How Palm Beach Dramaworks became the hottest theater ticket in town
In 2002, theater critic Hap Erstein took an extended look at Palm Beach Dramaworks, then a promising new dramatic troupe in West Palm Beach. The headline to the story said it all: "The Little Theater Company That Could." Four years later, it's fair to say that Dramaworks has gone beyond the "could" stage. Just look at the number of nominations — 16 — that Dramaworks earned in this year's Carbonell Awards, South Florida's regional equivalent of Broadway's Tony Awards. It's in marked contrast to such veteran companies as Manalapan's Florida Stage (11 nominations) and Boca Raton's Caldwell Theatre (7). But it wasn't just about the number; it was about the range of nominations: Dramaworks' honors were spread among several categories, from Best Production of a Play to Best Production of a Musical to Best Costume Design, and covered five of the six productions the company staged during the eligibility period. If nothing else, that shows consistency. Add to that the fact the company recently announced a deal to move to West Palm Beach's Opera Place condo development — in a new 240-seat theater that it will build itself. (The developer, however, will rent the space to the company for free.) The agreement came about after Florida Stage, which has long had aspirations to move to culture-friendly West Palm Beach, pulled out of a slightly larger deal. But I haven't had to keep up with the news to know that Dramaworks, which currently is based in a small, barely serviceable 84-seat theater on Banyan Street, is the real deal. I can tell as much from attending its productions — not merely in my capacity as a Carbonell voter, but simply as a culture vulture who appreciates the sort of honest, intense brand of theater that Dramaworks produces. And that's really the secret to the success of this company, which was started on a shoestring budget by three theater professionals — Executive Director Sue Ellen Beryl, Managing Artistic Director Nanique Gheridian and Producing Artistic Director William Hayes — after years of struggling to find their way in the local scene. (Put another way: They all had to hold "day jobs" while pursuing their dramatic dream.) Plays give actors proper platform Dramaworks is not so much about picking plays or musicals that break new ground (that's Florida Stage's specialty) or producing them with a glorious eye for detail, particularly in regards to scenery and costumes (that's where Caldwell especially excels). Rather, it's about honoring the actor — specifically, the South Florida actor — by offering them work that allows them to communicate with an audience on a visceral level. (Florida Stage and Caldwell often cast out-of-town talent.) When I think about the productions I've seen at Dramaworks, I think not so much about their overall sweep and message. Instead, I think about the searing performances: Patti Gardner playing a confused married woman in Terrence McNally's Lips Together, Teeth Apart, Brandon Morris playing a developmentally disabled man-child in Tom Griffin's The Boys Next Door, Gheridian playing a suicidal daughter in Marsha Norman's 'night Mother. But it's also about finding the right play that can provide those actors a proper platform. On the surface, many of Dramaworks' choices have a decidedly dated, even dowdy feel — plays that made their mark in some cases more than a generation ago. (Think of the play that opened this season — Jason Miller's Watergate-era That Championship Season, which won the Pulitzer in 1972.) And yet, there's a timeless quality to these works — or at least, a quality that allows us to revisit them again, perhaps seeing them with a new perspective afforded by time. (A case in point: McNally's gay-themed Lips Together, Teeth Apart, which was written during the height of the AIDS crisis — today, we can see the play is about much more than a disease.) It's perhaps why a few of Dramaworks' recent picks — 'night, Mother and Edward Albee's Seascape — have been seen in major New York productions around the same time. Some might say it's merely a coincidence. But I think it's a sign that great minds think alike. Smart management is key to success Still, there's another side to the Dramaworks' story — one that takes place away from the stage. After all, a desire to do great theater will get you only so far. The real key is having smart management — and a willingness to think small. Yes, small. Unlike so many nonprofit cultural organizations that have fallen victim to overly ambitious plans to expand or move — remember the Burt Reynolds Institute for Theatre Training? —Dramaworks has never looked beyond what it was financially capable of achieving. The company started life in rented space at Palm Beach Atlantic University, then moved to a 44-seat theater on Clematis Street, then moved to its current one when it was obvious it had the audience to do so. Now that it's at 800 subscribers, the shift to Opera Place seems within reason, especially given that the company will have three years to raise the necessary millions needed for the new theater. (Beryl has said it shouldn't cost more than $7 million.) Dramaworks has also resisted adding too many ancillary programs — educational outreach, non-staged readings — so that it can pay for its main mission. Not that the other things aren't important, but what's their value if they result in red ink? (For the record, the theater has balanced its budget, currently at $630,000, almost since its inception.) I suspect some of this common-sense approach stems from the fact that the Dramaworks leadership team has plenty of real-world, away-from-the-theater experience. To this day, Beryl is an accountant and Gheridian, an administrator, continues to hold a part-time job. And while Hayes is full time with Dramaworks, that's a fairly recent development: Until two years ago, he was a Southeast district manager for a shoe-store chain. Other local theaters deserve support, too Laugh all you want about a shoe salesman producing great theater, but I bet the skills that Hayes honed — in marketing, in meeting customer demand, in understanding budgets — is a lot more valuable in running a theater than knowing the ins and outs of every Chekhov play. The same would apply to Beryl and Gheridian's "day job" experience. Still, as tempting as it would be to see this as a knock against the long-standing theater companies in our midst, it's not. The truth is that they all do good work — in one form or another — and they all deserve support. (And they all appear to be models of solid management.) I love the cutting-edge plays that Florida Stage does (and in fairness to the company, they also offer more traditional contemporary work). I love the breathtaking productions that Caldwell does of older plays and musicals (and in fairness to them, their skills go well beyond that — they do their share of new work, too). But I also love going to Dramaworks — for the pure and powerful experience of seeing theater that speaks to me on a gut level. Judging from the company's recent achievements, I'm hardly alone in my appreciation.