The current pandemic may have thrown up a lot of roadblocks and obstacles for theater, but “This is not a time to roll over and play dead and give in,” declares Dramaworks Producing Artistic Director William Hayes.
“You have to view this as a time to be innovative and think outside the box and know what the challenges are. And then determine ways that you not only survive, but come out thriving. “The industry needed a bit of a shakeup to look at how we’re doing things and how to improve what we’re doing.” He’s long felt stage productions should be filmed and made available not only around the country, but internationally.
Others in the field disagree, fearful that will dissuade people from attending theater in-person. Mr. Hayes gives the example of the push in the 1960s to broadcast sports games; owners fought against it, fearing it would mean fewer people attending live games. But once games began being broadcast on television, the reverse happened: More people began flocking to the stadiums.
“Attendance skyrocketed,” he says. “It was because they were exposing more people to it.
“And the same logic applies to the arts. The more people you expose to the arts, the more interest there’s going to be in it. It’s really quite simple. Not everyone has the luxury to participate in the live venue.”
Palm Beach Dramaworks was on the verge of staging “A Light in the Piazza” when it had to shut down in March 2020.
Mr. Hayes was determined to discover options.
His theater began holding play readings on Zoom.
Now he will finally realize his wish to stream a play. “The Belle of Amherst,” a one-woman play by William Luce, about the life and poetry of Emily Dickinson, will stream April 2-6. The play, a coproduction with Actors’ Playhouse in Miami, is a fundraising event for both theaters.
When the pandemic hit, artistic directors in the county, then the state, then around the country, began communicating with each other.
“As a matter of fact, we now talk to our colleagues statewide on a biweekly basis,” Mr. Hayes says. “There’s been a coming together, there’s no more viewing each other as competitors but as collaborators. That’s one of the reasons I pushed to make this a co-production with a Miami-based theater, Actors’ Playhouse. We’ve known each other for years. We do not share an audience. We can share all the expenses.”
And, he says, “It sends the right message to the community about the theater industry becoming a theater community. That’s an important message.
“I bet we will come out thriving if we view everything we do as collaborators and do everything we can do to come together.”
The one-woman play stars Margery Lowe, who is “ideal for the role and is local, someone who is familiar to my audience.”
Having worked together on previous plays, the director and actor also share a creative shorthand together.
“We’re great artistic collaborators,” Mr. Hayes says.
“Margery’s a highly intellectual actor. She understands the poetry of Dickinson. She’s so involved in the poetry, she’s on the verge of being a Dickinson scholar! She puts as much work into her preparation as a director does. And in some cases, she knows more than the director does. She’s one of the smartest actors I know.”
Emily Dickinson is relevant for our times. She knows what it’s like to live in isolation; the 19th century New England poet is almost as well-known for being a recluse as for her skill with words.
“Here we are, living in an isolated world, and here is a woman who lives in isolation,” he says. “However, it is my belief that she did not shut herself in because she was shy and scared of the world; I think she made a choice.
“I think she was a strong, intelligent woman with an odd sense of humor, highly intellectual and cunning and passionate and even a very highly sexually charged woman. She just chose to live in seclusion and be an observer of the world.
“In some ways, we can relate. If you live in isolation, you become more in touch with your own emotions and more … in tune with the beauty of the world and your own internal passions.”
Mr. Hayes points out that Emily Dickinson also has been enjoying a recent rise in popularity.
In addition to the biopics “A Quiet Passion” and “Wild Nights With Emily,” there’s “Dickinson,” a series on Apple +.
And previously, composers such as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Judith Weir, among others, have set her poems to music. Jazz saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom released “Wild Lines: Improving Emily Dickinson” in 2017, a double album of compositions inspired by Emily Dickinson.
It is very cumbersome and challenging to film a play during the pandemic.
“Cumbersome is an understatement,” Mr. Hayes says, noting that it took eight months to come to an agreement with the actors’ union, Actors Equity.
He’s spent $10,000 for the filming of “The Belle of Amherst,” working with Ko-mar Productions in West Palm Beach.
“This is my first experiment to film it and do it right,” he says.
When people see the finished product, he wants it to be similar to things broadcast on PBS, such as “Masterpiece Theater.”
“You only get one chance to make a first impression,” he says, adding that Wall Street Journal theater critic Terry Teachout will be reviewing the play.
The theater also is spending $300,000 on a new air system and air filters.
“Even with the vaccine, I think there’s going to be a certain percentage of our audience not returning,” Mr. Hayes says. “It’s going to take more time for make them comfortable to come back.”
The alternative, he says, is a second kind of subscription package. He foresees people purchasing in-theater packages or stay-at-home packages.
He also envisions a time in the future where more productions will be regularly filmed and then offered on a national theater network on pay-per-view.
“Why are we doing all these beautiful productions and not preserving it on record?” he asks.
“We’ve been trying to be innovative. We started a new market online and expanded our audience throughout the country and even overseas.”
When the pandemic began, “We immediately decided Dramaworks would be very aggressive with its works on Zoom, to keep our face out to the community, to be there for our patrons,” Mr. Hayes says. “It’s important to be out in the community, to show that you’re a strong organization and you’re here to stay.”
In some ways, with the Zoom readings, he was able to reach more people, with up to 500 households watching.
“It’s not going to replace live theater, but is another way to connect with people, to build your audience. As depressing as it’s all been — we haven’t had any revenue for a year — we’ve been trying to be very innovative in improving what we do, finding ways to enhance where we can, to build a different type of audience. Not only do I have my regular patrons, but we’ll continue to have online programming and have it evolve. You reach more people that way.”
He hopes to continue and grow in filming productions and have that become another revenue source down the road.
“As challenging as this has been,” Mr. Hayes says, “I think we’re going to come out a stronger industry.” ¦