday after a gig, in sort of a daze. She is at her ebb, mistaking her room for her dressing room at the club, forgetting she is in Miami.

In 1944, when the Tower was a hospital, there is a scene between a GI and a nurse. A scene set in 1968, concerns two Cuban sisters who have relocated to the United States. It takes place the night before the Republican convention on Miami Beach. One of the sisters, still upset by the debacle of The Bay of Pigs and the Cuban missile crisis, is becoming very hard line Cuban. A vignette set in 1980  deals with the Mariel Boat Lift and the influx of cocaine into Little Havana. Next is a scene representing 1995 and the changing demographic of the neighborhood with the arrival of emigres from Central and Latin American. 

Finally, there are two intertwined stories set in 2015. One it about an older tenant in the building with a gambling addiction and the other concerns a taxi driver who has an inability to connect with people. Gradually we see that they are in love with each other, but do not know how to express their emotions. 

At least those are the scenes as Sanchez planned them out, prior to the arrival of an audience. Following the inclusion of that element, anything could change. “I need an audience to react to it to know I’m on target,” says the playwright. “We’ll bring in a test audience as we tech, and we’ll find that some things don’t work. So you adjust.” 

“They’re constantly reminded that they’re essential to the unfolding of the story,” Woodard says. “Not because they’re characters, it’s that they’re witnesses. The only witnesses. Nobody is asking them to do anything except what they want to do. They can move closer or further away. They can talk back to us if they want to. Everything the audience does is exactly the right thing, because they’re part of the story that’s unfolding.”

One of the project’s many challenges is planning for the traffic flow of theatergoers. Typically, an audience member will begin upstairs, experience the drama in several rooms, then come downstairs to take in the scene on the first floor. But some are likely to opt to take in the plays in an alternate order. There is no wrong way to view Miami Motel Stories. 

As Sanchez puts it, describing the difference between the lower and upper tiers in cinematic terms, “Imagine the first floor as a wide shot of the neighborhood and the building. The second you go upstairs, it’s sort of like a close-up. This is the building and these are the people who lived here, who walked these halls.” 

Bravo is optimistic that an unconventional show like this can solve the long-standing challenge of how to attract younger people to theater. “It’s open to all generations, but I think it has more of a millennial feel, I think they’ll be really excited about it,” she says. “I think this immersive experience, which is the way they see the world now, is going to really excite them.”

In the long run, Sanchez feels that this exercise in creating for a different dramatic form will have a lasting effect on his playwriting. “I never spent a lot of time working on monologues, but I’ve written a couple here that were kind of surprising to me, unlike anything I’ve written before,” he says. “I think I’m learning an economy that I don’t think I had before.” 

Looking back on the creative process, Sanchez says, “It really has been a thrilling experience, for me as a person and as a playwright. Just the amount of time I’ve spent reading about my own neighborhood.”

Finally, he gives Miami Motel Stories his ultimate compliment: “I would totally go see this play.” 


Hap Erstein has been writing about the performing arts in South Florida for the past 23 years, in The Palm Beach Post and Palm Beach ArtsPaper, and can be heard each weekend on WJNO Radio, 1290 AM.