Palm Beach Dramaworks Engages the LGBT Community Through an Original Play

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Blazing new territory is nothing new for William Hayes, producing artistic director at Palm Beach Dramaworks in West Palm Beach.

“It’s the mandate of a regional theater to take risks and to invest in art,” said Hayes, one of the founders of this theater established in 2000. He counts among his company’s world premieres, in addition to “Billy and Me,” two by author-actor-designer Michael McKeever — “The Velveteen Undertow,” a dark comedy, in 2002, and “Hand of God,” a drama presented in 2006, in which Hayes played an embittered alcoholic priest — plus regional premieres and works new to the Southeastern United States and Florida.

In 2015, while directing William Inge’s “Picnic,” Hayes discovered the relationship between two legendary American playwrights, Inge and Tennessee Williams. Fascinated by the men’s lives — “absent fathers and domineering mothers, dealing with alcoholism, one man was introverted, one man was extroverted, one was very honest about who he was, and one could never face who he really was” — Hayes shared his enthusiasm with friend and playwright Terry Teachout. Having already written at length about Inge, Teachout mined the intricacies of the playwrights’ complex friendship, and with Hayes, developed the new venture.

“We laughed about it along the way because it was about two straight guys writing about two gay guys,” said Hayes. When asked if straight playwrights can write convincingly about gay characters, he said, “We all have more in common than we do have differences. We all have the same kind of inner turmoil affected by our families, about being genuine, about mommy and daddy issues, about being able to face who we are.”

The result — “Billy and Me” — premiered on December 8, 2017, garnering standing ovations for the cast, solid reviews for the production, and for Nicholas Richberg, who played Tennessee Williams, a Carbonell Award nomination for Best Actor/Play.

“It was not a play about being gay. It was a play about being true to yourself and you can’t be a success and happy unless you are true to yourself,” said Hayes, who added, “It is a play I thought would resonate with the gay community.”

A couple of years ago, after examining attendance records, Hayes launched a new initiative.

“I started the Diversity Campaign to create a more diverse audience,” he said, beginning by mounting Stephen Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” as the summer 2017 musical to attract more millennials, who flocked to it, and a new program — Pay Your Age — for individuals ages 18 to 40. The result: sold-out houses.

Hayes, also aware South Florida is one of the capitals in the country for the LGBT community, talked with PBD’s Gary Cadwallader, director of education and community engagement, about creating a special theater experience. In 2017, [email protected] was born and developed by a committee of enthusiastic supporters: Sid Lesowitz and Peter Rogers, Joe Kolb and Michael Hoagland, Paul Bernabeo and David Cohen, and Brian O’Keefe and Cadwallader. O’Keefe, who has been partners with Cadwallader for 20 years, joined PBD 10 years ago on a freelance basis, when it was in an 84-seat theater on Banyan Street, and today is the company’s costume shop manager and resident designer.

“I didn’t hire Gary because he was a couple with Brian. I needed to expand education and I needed someone who could hit the ground running,” said Hayes, who was previously president of the Florida Professional Theatres Association.

Talking about OutStage, Cadwallader said, “Our goal was to engage, inspire and connect with the LGBTQ community and to see how our lives are reflected through the lens of the work that Palm Beach Dramaworks is putting on stage. It isn’t necessarily a gay show, it’s about how human beings interact. It’s about life stories on stage. We understand, resonate and connect with all characters on stage, not just those that are LGBTQ.”

Added Hayes, “A gay person will be represented on stage or an African American will be represented on stage, but I don’t want the piece to be about that. I want a piece to share how we are alike, not different. ‘A Raisin in the Sun,’ yes, it deals with racial issues, but it’s about family and we share that struggle.”

MIR Dramaworks2

OutStage, which debuted with “Billy and Me” last December, was quickly followed in January by a special cabaret show, “My Kinda 60s,” starring playwright-actor-screenwriter Charles Busch, which had to be rescheduled from September 2017 when Hurricane Irma threatened.

When OutStage arrives — on the Friday following the opening night of each production — it’s partytime. Generous sponsors underwrite the special evening for friends to meet and enjoy some champagne before the show in the 218-seat theater and then, following the performance, relax at a reception which offers a chance to mingle with the cast. Luring theatergoers from near and far, even fans from Fort Lauderdale, who make the nerve-racking drive up I-95, the number of enthusiastic merrymakers for OutStage has been steadily increasing. Sixty-five guests came to party at the OutStage evening for Peter Shaffer’s “Equus,” making it necessary to move the postshow reception from the second floor to the lobby.

Eager to build on the success of last season’s OutStage, PBD hopes to engage greater female participation this coming season, which begins with “Indecent,” Paula Vogel’s Tony Award-winning play about two women who fall in love.

“That was the play ‘God of Vengeance,’ but this play is almost double-focused in that it’s about the original performers performing the play in English on stage and then being arrested because two women kissed on stage doing this play,” Cadwallader said.

Ever the multitaskers, while OutStage was being developed, PBD was also engaged in cultivating a relationship and creating a project with Compass Community Center, in Lake Worth.

“When I moved down here I wanted to go meet with them and learn what they are doing,” said Cadwallader, who raves about the warm welcome he received from Julia Murphy, chief development officer, and Adrienne Percival, development coordinator in the Outreach and Development Department.

Impressed with the center’s extensive Youth Program, Cadwallader suggested they work together on what would become “The Legacy Project.” “It’s a unique opportunity for two nonprofits to work together,” said Hayes.

Participants in the Youth Program would interview elders who have fought the fight for equality over the past four to five decades.

“Not only do we build bridges between the generations, but they learn something about where they’ve come from,” Cadwallader said. Among those interviewed is Ruth Berman, whose partner, Connie Kurtz died on May 27, 2018, at age 81. Suing the New York City School District over partner benefits in the 1980s, one of many LGBT issues they championed, will now be seen through fresh eyes.

Developed over the past year, the interviewing process began in June with 15 to 20 participants helping to prepare questions, practicing their interview skills on fellow Compass staff and filming, and ultimately generating a digital presentation to archive. In what’s expected to become an annual journey, the first edition of the storytelling project will be presented to the community on October 30, at PBD’s main stage, when the students share their perspective.

Cadwallader’s enthusiasm for the camaraderie between PBD and Compass is immediately evident. “They are building a safe space for young people to be able to talk, to be themselves without any judgment,” he said, praising Amanda Canete, youth service director, and Sabrine Pearson, then transgender youth program coordinator.

The latest challenge for PBD is one shared by other theaters and performing arts venues: the arts in Florida are at risk. “Five years ago, I got a $500,000 facility grant and a $150,000 operating grant, and next year I’m getting $9,000 total from the State of Florida,” Hayes said. Because it has monies in reserve from years of operating in the black, PBD will remain open at its current location on Clematis Street, but concerns linger.

“We have to tighten our belts due to the funding cuts, but we are relying on our donors and friends to ensure that the OutStage programming not only thrives but grows,” Cadwallader said.


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