Early last year, when the pandemic we have come to know as COVID-19 first hit, disrupting the nation’s live theaters, closing their doors and halting their seasons, Bill Hayes of Palm Beach Dramaworks did the opposite of almost every other non-profit stage company.
“One thing I had noticed very early on is many non-profits were immediately soliciting for funds,” says the West Palm Beach company’s producing artistic director. “I thought that perhaps that was the wrong message to be sending out, because it might look like you’re very vulnerable, that you’re holding on by a string. So after several days, I made the conscious decision that we were not going to solicit for funds at all, until just recently.”
It is not that Dramaworks didn’t need donations. “Obviously we were hit really hard. We lost hundreds of thousands of dollars. But we were in the fortunate position that we’ve operated in the black for almost 20 years, so we had a few million dollars in reserve, but of course that’s been slowly depleted,” says Hayes. “But it’s still enough to get us started in the fall.”
For the past 14 months, live in-person productions have not been possible, but Dramaworks put an emphasis on streaming readings of new and classic plays. “We made sure that we had programming at least once a week, often two or three times a week, for many months,” explains Hayes. “Just to remind people that we’re alive and well and thinking of them. We did not solicit for funds at all and, as a result, people were donating.
“It was only in the last couple of months that we began soliciting for funds, but this is usually the time of year that we start doing that anyway.”
When Dramaworks – and every other area theater – closed down in March of 2020, it still had a couple of shows to produce on its mainstage subscription series. “We lost the last two, which were ‘The Light in the Piazza’ and ‘Lobby Hero.’ ‘Piazza’ was to be the biggest show we’d ever put together,” says Hayes.
“We had that about 90 percent built, including costumes. It was the most ambitious thing we’d ever done.” He stored the sets for a while, expecting the Adam Guettel musical to be the company’s fall season opener. But eventually Hayes realized he could not start back up with a musical, particular one of Piazza’s size. “So a lot of money got thrown away.”
The washed-out 2020-21 season was to be Dramaworks’ celebratory 20th anniversary season, loaded with encore productions of such audience favorites as Camping with Henry and Tom, The Dresser and Souvenir.
None of these titles show up in PBD’s recently announced fall season, opening in October. As Hayes concedes, “I couldn’t effectively do ‘Camping with Henry and Tom,’ which has considerable scenic requirements, including an onstage vintage automobile. And ‘The Dresser’ is a huge play. It’s got a cast of 14 and you can’t put that many people backstage after a pandemic.”
Postponing The Dresser was a personal disappointment for Hayes, who was planning to return to the stage, reprising his acclaimed title role.
And maybe he was a little relieved. “I was a little concerned about being rusty. And I’m not 35 anymore,” says Hayes, now in his mid-50s. “It’s going to take a lot of work and energy when we reopen the doors.”
Adding to Dramaworks’ cash flow woes, it has announced that it will be spending a million dollars this year to get its theater up to COVID health and safety standards.
“We were in a fortunate position last year that we decided we needed to replace the A/C system. Because it’s old, because it’s used constantly, because of the wear and tear in Florida and being a public facility, they don’t have a long life,” says Hayes. (We) I thought it would be in the $300,000 range. But by the time we realized we needed to reconfigure some duct work, and some state-of-the-art air purification things and to satisfy the actors’ union, we realized it was going to be a million dollars just for the A/C.
“And we’re taking it a step further,” he adds. “While we’re not completely renovating the bathrooms, we’re going to make it as much of a touch-free experience as possible.”
But like most other resident theaters in South Florida, as well as Broadway, Dramaworks will not be socially distancing its audience. “There’s no way,” says Hayes. “Even when we have a sold-out show, it doesn’t pay for the show. Ticket sales only cover a percentage of our production budget. I have to know that I’m going to sell at least 80 or 90 percent of the seats. Otherwise it’s not worth it. We’re a 220-seat theater.
“We’re going to require masks, at least for the first couple of shows this fall. We’re going to make sure that we are doing everything humanly possible otherwise to make you feel safe and comfortable.”
How long Dramaworks will require masks, whether the company will ask for proof of vaccination from its patrons and other thorny COVID-related questions are hard for Hayes to answer six months prior to reopening.
“It’s all going to depend on if things do spike up and change again. There are just so many unknowns that we can’t set the rules now. But I’m also aware that we need a Plan A, B and C,” says Hayes. “If something happens and we have to open in December, which show will we drop? Or if we open in January, which two shows will we drop?
“I’m very optimistic about October. But I also have to be realistic. You have to always plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
Restaffing the theater is another challenge preying on Hayes. “Many former staff members have moved on other careers,” he says. Last year, he had to lay off more than two-thirds of the staff, going from 38 on the payroll down to just 10. We’re now slowly starting to staff up, but they’re relatively low income jobs and there’s a housing shortage in West Palm Beach.
When selecting his next season, Hayes gave preference to plays he could cast from the area’s actor pool. All of his performers in the coming season will be from South Florida, with the probable exception of Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel, which requires an African-American cast. Two of the works will be world premiered and four of the five were written in the 21st century.
The season opens on Oct. 15 with John Cariani’s Almost, Maine, a series of vignettes about love and making human connections. Next is a world premiere by area playwright Michael McKeever, The People Downstairs (Dec. 10), a new angle on the Diary of Anne Frank. It will be followed by Bruce Graham’s world premiere, The Duration (Feb. 4), about a young woman trying to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. Then Dramaworks will produce Intimate Apparel (April 1), about the correspondence of an African-American seamstress looking for love.
As recently as last month, Dramaworks co-produced with Actors’ Playhouse of Coral Gables a Zoom production of William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst, a biographical one-woman show about poet Emily Dickinson, featuring Margery Lowe. Although it did not turn a profit, it proved to be a major audience-builder for both theaters, with streaming audiences from across the country and around the world.
But the electronic production was never meant to make money. “Another reason we did it was because there was a large chunk of patrons who donated their tickets back to the theater for ‘Light in the Piazza’ and ‘Lobby Hero,’” says Hayes. “So we produced this and filmed it as a gift to them. So hundreds of people watched it, but it was mostly comps.”
Still, the show got great press, including a rave review in The Wall Street Journal. So “by popular demand,” it will be the final show of Dramaworks’s 2021-22 season, beginning May 21.
With five full productions planned, and the continuation of its electronic reading series and Zoomed interviews with local and national theater icons, Dramaworks has not only survived the pandemic, but is looking ahead to its next 20 years.