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Behind the Curtain: Palm Beach Dramaworks

   Palm Beach Dramaworks, the teenage not-for-profit theatre located on the corner of Clematis in downtown West Palm Beach, is a rare breed. Committed to producing "theatre to think about," Dramaworks fills a very specific niche within the Palm Beach theatre community, often packing its season with all-but-forgotten classics as well as experimental endeavors.

   I recently was invited to peek behind the curtain at 201 Clematis Street to discover what and who has propelled Dramaworks forward lo these 13 seasons. I found a company headed by a couple dedicated to the arts and determined to engage audiences with provocative and seldom-seen productions.

   When Palm Beach Dramaworks mounted its first play, Greetings!, in December 2000, there was no regional theatre in Palm Beach. Eager to fill a void and immerse themselves in the art, husband and wife team William Hayes and Sue Ellen Beryl joined with friend Nanique Gheridian to form a professional company. While renting space from Palm Beach Atlantic University, the group began to feel growing pains and knew they needed to make a change. Dramaworks found a temporary home at a 45-seat theatrical space off Clematis Street before moving to an 84-seat black box location on Banyan, where they remained for eight years.

   With evolving concerns and a growing subscription base, Dramaworks needed more space. On November 11, 2011, the company moved into its current location on Clematis, after some renovations, of course.

   Built in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a movie theatre, the theatre passed through many hands before becoming the Cuillo Centre for the Arts in 1999. Armed with 377 seats distributed between a lower level and balcony, the space wasn't yet suited for the type of work for which Dramaworks had become known.

  "We bring the audience close to the art," says managing director, Sue Ellen Beryl.

   They sought to make the theatre as intimate as possible, nixing the balcony and thrust stage in favor of a modified proscenium (the stage is raised about a foot off the floor) and two sections of elevated seating. All totaled, the theatre now seats 218.

   Within the new space, Dramaworks has been able to expand its educational outreach initiatives. The Master Playwright Series is the company's longest running education program, having been introduced in 2007. Every season, three playwrights (one contemporary, one classic and one being produced) are explored in depth with a lecture and discussion one evening, followed by a staged reading on another. Knowledge & Nibbles is a newer undertaking. Participants enjoy lunch and a discussion with a production's director and actors before attending a matinee performance.

Angie Radosh, Dennis Creaghan and Maureen Anderman in A Delicate Balance. Photo by Alicia Donelan.

   The expanded space also allows Dramaworks to continue with its goal of enhancing the quality of life through the transformative power of live theatre. Since its inception, Dramaworks has presented thought-provoking works by established playwrights in a pure manner. "We want to present the feeling the playwright intended," says Beryl.

   Highly praised but seldom-performed productions are its specialty. Playwrights such as Edward Albee and Sartre are more likely to appear on its roster than Tennessee Williams or Shakespeare, though Dramaworks rarely returns to a playwright more than once. Albee is the lone exception; to date, Dramaworks has presented seven of his plays including Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance. When planning a season, producing artistic director William Hayes aims to include something contemporary, something askew and at least one big name play.

   Eugene Ionesco's absurdist romp Exit the King is the "askew" production of the 2012-2013 season. Set in a fictional kingdom, the 90-minute one act follows King Berenger as he comes to grips with his death, which will take place at the close of the play. Exit the King is a perfect example of Palm Beach Dramawork's ideals: full audience immersion into an intellectually stimulating production. Upon entering the theatre, the audience is greeted by an armed guard patrolling the stage, faux cigarette in hand, as well as King Berenger introducing himself to his guests with glee, not yet aware of his soon-to-be-tested mortality. Exit the King is not for the casual theatergoer; the absurdist elements lead to sophisticated beats and the plot is not dynamic in a traditional sense. But the thematic evolution and unconventional structure definitely make it theatre to think about.

 

To learn more about Palm Beach Dramaworks or to purchase tickets to Exit the King, visit palmbeachdramaworks.org


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