By RON HAYES
Palms West Monthly
Posted Sept. 29, 2016
WEST PALM BEACH — Palm Beach Dramaworks is not a lot of things. And that’s a compliment.
It’s not a repertory theater, for example.
“A repertory company has a base group of artists who appear in 90 percent of the productions,” explains Dramaworks’ Artistic Director and co-founder William Hayes. “We’ve been accused of being a repertory company, but about 50 percent of our actors are from New York City.”
Palm Beach Dramaworks is also not a roadhouse theater.
“There’s no difference in quality, but a roadhouse theater like the Kravis Center purchases a package,” says Hayes. “They’re usually large-scale productions, such as touring companies of Broadway shows.”
And Palm Beach Dramaworks is certainly not what it was on Dec. 22, 2000, when the curtain rose on “Greetings,” a Christmas play. That production was staged in the theater at Palm Beach Atlantic University, which the company had rented. Their annual budget that first season was $20,000.
When “The Night of the Iguana” opens Oct. 14 – the first of five productions in the 2016-2017 season – the Tennessee Williams’ drama will be performed at the Don and Ann Brown Theatre on Clematis Street in a building the company bought from the city in 2015. This year, the annual budget is $3.2 million.
So just what is Palm Beach Dramaworks?
“We’re a regional theater,” says Hayes. “We produce the shows from A to Z, from selecting the play, to casting it with 90 percent union actors. We do our own costume, lighting and scenic design. Everything is built here. We have a 7,000-square-foot scene shop on the campus of the Dreyfoos School of the Arts and a costume shop at another location. We’re a producing organization.”
In between that first production at PBAU and now, Dramaworks moved a lot – and learned a lot.
After a year at the university, the company found a storefront home in the Via Jardin shops on Clematis Street. That lasted for three years before they moved to 322 Banyan Blvd., where a Chase Bank stands today.
“When we closed on Banyan Boulevard, we were running nine weeks of standing room only with 84 seats,” Hayes recalls.
And then, in November 2011, Dramaworks took out a $60,000-a-year lease on a city-owned former movie house at 201 Clematis St., overlooking Centennial Square and the waterfront, with an option to buy. Thanks to a $2 million donation from Don and Ann Brown of Palm Beach Gardens as well as other donors, the building was renovated into an intimate space with 218 seats in a mere nine rows. Four years later Dramaworks purchased the building from the city, eight months ahead of schedule.
Throughout its history, the company has listened to its audience to discover what it should be.
“The first season in Via Jardin, we did Edward Albee’s ‘Zoo Story’ and ‘American Dream,’” Hayes remembers, “and an audience member came up to me and said, ‘Finally, somebody in this area is doing this stuff.’”
Dramaworks prides itself on doing what Hayes calls “edgy stuff” – Ionesco’s “The Chairs,” the suicide drama “Night, Mother” and Albee’s “Seascape.” They’re the kind of challenging plays that inspired a company motto: Theater To Think About.
The biggest challenge, says Hayes, is resisting the urge to present what he calls “comfort food,” sure-fire crowd pleasers like the “The Odd Couple.” Audiences love them because they know exactly what they’re going to see. They can recite the lines. There’s a place for comfort food, he acknowledges – but that’s not what makes truly memorable theater.
“We need to remind people that there was a time when they saw a play for the first time, and they were open to it. Never go in with an expectation of what it’s supposed to be,” Hayes asks the audience. “If you come in with an expectation, you’re taking the art out of theater.”
And the best way to resist comfort food, he says, is by resolutely refusing to underestimate the audience. Dramaworks presented “American Buffalo,” David Mamet’s exercise in nearly nonstop profanity.
“We didn’t have one complaint about the language,” he says with pride, “and there was no negative impact on sales.”
Even a seemingly upbeat musical can be provocative, such as this summer’s production of “1776,” about the invention of America.
“We did it because of the highly charged political climate and the outrageous personalities of some of the founding fathers,” Hayes says. “The message there is, nothing gets done without compromise.”
And if thoughtful theatergoers found a parallel to the current presidential election, well, that’s theater to think about.
Barry Salandro, a West Palm Beach real estate agent, has been a thoughtful theatergoer at Dramaworks’ productions for nearly 10 years. He and husband Hal moved here permanently from Philadelphia in 1999, where they’d been subscribers to New York’s Lincoln Center and Roundabout Theater seasons.
“Coming from a culturally rich area in Philadelphia and New York, there was some hesitation in locating here, but I was very surprised,” Salandro says. “They’re very much like the Roundabout. I like their variety.”
The couple saw Audra McDonald in the original New York production of “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” followed by last summer’s Dramaworks’ production with Tracey Conyer Lee in the starring role as Billie Holiday.
“Sometimes when that happens you think, ‘Well, it’s a regional theater,’ but it held its own,” said Salandro. “In some ways the actress who played Lady Day here got the ending better.”
And now Salandro is looking forward to Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana,” the first of five main stage productions with a common theme.
“Isolation,” William Hayes says. “All the characters are trying to connect, emotionally and physically. I chose isolated characters because we’re more and more isolated. If you’re in a restaurant and four people at a table are all staring at their iPhones – that’s isolated!”
In Williams’ 1961 drama, a disgraced minister accused of the statutory rape of a 16-year-old girl leads a Baptist tour group through 1940s Mexico. For the role of the Rev. Lawrence Shannon, Hayes cast Tim Altmeyer, an associate professor of theater at the University of Florida who made his first Dramaworks appearance opposite Estelle Parsons in the 2014 production of “My Old Lady.”
“For Shannon, what I relate to is a guy who’s trying to get it right,” Altmeyer said in a phone interview from Gainesville.
“Most human beings can relate to trying to get it right,” Altmeyer continued. “They might not relate to the choices he makes, but most can relate to making the wrong or unproductive choices and trying to find a way to redeem themselves. That’s his struggle.”