Nancy Howell is standing at the far end of the Flagler Playhouse’s theater opposite the stage behind the rows of seats—not pews anymore, as in the days of relic, but actual theater seats. The house lights are down. Only a lit Christmas tree glitters the darkness from center stage, enough to light up Howell’s face, though it may also be the memories bringing color to her reflections, or the party just getting under way a few dozen feet away in the theater’s latest addition—a 2,000 square foot lobby with atrium, wine bar, room for a couple of hundred elbows and its own performance space that gives the Playhouse the feel of a more urban, or at least urbane, theater.
Flagler County’s longest-running community theater keeps growing: Thursday it celebrated the official opening of its latest phased enhancement, a $500,000 addition, half of it paid for with a state cultural grant, the sort of addition that’ll give patrons a chance to chill, drink and snack before a show and do a bit more of that at intermission, or drop by even when there’s no play or musical, to catch a sideshow of sorts: the place is big enough but intimate enough for smaller recitals, for a little dancing or for cocktail parties, for lectures or for simpler gatherings. Who knows. Theater spaces are, to bowdlerize Pirandello, always spaces in search of creative uses. The Playhouse hasn’t lacked for creativity.
And Howell has witnessed its evolution longer than anyone still there.
“I was part of this organization before it was Flagler Playhouse, when it was still Little Theater of Palm Coast,” Howell said. That was around 2002 or 2003. She’s been a member of its board of directors—still is—a member of its many casts, and she is its resident historian.
“Early on it was pretty much a club, and they got papers from the state and all that stuff, but they probably didn’t do more than one, maybe two shows a year,” Howell said of the early days three and a half decades ago in Palm Coast, before the 2006 acquisition of the big block and church in Bunnell. “We didn’t begin a full season of shows until John did take over.”
That’s the mercurial John Sbordone, who led the Playhouse for many years until he went his own way and started City Repertory Theatre in Palm Coast in 2011. “We’ve had full seasons ever since then. There was a time when we didn’t know if we were going to succeed, when everything hit the fan. But we did, and we’ve grown tremendously. Tremendously. Pat Love brought us around, Michele [O’Neill] served as president at one point, now Monica. We’ve held things together and prospered.”
Monica Clark is herself all aglow, though she’s standing in the middle of the new space, bright-lit from above and from the still-sun-shadowed atrium past the bay windows. “I don’t know if you recall the old building,” she says of the older entrance, still there but condemned to be an exist only: it used to be cramp city. Rustic, Greenwich Village-like, but only if you’re referring to the IRT line below ground. “We had a very small entrance. Now people can come in a little early, hopefully, get a beverage and a snack and sit and relax until it’s show time. Then of course we are imagining all the options we’ll have with this space, doing maybe even dinner theater or little shows.”
The Playhouse board bought its Bunnell location in 2006, just before the housing crash, for $865,000, from what at the time was the First Baptist Church of Bunnell. It wasn’t just the church but the entire block, which provided room for a lot of growth. The first show there was “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” There’s been too many to list since, the first third under Sbordone’s direction, twice that number since under the direction of various hands, and for the past couple of years under the artistic direction of Viv Stuart.
“We kind of need to have a name, something people recognize or are intrigued by,” Stuart says. “That’s kind of the philosophy. Some theaters put on unknown shows because they’re much cheaper to do because of the royalties aspect. We kind of thought on our board that was choosing this particular season that we kind of had to grit our teeth, take the chance and do some big names like ‘Evita.’ that was our opening show this season.” The closing show is the equally name-brand-type “South Pacific.”
Evita sold out. “You’ve got to be careful that you don’t overextend yourself because we’re not for profit and money is always an issue, but we sold a lot of season tickets on the strength of the shows we chose,” Stuart said. (Royalties are the single most expensive budget line for theater troupes, particularly when it comes to musicals.)
