The bold and vibrant Zoetic Stage

Through a dominatrix’s lair, a complex love triangle fraught with betrayal, and the mind of a presidential assassin, Zoetic Stage is exposing Miamians to bold and challenging theater.

Zoetic is a dynamic young theater company that’s redefining theater in Miami. It’s been around for four seasons, and in that brief time has garnered recognition from South Florida’s theater awards with 37 Carbonell nominations, 16 of which were for the 2014-2015 season – the most of any theater in South Florida. 

It’s faced plenty of obstacles in a city better known for Art Basel and bottle service. However, Zoetic is looking to introduce more people to Miami’s growing theater scene and solidify the city’s place in the larger, national conversation with relevant new works and well-produced shows.

With an eye on its fifth anniversary season, Zoetic is poised to make some bold changes and additions to its work, including appointing founding company member Nicholas Richberg as the company’s managing director.

The 36-year-old actor is at the forefront of the game in Miami. He was crowned the best actor in 2014’s Best of Miami, and was nominated for 5 Carbonell awards, including two for best male actor in this year’s award season.

“Nicholas Richberg was a no brainer,” said Stuart Meltzer, Zoetic Stage Producing Artistic Director. “He’s a guy who gets thing done. It was important to find someone who was passionate about the company and it’s important often to have a sense of humor. Because I love the art of laughter, and the art of laughter in a rehearsal process, because it just breaks a lot of the tension. And Nicholas really understand that.”

Richberg holds a diverse repertoire that spans from a Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, to a straight-laced English gentleman, to an uninspired businessman who finds himself in the arms of a dominatrix. He won Best Actor in a Play for his whimsical and deliciously fiendish portrayal of the dreaded pirate Blackstache in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts and the University of Miami’s co-production of “Peter and the Starcatcher.”

His performances have proven to be as varied as the roles he juggles off-stage. His latest role will call upon his previous experience as the company’s public relations director and his diverse business background. Now, he’ll be juggling his responsibilities as both an administrator and an actor.

“I have no intention of leaving the stage, because I think I have something to say as an artist,” Richberg said. “The biggest challenge is wearing the two different hats, because I always want to be respectful of my fellow actors. So, it’s very important for me to keep those two things separate.”

Richberg is a homegrown local who grew up attending Miami Country Day School and the University of Miami.

At age 10, he first discovered the magic of the stage at a cheesy, two-person production about Dracula. There he saw two actors transform into a number of different characters. Through watching smaller shows in local theaters, he developed a love for the art.

“I grew up in Miami. I didn’t get my love of the theatre or want to be an actor by seeing Broadway shows. It happened here,” he said.

He began university as a music major in vocal performance, and after a stint at New York University, came back to UM and dove into the theater department without ever looking back.

After graduating, he worked a bit in Miami’s theater scene and in 2006 headed up to New York. In 2011, the Big Apple couldn’t hold his attention any longer, and he moved back to his city.

When he returned, Richberg was greeted with a new cultural landscape. Developers were finishing the new home of the New World Symphony, the Perez Art Museum Miami was in its planning stages and the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts had recently opened its doors downtown. Arts philanthropists saw that the community would step up and maintain large investments, breathing life into the old “If you build it, they will come” adage.

“It was important to me coming back to do something to contribute to that,” Richberg said. “I think doing this and not just being an actor, but having this role I can really contribute to the larger conversation about the arts here in South Florida.

Upon his return, Richberg joined the newly launched Zoetic Stage theater company.

Debuting new productions is at the heart of Zoetic’s mission, and the company tries to do at least one world premiere a season, believing that if new work isn’t done at the regional level, then the future of theater looks bleak.

“I think it’s a responsibility of regional companies to produce, encourage, and commission new work and keep playwrights writing,” Richberg said. “That’s how a community like Miami becomes part of the national conversation. It’s by contributing to the national discourse, by creating or commissioning a piece that will have a life elsewhere.”

Meltzer agrees, and looks for plays that will affect audiences by making them laugh a little or leaving them with something to think about. He also looks at the community and what they will find relevant, which Meltzer believes is a diverse assortment of voices, including highlighting playwrights of color, and making sure to always have at least one female playwright in the season.  

“We’re a moving-forward community, and playwrights are the source of what we do,” Meltzer said. “I want to be able to be a safe place where playwrights feel their work is respected, and the process is respected, and they have a product afterward that they feel they can go ahead and continue the journey.”

The company is home to several South Florida premieres of productions like “The Great God Pan,” as well as world premieres, such as “South Beach Babylon,” “Captiva,” “Clarke Gable Slept Here,” and “Fear Up Harsh.”

One of the company’s greatest accomplishments was when Christopher Demos-Brown’s “Fear Up Harsh” received a prestigious 2014 Steinberg Citation from the American Theater Critics Association. This was a great honor for a three-year-old company and highlighted the kind of work they hope will resonate on a larger level.

“I think it takes a lot of chutzpah to go ahead and put up new work. I’m not saying that we’re the only theater in town that does it, because there are others that do it, but I think there’s a sense of bravery and there’s also a sense of copacetic trust with your audience,” Meltzer said.

The first step in that process is picking work that the company is passionate about and feels is important to do.  In trying to better understand its audience and its needs, the company has realized Miami is a very last-minute city. Sometimes, the morning of a performance the 200-seat theater will be 50 percent filled, and nearly sold out by curtain time.

“It’s a little nail-biting sometimes. You have to trust your audience will show up,” Richberg said.

They’ve also found an audience eager for musicals, as their patrons are often used to watching them at the Arsht. Their 2014 production of “Assassins” was their highest grossing show, followed by this season’s fresh take on a 1978 script, “Betrayal.”

From that, they learned that Miami theater-goers are up for a challenge, and that they like to be in and out in 90 minutes.

“Our audience wants to make the theater part of their evening — not necessarily be the entire evening — and that’s fine with us,” Richberg said. “We’re happy to be your appetizer, even if your night goes on until 4 a.m.”

Now Zoetic is ready to expand its educational outreach, and hopes to do that through the Zoetic Stage Young Artist Program, for which it’s a finalist in the Knight Arts Challenge.

The goal is to encourage graduating theater students to stay in South Florida. They hope to build ties between students and local organizations by placing them in understudy roles, helping them perform in shows, and offering work in the many technical aspects that go into a production.

“We need actors to stay in South Florida for the theater community to stay vibrant,” Richberg said. “I think as a company we have something to say, and we’re just grateful that people are listening.”