Dramaworks wants a bigger venue for enhanced productions
Two cities are trying to find a permanent home for the Palm Beach Dramaworks Studio Theatre, a nonprofit, professional theater company that in seven years has outgrown its digs in downtown West Palm Beach. While West Palm Beach has been helping the theater company for several years, Palm Beach Gardens now has expressed interest too. Both want the company, which performs challenging, seldom-produced works by acclaimed playwrights, in its backyard. Palm Beach Dramaworks presents five plays a year, from November to June, with works ranging from Edward Albee to Terrance McNally, and has extended the dates of all their shows this season to accommodate overflow audiences. The theater, at 322 Banyan Blvd., has 84 seats and 1,800 annual season subscribers. The number of subscribers has mushroomed every year, according to company officials, with some patrons subscribing just to make sure they get a seat. "We are sold out for every show," said Sue Ellen Beryl, a founder and managing director of the company. "We can make it here another year, but we're turning people away and that's bad business." Its location also doesn't allow for weekday matinees because downtown parking is limited, Beryl said. A larger theater would allow them to produce technically enhanced shows and broaden the shows they can offer. In 2005 the company was set to move to Opera Place, a $225 million, luxury residential project with shops across from CityPlace and the nearby Kravis Center for the Performing Arts. The West Palm Beach Downtown Development Authority, a special taxing district responsible for improving the downtown area, brokered a deal with Opera Place's developer to give the theater company the space free. Palm Beach Dramaworks would have had to raise about $3 million to build a 240-seat theater and run it. The company developed a fundraising campaign for the venture and was ready to launch, but last year the developer sold Opera Place, leaving Palm Beach Dramaworks empty-handed. The DDA, which has worked with the theater company since it was established, said it is committed to finding another location. "We adore them. They are our downtown gem," said Melissa Wohlust, executive director of the DDA. "They are our top priority, but right now there are not a lot of readily available properties that would meet their needs." Wohlust said they are looking into three possible options for the theater company. Meanwhile, leaders in Palm Beach Gardens are searching too. "One of the things I'm trying to do here in [the city] is expand cultural events," said Palm Beach Gardens Councilman Eric Jablin. "They're a terrific little theater doing terrific work and I'd love to find them a home in Palm Beach Gardens." More than half of the Palm Beach Dramaworks subscribers are from Palm Beach Gardens, Beryl said. She said she is confident audiences will follow them wherever they land. "We go to all the plays at all the theaters and Palm Beach Dramaworks is our favorite," said Jan Winkler, of Palm Beach Gardens, who has been a season subscriber with his wife since 2001. "Their plays are sophisticated, and the quality of their work and their actors is very high. When you walk out of there, you feel like you've seen something of substance." This year Palm Beach Dramaworks has been nominated for seven Carbonell Awards, the highest honor given to South Florida theater. Over the years, it has won six. Beryl said within the next two years the theater hopes to purchase a building it can renovate and operate for a few million dollars with sponsorship from the community. They are hesitant to join a residential or retail project like Opera Place again because "we don't want to be at the mercy of the developers," Beryl said. Known for being financially responsible, the theater company claims to have been in the black since its second year, a rare feat for a fledgling theater. Its annual budget is $750,000. The company is supported through state and private grants and money from the Palm Beach County Cultural Council, which gave it $30,000 last year. Still, no matter what its size or where it moves, the company won't change its artistic offerings, company officials said. "We produce thought-provoking pieces that aren't regularly produced or are under-appreciated," Beryl said. "We won't stage Fiddler on the Roof just to fill seats."