There’s another reason theater productions choose plays that don’t necessarily have the cachet of “Evita”-like blockbusters, and that’s relevance or daring—or the self-evidence that there’d be no need for two theater companies in the same market to provide the same kind of predictable and well-worn shows year after year, particularly when the Flagler Auditorium does an admirable job of that. In that sense the Flagler Playhouse provides its own form of unexpected, always-changing entertainment with every new season, almost never repeating the same show, as does City Repertory Theatre, the Sbordone company, which makes a point of going where no local theater dares to go. Plays that explore sexual politics or the country’s racially-charged landscape, commonplace at CRT, are unthinkable at the Playhouse, let alone at the Auditorium, the G-rating’s safest space for a hundred miles around. But the mix seems to be to theater-goers’ benefit.
Wednesday’s ribbon-cutting at the Playhouse marked the completion of the second of three development phases. The first a few years ago added a workroom where sets could be built and wings to allow set pieces to be rolled onto the stage. Phase two is the new physical addition. Phase three will, bring new dressing rooms and an additional wing to the stage for even better maneuverability. “The beauty of the whole thing,” Clark said, “all of this entire block was purchased outright, so we don’t have a mortgage or those kinds of things, so everything we take in, beside what we need to run the place, we can put toward improvements.”
Howell looked back on the past years with a mixture of great satisfaction and nostalgia. “You get involved in this organization at that level and it kind of takes over your life,” she said. “My husband will be here later on. We’re celebrating our 49th anniversary today and I said you see where we are, honey? We’re coming to the Playhouse, and you’ll eat whatever we’re eating here. But anyway, it does, and it’s sometimes very hard to put stuff in perspective. But we’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve had people to step in, like Viv Stuart and her husband Brian, amazing, Larry Williams,” who has a special skill in grant writing, “amazing people have stepped in. I don’t know how we’d have made it through the last couple of years without people who have a great love for theater and want to see it work. We all have our little egos we have to get over every once in a while, but we do, and I think that’s the thing about this Playhouse.”
Howell, who has a master’s in theater, has been on stage many times herself. Her experience speaks for that of others who get to exercise their talents on a community stage. “Theatrically, it’s given me an outlet for all the things I wanted to do forever and couldn’t do because I was a wife and a mother and a schoolteacher,” she said, “but then after I retired, I had time to devote to stuff like this. I wanted to do it younger, I got my Master’s in theater, but that was an ‘I couldn’t see devoting my life,’ which is what you have to do if you want to do it full time. Then it’s your life. I wasn’t ready to do that. But this has given me as close as I’m ever going to come to getting a chance to play some roles I always wanted to play.”
She was Golda in “Fiddler on the Roof,” she was Ethel Thayer, the role of the wife Katharine Hepburn won an Oscar for in “On Golden Pond,” opposite Henry Fonda, she was the reverend mother in “Agnes of God” and in “Sound of Music,” she was Fraulein Schneider in “Cabaret.”
“But you know,” Howell says with a big sigh, “now you get a little bit older, there aren’t that many old ladies roles, but…”
But. Wednesday was not a day of impossibilities at the Playhouse. Quite the contrary. The dimmer lights around Howell were merely an illusion, a theatrical necessity. The party nearby was just getting started.
Note: The Flagler Playhouse is marking the Christmas season with a special show, “Every Christmas Story Ever Told, and Then Some,” a Flagler Playhouse fundraiser, starring Playhouse favorites Bruce Popielarski and Rich Lacey and newcomer Steve Andrews. The show is about three actors who decide to perform a mash-up of every Christmas story ever told – plus Christmas traditions from around the world, seasonal icons from ancient times to topical pop-culture, and every Christmas carol ever sung. Their hilarious antics will get you in the Christmas spirit, AND you’ll be helping us to provide quality theatrical entertainment at Flagler’s own Community Theatre. Friday Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday Dec. 2 at 7:30 p.m., Sunday Dec. 3 at 2 p.m., Friday Dec. 8 at 7:30 p.m., Saturday Dec. 9 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25. Book online at FlaglerPlayhouse.com, or call the box office at 386-586-0773.