ORLANDO — Paul Castaneda has a message for theater audiences in Central Florida: the GOAT is back, and in a big way, this fall.
It starts in September, when the group known as the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre will produce an ambitious production that reintroduces audiences to one of the great legends of Jazz music – a project that also serves to take Castaneda on a very nostalgic journey, virtually to the start of his theatrical roots in Central Florida.
In other words, expect to be hearing a lot from GOAT this fall, said Castaneda, their artistic director.
“GOAT, as many people know, went in kind of a different direction this year, and created an ensemble of actors who have been quietly meeting once a week to work on our craft,” Castaneda said.
One of them is Desiree Perez, who will play the lead role in GOAT’s upcoming production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”, the play by Lanie Robertson that features Jazz legend Billie Holiday performing at a bar in Philadelphia just weeks before her death in 1959, singing for and also sharing her life story with the audience. The play premiered in 1986 at the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia, before moving Off-Broadway.
Castaneda is directing the play starring Perez as Holiday, and it will be performed at Theatre Downtown, the community theater at 2113 N. Orange Ave. – a collaboration that, as Castaneda noted, holds a huge amount of artistic significance for him.
“Theatre Downtown is where I got my start locally,” said Castaneda, who grew up in New York City before relocating to Orlando.
“I had done theater in New York, but when I came to Orlando, Theatre Downtown was the first place I was in shows and the first place I directed shows,” he said. “It’s kind of a homecoming for me.”
Theatre Downtown, located in the heart of Ivanhoe Village and within walking distance of the Mills 50 district, has been run by Frank and Fran Hilgenberg for decades.
“I have a great deal of respect for Frank and Fran and what they have done at that location for 20 years,” Castaneda said. “They’ve been an inspiration in that regard. I wouldn’t want my first GOAT collaboration to be with anyone but them.”
Theatre Downtown, he added, has also been a virtual launching pad for the theatrical careers of a long list of actors, writers, directors and set designers for decades.
“If you look around the theater scene in Orlando, there is almost no one you know and who does theater at a community theater level here who didn’t start at Theatre Downtown, and didn’t have Theatre Downtown play a significant part in establishing them in the community,” he said. “The first show I directed in Orlando was ‘West Side Story’ at Theatre Downtown. I had been in shows previously with them.”
Castaneda would eventually form GOAT, which has its own long list of productions to boast, including “Aida,” “The Painter,” and “Spring Awakenings.”
Castaneda wanted GOAT to begin collaborations with other local theater companies, and selected Theatre Downtown for the first joint effort. It was Fran Hilgenberg who recommended “Lady Day” as a possibility. Castaneda loved the idea.
“Frank and Fran and myself have been talking for a while about a way to collaborate together,” he said. “We were exchanging plans back and forth and Fran recommended this show.”
Castaneda said he loves the challenges posed by the play, including the need to create a convincing Philly bar where Billie Holiday performs – something he intends to do with the Theatre Downtown stage.
He also loves reintroducing audiences to the passion, soul and rich emotional complexity of Holiday and her music.
During the show, “She talks to the audience and interacts with them, and talks about some of her musical influences,’ Castaneda said.
Although the play is set in the pre-Civil Rights era in the late 1950s, a time when racial segregation was still the law in so many parts of the country, Castaneda said Holiday’s life story still resonates today – most powerfully in the images of civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, where protests continue over the shooting death of a black teenager by a white police officer.
“She shares a few stories from her own personal experience, that much as I wish they didn’t resonate with what we see in the news today, it very much does,” he said. “That’s a topic very near and dear to my heart.”
“Lady Day” opens at Theatre Downtown on Sept. 12, and as Castaneda noted, it won’t be GOAT’s last collaboration with other local artists.
“We’ve got feelers out to a lot of theater companies that we respect highly and we would like to work with,” he said. “I think it’s safe to say there will be a future collaborations. This isn’t about exclusivity or competition, because I don’ believe in that. People have different perspectives and I respect them all. But in this world I live in, we’re all in this together.”
Performances of “Lady Day” start at 7:30 p.m. Call 407-841-0083 for tickets and reservations.
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