Ask Artistic Director William Hayes how he and Palm Beach Dramaworks have dealt with the challenges of a year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and he’ll tell you how it’s opened his eyes to new and exciting possibilities for his theater and its audiences.
“We’ve found opportunities to be innovative,” he said. “It’s not all gloom and doom here. We have an opportunity to be innovative. Theatre has survived hundreds of years of pandemics. Theatre is always going to survive.”
Mr. Hayes, who is PBD’s producing artistic director, conceded 2020 was quite the rollercoaster ride.
“Of course, everybody went through that,” he said. “But I think there’s a lot of personal growth that has come from living in a pandemic. When you’re forced to live a closed-in life, you become more in touch with your emotions and processing them in a more meaningful way.”
For him, that meant spending more time outdoors walking, biking, hiking, and taking in nature, taking the time to notice beauty in the world.
“I found I had taken a lot of things for granted, such as having lunch with a friend or hugging somebody I know,” Mr. Hayes said. “Or how much it means to me to be with my patrons every night at the theater and how much I missed that. I know now I’ll never miss a performance again or take a friendship for granted.”
Shutting the theater’s doors for a year wasn’t as painful fiscally, he added because, in Palm Beach Dramaworks’ 20-year history, the organization has continuously operated in the black.
“We had several million dollars in reserve, thanks to accumulating a surplus each year,” Mr. Hayes said. “We also applied to the Small Business Association’s Shuttered Venue Operators Grant Program, which should yield us $700,000-$800,000 eventually, but that hasn’t come through yet. And we did get nearly $300,000 in the initial Paycheck Protection Program, which enabled us to retain our staff for an additional three months. Eventually, however, we were forced to lay off about 80 percent of them when we realized we weren’t going to be open for the entire season. I retained those I felt had multiple skillsets which could do anything I needed them to do. It’ll probably take me about a year to hire everyone back.”
He added rather than appeal to subscribers and the general public for donations to support the theater during the COVID crisis; he opted instead to find ways to be there for them.
“Our position was we are a strong organization, so we will show, through this pandemic, that we will offer free theater,” he said. “We offered free weekly programming of play readings, discussions, and interviews. It was our way of providing transparency and reminding the community we are alive and well. And all through the pandemic, without us even asking for money, people were donating. I think that’s because people donate to strength. They don’t want to feel as if they’re bailing somebody out. They want to know their money is serving as an investment.”
Providing online programming turned out to be something of a wake-up call, he added, forcing him to realize it’s something he should have been offering before the pandemic.
“The world has moved toward computers and technology and social media,” Mr. Hayes said. “We found there’s a whole new market online we hadn’t tapped into. The play readings we’ve done online not only reach people across the country, but we also had people overseas participating in them. In many of our readings, we’d see over 500 devices listening in. I can’t fit that many people into our theater. So I’ve decided even after we reopen our doors, we’ll maintain a strong online presence with play readings, classes, and workshops.”
Mr. Hayes also discovered the benefits of filming a production, as he did with his recent, highly successful mounting of “The Belle of Amherst,” starring Margery Lowe, which PBD streamed online for $30.
Still of the Belle of Amherst at Palm Beach Dramaworks
“A film production of a stage production is not necessarily the best choice, but it’s a good second alternative if you don’t live near the theater or can’t get to the theater,” he said. “And that is not only another revenue opportunity; it’s an opportunity to expose more people to your product. So it’s my hope moving forward that when I do productions live, there will also be another period — whether it’s just after the show closes or a month later — when I’m streaming that production, so other people have an opportunity to see it. The more people we expose to our theater, in any way, shape, or form, the more people will want to be in the building live.”
Another byproduct of the pandemic was the solidarity gained with other regional theaters, both locally and around the country.
“There’s no longer the attitude that other theaters are our competitors,” Mr. Hayes said. “We’ve come to see each other as partners, as collaborators. The feeling now is we’re all on the same team, and we need to help each other. We’re on weekly calls with colleagues, statewide and nationwide, sharing ideas and concerns. There’s been a real shift from being standoffish and competitive to becoming friends. Through that, we’ll now see more partnerships and co-productions. The industry is going to be stronger because the attitude now is we’re all in this together.”
Mr. Hayes sees the light at the end of the tunnel. He has announced his 2021-2022 season to begin in the fall. He said he’s veering away from the season he initially planned in favor of quality shows that will be easier to mount with the limited resources and personnel at his disposal.
“I’ve also got a lot of local actors who have been out of work,” he said. “And I want to do shows I know I can cast locally. In the past, about 50-60 percent of my casting has been local actors. Now I’m trying to be more conscious, coming out of the pandemic, to take care of the actors in my community. But I’m not more likely to cast non-union actors. My loyalty is to the union actors who have helped build my organization.”
The first show, “Almost, Maine,” opens October 15 and tells the story — through nine vignettes — of the love lives of the denizens in the fictional town of Almost, Maine. “The People Downstairs” will open on December 10 and explores the challenges faced by the people who hid, fed, and kept Anne Frank and her family informed during the horrors of the Holocaust. “Trying” opens February 4 and is based on the true story of a young woman who goes to work as a secretary for the frail, sometimes befuddled, always irascible 81-year-old former U.S. Attorney General Francis Biddle. “Intimate Apparel” follows on April 1, focusing on Esther, a 35-year-old African-American seamstress of exquisite intimate apparel. She aches to love and be loved and enters into a correspondence with a man she’s never met. The season closes on May 27 with the world premiere of a yet-to-be-announced production. Mr. Hayes said the theater would institute certain restrictions to assure everyone’s health and safety.
“I’ve been vaccinated, of course, and I’ll require that masks be worn in the theater,” he said. “I may also require that temperatures be taken. But we will not see the social distance in the theater because I couldn’t have a profitable situation if we did. However, we are putting $1 million into a new air conditioning system that is state of the art to purify and sanitize the air to current codes and the highest standards to make our patrons safe. We’ll also be sanitizing the theater chairs and bathrooms in between performances and will institute a touch-free experience in terms of ticketing.”