On Nov. 11, when Palm Beach Dramaworks cuts the ribbon on the Don & Ann Brown Theatre — the former Cuillo Centre for the Arts, the 12-year-old stage company’s new home — it will be the culmination of three years of purchase negotiations and a $2 million renovation project.
All for a performance space that producing artistic director Bill Hayes actively disliked in its former configuration.
“I didn’t find any redeeming qualities about the space. It was not comfortable for a patron and it was very limiting for an artist,” he says. “That horrible thrust stage, the stadium seating, the uncomfortable chairs. I needed to bring it down to the dirt and start over again.”
Hayes gave Gino deSantis of Zeidler Architects a daunting assignment: to retain the intimacy of the organization’s former 84-seat home on Banyan Boulevard, while more than doubling the seating capacity and increasing the stage area sixfold. The new configuration has 218 seats, which is a big increase, but in its former life the Cuillo Centre sat 375.
“We were trying to, as much as possible, recreate the magic of Dramaworks, which has a lot to do with intimacy,” says managing director Sue Ellen Beryl, Hayes’s wife. “It is still an intimate theater by national standards, just not compared to our previous theater,” notes Hayes.
Soon after moving into the Banyan theater eight years ago, Hayes, Beryl and their board of directors all recognized that they would quickly outgrow that space. So the company launched a series of “almosts.” They almost moved near the Kravis Center in a multi-use high-rise project called Opera Place, which was scuttled by the bad economy. They almost moved to a vacant building north of Dreyfoos School of the Arts and they almost relocated to Palm Beach Gardens.
But West Palm Beach’s then-Mayor Lois Frankel was determined to keep the Carbonell Award-winning company in town. “The bottom line is we had an administration here in the city that was willing to invest in the arts,” says Hayes. “And it recognized the economic impact that a good cultural organization could have on downtown.”
Frankel put the Downtown Development Authority on the case, and it arranged a meeting between Dramaworks and car dealer-turned-theater-owner Bob Cuillo, as early as 2007. It was not until 2010, however, after Hayes and Beryl had thrown up their hands in frustration and left the negotiations to the city, that a purchase deal was struck.
West Palm Beach bought the theater for $2.85 million, and will be renting it to Dramaworks for the next five years at a mere $60,000 annual rent — the same rent the group was paying on Banyan Boulevard — with the expectation that Dramaworks will buy the building during that five-year period.
So far, Dramaworks has raised $4.2 million, including a $2 million gift from the Browns, a philanthropic couple from Palm Beach Gardens and Washington, D.C. Two million dollars is also the cost of the theater renovations, so the group still needs some $650,000 to be able to buy the building outright. But as Beryl emphasizes, the fundraising effort has barely begun.
“We have not yet launched our capital campaign,” she says, adding that it will begin with the grand opening on 11-11-11. “We have raised this $4.2 million from 40 people in our very, very inner circle of friends: Our board members, our advisory board members and our highest level donors.
“To the rest of our constituents, hold on to your wallets, the request is coming. We’re going to go out first to them, and then to the community at large.”
In addition to the tiny seating capacity on Banyan Boulevard, Dramaworks had to make do with cramped quarters onstage and off. The move to its new theater allows Hayes to produce plays he could never have fit on his stage before, such as All My Sons, the 1947 Arthur Miller play that will inaugurate the Brown Theatre.
“Ten actors, an exterior, the effective representation of a home,” Hayes said of the play’s requirements. “There are plays that I think need breathing room that couldn’t be done in the old space.”
For the opening show, Hayes encouraged resident scenic designer Michael Amico to think big, to create not just a room, but a world, an entire environment.
“This will be the first time people will be walking in here,” says Hayes. “I want the space to wow them, I want the set to wow them.”
To staff up for its new theater, Dramaworks has increased its payroll from eight full-time employees to 20. The majority of the added workers come from the defunct Florida Stage.
On the back of Hayes and Beryl’s minds has to be that troupe’s recent closing, largely attributed to subscriber rebellion over a move from Manalapan to the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach.
Hayes minimizes the similarities. “We moved over one street, just around the corner,” he says. “We’re very well-connected to our patrons and talk to our patrons constantly. We want to find out what’s important to them and address those issues.”
So far, the signs are good. As of the beginning of October, subscriptions reached 3,300 — a 20 percent increase over last season and a record level for Dramaworks.
With its new location and a promotional boost by the city, the organization should gain awareness from a whole new audience. Mayor Jeri Muoio has declared Nov. 7-13 to the Palm Beach Dramaworks Week. Each night will introduce a different constituency — actors and artists, the business community, city workers and students — to the new redesigned theater in town. And on Saturday, Nov. 12, All My Sons has its official opening.
“With the first show, we want to demonstrate what we can do now,” beams Hayes. “You’re going to be wowed.”
ALL MY SONS. Palm Beach Dramaworks at the Don & Ann Brown Theatre, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach; Nov. 12-Dec. 11. Call: (561) 514-4042, ext. 2.