It's a classic season for Palm Beach Dramaworks
When he founded Palm Beach Dramaworks eight years ago, Bill Hayes admits somewhat sheepishly, his company didn't have much of a mission. "It was basically putting on a show we could afford," Hayes says while sitting in his shoeboxed-sized theater in downtown West Palm Beach. "We would ask, 'How small is the cast? How much is this gonna cost?' We had no mission other than putting a show up." Well, that's definitely changed. Not only is Dramaworks more focused than ever, but it also boasts a catchy new marketing slogan that reads as if it was cooked up by one of Mad Men's nattily dressed ad execs: Theatre To Think About. 'That," says Hayes, a 30-year veteran stage actor and Dramaworks' producing artistic director, "is what truly defines us." Dramaworks raises the curtain on its ninth season tonight with A Moon for the Misbegotten, the last play ever written by Eugene O'Neill, the Nobel Prize-winning playwright and father of American drama. Later this season look for The Chairs, Eugene Ionesco's landmark play set in a post-apocalyptic world; The Weir by Conor McPherson; and the Florida premiere of Edward Albee's At Home At The Zoo. The common thread in all the shows, Hayes points out, is that each will leave audiences talking and thinking long after the curtain calls have ended. "You will be exhilarated, you may be angry, you may be happy, but you're definitely gonna talk about what you've seen, even if it's a comedy," the 43-year-old Hayes says in a rumbling baritone. "All of these are thought-provoking works which had an impact on the theater world." Dramaworks' strategy, however, doesn't come without some risks. In a dicey economy, will audiences be willing to fork over their hard-earned dollars to see a weighty show they may know very little about? Ticket sales are up 20 percent Even Hayes admits the shows you'll see at Dramaworks this season aren't for everybody. "It's a specific, acquired taste," he says. Hayes obviously understands the inherent risks, but he is willing to take them. "When we first produced Driving Miss Daisy and an earlier Edward Albee work, there was an audience response to that," he says. "I learned very quickly there was a niche that wasn't being filled in our community." To prove his point, Hayes emphasizes that tickets sales are up 20 percent from the same time last year. "We're not having the increase we've had in previous seasons, but we have an increase and that has not been the story of many theaters," Hayes says. "I just got back from a tour through New England and every single theater reported sluggish summer sales and a decrease in subscriptions." But growth will be slow and steady for Dramaworks. After all, it's not like it can rely on a Kravis Center-sized theater to boost revenue. The company's cramped 84-seat theater is not much bigger than an oversized family room. Dramaworks' previous theater on Clematis Street only sat 45 people. "We outgrew that in a year," he says. Hayes hopes Dramaworks can move into bigger digs in two or three years. Just a few months ago, the company was discussing starting a capital campaign to raise about $8 million for a new facility. But the current economic crisis put those talks on hold. "It's the worst time to start a capital campaign," he says. "I have to be more conservative and cautious." Still, Hayes adds, there's something to be said for seeing a play in such a tiny space. "Our audience really likes the intimacy," he says. "They feel like they're in the scene." As a small theater company (Dramaworks has eight full-time staffers and a skimpy $1.2 million budget), the biggest challenge it faces is getting the word out about its shows. They rely heavily on word-of-mouth, but that's not enough, so the company has increased its marketing efforts by starting a newsletter, hiring a director of development (Steven Caras) and advertising on the Internet. "We're trying to find an outlet to reach new people," says Sue Ellen Beryl, the company's managing director. "One of the greatest tasks for Steven is to be our advocate in the community and go to all the Rotary clubs. We have a very educated audience, and I think they would like to see the shows we're performing." A Moon for the Misbegotten is the first O'Neill show Dramaworks has staged. The play, which has been produced on Broadway five times, is set in 1923 in a run-down Connecticut house where Josie Hogan (Kati Brazda), a strong Irishwoman with loads of emotional baggage, lives with her conniving father, Phil (Peter Haig). In one memorable moonlit night, Josie and her alcoholic landlord, James Tyrone (Todd Allen Durkin), share their grief and unrequited love. A deeply personal play (Tyrone was based on O'Neill's older brother), Moon is often viewed as a sequel to Long Day's Journey into Night. Role of Josie is an acting workout Brazda says she's wanted to play Josie for years. In fact, she understudied the role last year in the New York production starring Kevin Spacey. "I feel like I know her," Brazda says. "I have a crush on her. She goes through a personal crisis and comes out on the other side knowing herself better and she's closer to accepting who she is as a person." But the role has been a challenging one. "A friend told me whatever you have done up until this point, it will all be changed because you have gone through the process of doing this role," Brazda says. "It's like going to an acting gym. It's a workout. You have to exercise your acting muscles, and you have to build up to do this show seven or eight times a week. I'm tired at the end of the day." Hayes isn't tired of watching Brazda perform, however. "When I first met Kati she immediately demonstrated this tough exterior but in subtle ways she was showing us a vulnerability she keeps inside her," Hayes recalls. "That nuanced work was in her audition. I said, 'If this is what she's doing in an audition, I can only imagine what she'll do with a few weeks of rehearsal.'" Clearly Hayes hopes theatergoers are not only impressed with Brazda, but Dramaworks' new mission as well. "We recognize there aren't going to be any big, box-office slams," he says. "But we will continue to test the waters and very slowly build an intellectual audience that's hungry for all kinds of theater." Five Things to Know About Eugene O'Neill 1. He won four Pulitzer Prizes and a Nobel Prize for literature. 2. His breakthrough play, Beyond the Horizon, introduced realism to the stage and transformed American theater. 3. He struggled with major diseases throughout his life, including tuberculosis, a nerve disorder and alcoholism. 4. His work explores the souls of the common man, often the working class, sailors, prostitutes and derelicts. 5. There have been more than 80 productions of O'Neill plays on Broadway to date.