The old adage goes, “When you play with fire, you might get burned.”

Not so for Matthew Korinko and Patrick Fitzwater, co-artistic directors of Slow Burn Theatre.

Ask any of the local theater critics to name top regional companies and Slow Burn’s name is sure to come up. But when the duo arrived in South Florida six years ago, the company was not yet a spark in either’s eyes.

They followed Fitzwater’s day job to the region, avoiding New York and Los Angeles, but immediately had their gaze turned on the local theater scene.

“I started to look for a theater company like the one I worked for in St. Louis,” said Korinko. “One that did the contemporary shows with a little more meat.”

They didn’t have much luck.

“There was nobody I wanted to hitch my wagon to at the time,” Korinko added. “So we decided in August 2009 to be that company.”

The couple scoured theater books for a name. The idea of that impending “something” like the lighting of the wick on a stick of dynamite appealed to them.

“You know what’s going to happen, but you don’t know when or how big….that’s Slow Burn,” he explained, followed by Fitzwater, “It applies to a song, a show, a character, even the actors that we attract who have that desire to do theater.”

They had a concept and a name, but it wouldn’t prove as easy as those classic Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney “Let’s put on a show in the barn!” movies that seem so optimistic, even quaint today.

After searching the region, they ended up at the cavernous performing arts center (Korinko insists there are only 350-400 good seats) at West Boca Raton High School at the very end of Glades Road, just about as close to the Everglades as possible in Palm Beach County and surrounded by perfectly manicured retirement communities and residents with a penchant for “Annie, Get Your Gun” and “Guys and Dolls.”

They didn’t know any actors, but they put out the call for auditions anyway and announced their first production, the Off Broadway cult hit “Bat Boy.” Not the stuff octagenerian Boca retirees are used to buying tickets to see, for sure.

Korinko was a seasoned leading man, but Fitzwater had never really directed a big budget musical. His credits were mostly as a choreographer. He would just have to follow in the footsteps of those other great choreographers-turned-directors like Bob Fosse and Susan Stroman, he resolved, and he did.

They overreached with a 12-performance schedule and spent a little too much money on that first production, but the lessons were learned quickly and applied. They conservatively put up show after show, wowing the critics, but most importantly, filling the seats and creating a devoted subscriber base.

“Bat Boy” was followed by Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins,” “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” “Kiss of the Spider Woman,” “Blood Brothers” and “Urinetown.”

They had grabbed the attention they needed and that slow burning wick was lit.

Just a Couple of Boys from the Midwest

Korinko grew up in a musical family in suburban Wisconsin. His parents were both accomplished musicians who sang in national award-winning quartets.

“I was a little intimidated because my parents set the ‘bar’ so high,” said Korinko, “so I did the acting thing.”

His first performance, while just a second grader, was in the school talent show. He and a buddy recited the famous “Who’s on First?” skit to enthusiastic  applause.

“That was all I needed. I was a class clown from then on,” he explained.

He continued to pursue acting and stagecraft in high school, winning awards at the state level, and later, completed a degree in acting and technical theater at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

It was at Stevens Point that a musical theater professor encouraged Korinko to sing, teaching him to “attack a song from an acting standpoint.”

Soon he found himself singing on stage at Six Flags in Chicago — where he would meet Fitzwater — beginning a relationship that would continue for more than 20 years.

“I always thought I was going to be an art major,” recalled Fitzwater, who only set his sights on the stage after his family moved from St. Louis to Oklahoma in the middle of the school year. “Of course, (art) was the cool class to be in and it was full.”

The guidance counselor assigned him to the choir and he was later cast as one of the Wright brothers in a show called, “Sky Happy.”

“I loved it,” he said, “and that’s when I stopped the art classes and got more into theater.”

Fitzwater eventually moved back to the Midwest where he performed at theme parks and would later serve as the entertainment director for Spirit Cruise Lines. In between performing, he completed cosmetology school and would soon be traveling the world as a master stylist and industry consultant.

