Photo: Thomas Winter
Acting out: Sue Ellen Beryl operates successful theater group
Starting in rented space, Sue Ellen Beryl has operated as succesful theater group for nearly 20 years..
At age 13, Sue Ellen Beryl acted in a national touring production of Fiddler on the Roof. In the musical, the fiddler symbolizes survival amid uncertainty — a fitting metaphor for a woman who has worked for 18 years to build serious theater in West Palm Beach as managing director of Palm Beach Dramaworks.
By any measure, she and her husband and partner, producing artistic director Bill Hayes, have succeeded with their not-for-profit theater company. New Jersey-raised and Manhattan-educated, Beryl relocated to Florida in 1987. She met Hayes, who later came to her with the idea of starting a theater company. “I told him he was crazy,” she says.
Starting in rented space at Palm Beach Atlantic University, the couple moved the company to an 800-sq.-ft. space on Clematis Street downtown, then worked their way up to owning a 218-seat theater on Clematis. As Clematis Street waxed and waned through the years, Palm Beach Dramaworks has remained an anchor, drawing people to the street and its restaurants and bars. “We often feel like we’re still five years too early. But we’ve been five years too early for 18 years,” Beryl says.
The company has run in the black from inception and grown from 27 performances its first year to 162 last season and a $3-million budget, half from donations and grants and half from ticket sales. Its subscriber base numbers 3,100. The full- and part-time staff numbers 36, with another 100 artists — actors, designers and others — during the season.
Artistically, it forged a niche in heavy drama — Miller, O’Neill, Sartre — and has won critical acclaim nationally. “It chose us,” Beryl says. “During our second season we did two one-act plays by Edward Albee. That is the kind of thing that put us on the map. They were selling out, and we had to add and add and add performances Our tag line is ‘theater to think about.’ When people come to us they know they’re going to be faced with social issues and important subject matter and they’re going to be impacted,” she says.
The company more recently has become known for premiering original works.
As in a lot of the arts, the company’s challenge has been to draw audiences beyond the gray-hair demographic. It’s run a “pay your age” promotion to draw younger people. “What I’m hearing is that especially younger people really want an experience. You can’t describe what a communal experience a live theatrical setting is,” she says.
Beryl hasn’t appeared in an onstage role since taking one or two parts in the company’s early years. “I have found my role as managing director to be very fulfilling and more satisfying than anything I did on stage,” Beryl says.
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