When the Flagler Playhouse opens its doors today to debut its new venture, the Flagler Theatre Workshop, its production of Jane Martin’s “Talking With . . .” will feature something just as significant as the physical distancing protocols in place during this era of Covid-conscious productions.
New playhouse artistic director Paul Prece confesses, and not surprisingly, that Martin’s all-female drama and James Lecesne’s “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” which the workshop will stage June 11-20, “were chosen specifically because they have a lot of monologue work in them” – thus facilitating physical distancing among the mask-less actors onstage inside the playhouse venue in Bunnell.
“I didn’t want to do anything outside, and I didn’t want to do anything with masks on actors’ faces unless it was a Greek tragedy or something,” Prece deadpans.
The Flagler Playhouse will open its proper season – however proper Covid will allow — in September with a staging of Neil Simon’s “Rumors.” The workshop productions, which will be the nonprofit community theater’s first shows since going Covid dark in spring 2020, will live up to the stripped-down nature of the workshop credo. However, both workshop plays feature an element that Prece sees not as a bonus but as an important requirement, despite that 800-pound gorilla known as Covid sitting wherever it wants. That element: Both plays tell good stories, Prece says.
“For the workshop, it isn’t the set we are selling,” says Prece, a retired university theater professor who moved to Ormond Beach from Kansas in 2019, and whose credits include several in-person meetings with the South African playwright Athol Fugard and the late African-American playwright August Wilson, two giants of contemporary drama. “It isn’t the costumes necessarily that we are selling. It isn’t the effects that we are selling. We are selling the story. Theater is really about storytelling. We’ve moved away from that, especially with all the technical stuff that’s been added.”
“Talking With . . .” the 1982 play by Martin (a pseudonym), includes a female cast portraying different characters – including a baton twirler, a former rodeo rider, an auditioning actress and a McDonald’s-worshipping homeless woman — who each bare their souls in 10-minute monologues. As a heed to Covid precautions, the playhouse decided its summer workshop productions will not have intermissions, thus eliminating patron mingling. And so Prece received permission from the play’s licensers to cut it from its original 10 characters down to the six he deemed the “most vital,” thus making the play’s length conducive to a production without an intermission.
“The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey,” Lecesne’s 2015 play, is a mystery in which a detective investigates the disappearance of a flamboyant 14-year-old boy. The drama typically calls for one actor to play all the roles, which Lecesne himself did in the original production. Prece toyed with the idea of performing the play but, spurred by the number of auditioners, he decided to cast separate actors for each of the eight roles.
Some theater-goers may squirm at the idea of a community theater director monkeying with a playwright’s original work, but Prece, who was scheduled to make his Flagler Playhouse debut in spring 2020 before Covid shutdown his already-cast production of “Guys and Dolls,” has amassed a striking curriculum vitae.
Originally from “outside of Boston,” he earned a BA in speech education from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., an MFA in Theater — Directing and Performance from Florida State, and a Ph.D. from the University of Kansas in Theory and Criticism and African and African-American Drama.
Inspired by the work of Edward Said, a Palestinian-American, Columbia University literature professor and a founder of postcolonial studies, Prece’s 2008 doctoral dissertation was titled “Writing Home: The Post Colonial Dialogue of Athol Fugard and August Wilson.”
“I was writing a book about them so I had to pursue them,” he says of his dissertation. Prece directed two Wilson plays and three Fugard plays before ever meeting either playwright.
Prior to his academic career, Prece worked as a director, actor, stage manager and tour manager for professional, dinner, summer stock, repertory and children’s theater companies in numerous locales throughout the United States.
Prece is well aware that the stories of the two Flagler Theatre Workshop productions are likely off the radar of most theater patrons.
“It seemed to me instead of saying ‘Covid, covid, look what it’s done, it’s destroyed us’ and all that stuff, I said, ‘Well, we need to look at it as an opportunity,” Prece says. “I truly believe that if you tell a good story, people are going to listen. “We sort of cut things down to their essentials, but there’s nothing that’s missing from these two plays. They may be simplified or simply done, but it’s also going back to the beginning of why theater exists, which is the center is the story. It’s not the effects and all that.”