“We definitely balance each other out,” Fitzwater said, noting the couple find themselves most days spending every waking hour working on Slow Burn. “It just doesn’t stop and we certainly have our moments. (Matthew) knows how far he can push me,” but they also know how to support each other and offer timely “pep talks” when the other gets stressed.

An Overnight Success

“We’re not,” they insisted emphatically, “well, maybe to somebody who just met us,” speaking in that singular voice most long-time couples develop. Sure, they adopted a cautious approach in the early seasons and earned critical acclaim show after show. But, it was time to take the next step and they extended two productions with additional performances last season at the Aventura Arts and Cultural Center.

Slow Burn became the talk of the South Florida theater community when the 2014 Carbonell Awards were announced. Their first eligible show, the cathartic musical, “Next to Normal,” about a family coping with bipolar disorder, snatched up 10 nominations, more than any other musical production and edging out the usual powerhouses like the Maltz in Jupiter and Actors Playhouse in Coral Gables.

But, on awards night, one by one, the trophies went to other companies, most to another small, relatively young company, Island City Stage for “The Timekeepers,” a moving play set in a Holocaust concentration camp. The cast was backstage at the Broward Center getting ready to perform a number from the show.

“Best Director was the ninth award and at this point we were thinking we were ‘The Color Purple’,” another show that went into the Tony Awards with lots of nominations and left with few statues, recalled Korinko.

But then the envelope was opened and Fitzwater’s name was announced.

“It took me so long to get over the shock of the thing,” Fitzwater admitted with his humble, still boyish smile.

Even though they didn’t take home the best musical award, Fitzwater’s recognition from the Carbonell judges would have lasting effects for him and Slow Burn.

“It made me more confident and brave,” he said. “I wasn’t scared — it really helped me with “Parade”—and I took more risks. I have an artistic eye.

The Next Steps

“It’s grown faster than we ever thought it would be and bigger,” said Korinko of their theater company.

Big opportunities are definitely coming their way. In addition to continued performances in West Boca and Aventura, the Broward Center, unhappy with the consistency and quality of many of the available touring productions, engaged Slow Burn to co-produce two shows in the facility’s underutilized Abdo New River Room.

This fall, Fitzwater will direct productions of “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” a fun 1950s musical review, and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” a popular Broadway hit. Both are expected to be commercial successes with the center’s dependable snowbird and the new, younger audiences Slow Burn continues to attract.

One of the benefits of the overwhelming critical response to the company is that theatrical licensing agents are shopping their shows to them first. The couple snagged rights to mount the regional premieres of the cult favorite “Carrie: The Musical” and Frank Wildhorn’s “Bonnie & Clyde,” both shows that found limited success recently on Broadway, but have their fans and audiences.

After finishing up the 2013 production of “The Wedding Singer,” Fitzwater had grown tired of its pop score (“I was burnt out on bubble gum.”) and he purchased the new cast recording of the “Carrie” revival. It came up on his iPod during a trip to Target and by the fourth number, Fitzwater was hooked.

“I called Matt and by the time I got home, the rights became available and the royalty company had just contacted us,” Fitzwater said, calling the occurrence “fate.”

This summer, the couple opened Space, a rehearsal facility in Oakland Park with scene and costume shops and lots of storage for the growing company.

“We won’t be rehearsing in our living room any more,” they laughed, again speaking almost in unison, and longtime Slow Burn costume designer Rick Pena will not have fabric strewn across his house and “Avenue Q” puppets climbing the walls.

“And we don’t have to give them a hypodermic needle during rehearsals,” alluded Fitzwater to the couple’s cats.

Ask their cast or other directors and producers and they will quickly confirm Korinko and Fitzwater are among the most well liked and supportive members of South Florida’s tight theater community.

Recognizing the shared challenges many small companies face, they have made Space available to others and are offering movement and other classes during the year. They also enjoy working with students and young cast members (nearly the entire cast of the last production, “High Fidelity,” were newcomers).

“We take incredible pride in seeing what people can do with their first opportunities and when they come through, it’s so rewarding,” said Korinko, just as the South Florida community took a chance on them.

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