Also, Prece adds, there indeed “are people who like different things on the menu rather than the same thing that they always order. The bottom line is, you want people to come here because they know it will be well done, that this hour and a half we are asking of them will be worth their time. And discovering new things is good, whether you are 75 or 35.”
The normal 150-seat capacity of the playhouse will be limited to 50 seats for each workshop performance, says Jerri Berry, a fourth-grade special education teacher at Bunnell Elementary who became playhouse president last July. Berry also stars as the former rodeo rider in “Talking With . . .”
Audience members will be physically distanced and required to wear masks. There will be no intermission and concessions will not be sold.
Due to the nature of each play, only one actor will be on stage at a time, and only one person will be handling technical duties in the booth, Prece said.
While theaters from Broadway to local troupes have been hit hard financially by the pandemic lockdown and the slow creep back toward some semblance of normal, Berry says the current financial status of the Flagler Playhouse is “OK.”
Founded in 1978, the playhouse entered its 2019-2020 season with $100,000 “in working capital” due to a banner 2018-2019 season, said then-Flagler Playhouse president Monica Clark in a June 2019 FlaglerLive article. While the playhouse has received grants from the Florida Department of State’s Division of Cultural Affairs in some previous years, “the bulk” of its annual operating budget “is ticket sales,” Clark said then. “We usually don’t keep $100,000 in the operating budget but we have it now,” she said prior to the theater’s fall 2019 opening.
“We own the building,” Berry says of the playhouse’s venue — the converted former First Baptist Church at 301 E. Moody Blvd. in Bunnell, which has been the theater’s home since 2005. The building even generated $7,100 in rental income last year. But Prece and Berry were cagey about other organization financials.
The Playhouse’s 2020 tax filings show that it started 2020 with assets of $1.4 million, slightly up from the previous year, though its revenue had fallen to $129,000 in 2019-20, compared to $187,000 the previous year. Still, it managed to come out almost $31,000 ahead in 2019-20 after expenses, and in June 2020 had $243,000 on hand in cash and savings. Its board members, including Berry, are not paid.
“So, while we are not earning anything, we have been able to stay open and not – I don’t want to say not worry because you always worry – but maybe we are in a good spot because we can still hold to our plans of opening when we want to open and how we think we should open, and not have to feel like we have to go out into other places.
“Of course, we are a nonprofit. We have very limited income, if any, coming in,” she continued “and it’s been by a few gracious donations here and there, and also I have to say a lot of our season ticket holders. We had to cancel a show in mid-run because of the Covid shutdown (in spring 2020). We totally got rid of ‘Guys and Dolls,’ which was our big musical finale at the end of last season.
“So, very generous season-ticket holders donated their tickets for those particular shows that were canceled. And for that we are very grateful, because we do have a pretty stable base of patrons, and we’re hoping that stable base continues.”
Ticket income amounted to $117,000 in the year ending in June 2020. But while the Playhouse had secured gifts and grants totaling $107,000 in 2016 and $75,600 in 2017, those totals fell to below $10,000 for 2018 and 2019 combined.
Berry notes the two workshop productions, because they are shorter and there will be no intermissions, will have a reduced ticket price of $15, compared to the ticket prices for full-scale productions in a normal season. Also, season tickets will not be sold for the 2021-2022 season, she says, noting that the capacity for each production during the coming year may fluctuate depending on pandemic conditions.
The Flagler Playhouse will stage “Talking With . . .” at 7:30 p.m. May 7-8 and 13-15, and 2 p.m. May 9 and 16. “The Absolute Brightness of Leonard Pelkey” will be staged at 7:30 p.m. June 11-12 and 17-19, and 2 p.m. June 13 and 20. Performances will be at the playhouse venue at 301 E. Moody Blvd., Bunnell. Tickets are $15, available at flaglerplayhouse.com. Information: 386-586-0773. Patrons are required to wear masks. Patrons may purchase as many seats together as desired, but there will be a minimum of two seats between orders, and seating will be available only in every other row.