By April W. Klimley
It’s been two months since the Boynton Beach Playhouse moved from the Madsen Center, its home for six years. Despite seasons of sold-out performances and robust community applause, the playhouse has yet to find new digs.
The Madsen Center is one of the city-owned buildings being demolished to make way for Town Square, a 16-acre project that will include, among other things, a combined City Hall and library building, a parking garage, the historic high school and the Schoolhouse Children’s Museum.
But will the move from Madsen mean curtains for the playhouse?
“If someone doesn’t step up, we won’t be around any longer,” said Peter Pagliaro, who founded the theater company 26 years ago in West Palm Beach.
At first, it was called “Stage Left Theatre.” The name change came a few years ago when those in charge thought it had found a permanent home in Boynton Beach.
Today, Pagliaro is sorely disappointed. He says the theater company left West Palm Beach on the promise that Boynton Beach would give it a place in the new development “that was supposed to be like CityPlace” after tearing down its whole three-block center city. That hasn’t happened.
“Peter was surprised by the lack of support,” says Bob Geller, an actor who was in Murder at the Howard Johnson’s, the theater company’s last show in March. “Peter spoke to government [officials], but the interest level just didn’t seem to be there.”
Pagliaro echoes that sentiment.
“We went in front of the City Commission,” he said. “They had no idea what it meant to have a performing arts theater. We are a draw for the restaurants and other businesses.”
But a lack of appreciation of the arts is not the only issue. The real causes of the theater’s homelessness may center on requirements — and the theater’s financial model.
The playhouse needs about 3,000 square feet to function, and it keeps its sets up for the entire run of a show, usually several weeks. This set requirement just couldn’t be accommodated by a number of potential venues.
The old high school, which is being renovated and will be part of the new Town Square, will be used for classes and entertainment, and perhaps eventually functions connected to the hotel that the city hopes will be built downtown.
“City buildings are multipurpose buildings,” said Colin Groff, assistant city manager in Boynton Beach. Groff was the main negotiator in the theater’s search for a new home. However, discussions with the Woman’s Club also crumbled because of the duration of weeks that the company needed to keep up its sets.
The second factor is finances. The playhouse was paying $1 a year for the Madsen Center and is now looking for another venue with only nominal rent. The virtue of this model was that it kept ticket prices low — about half that of other community theaters, where tickets start at $40, while Equity theaters such as The Wick in Boca Raton charge $75 per ticket or more.
“Our mission is keeping our shows affordable for all,” said Pagliaro. “Our tickets run from $18 to $25 a show, so everyone can attend our shows.” All actors volunteer their time.
In addition to its five-month “season,” the playhouse has traditionally produced a children’s theater performance in the summer, which adults could attend for free, while kids paid only $3.
But the city’s focus is elsewhere. “The city needs tax revenue,” said actor Geller, who is an accountant by day. And the developers participating in Boynton Beach’s redevelopment focus on every penny and their immediate return on investment.
Profits have never been a goal of the playhouse financial model, nor has it attracted a large amount of government arts financing.
The playhouse did apply for grant money, according to Pagliaro, when it saw this situation developing. “But to get it you have a lot of cash on hand, and the playhouse didn’t have that,” he said. “Sad to think that way; we’ve operated for 26 years without that.”
The playhouse may also be suffering from lack of visibility among wealthy patrons, even though its patrons have come from around the county. “When you look at the demographics, a large portion of the audience has been retirees on a fixed income,” Groff said. “So Peter has been caught between a rock and a hard place.”
Finally, there is the Boynton Beach real estate boom. It has benefited the city but perhaps negatively impacted the playhouse, Groff says. Many older buildings that might have been available for a nominal fee have been demolished to make way for new residential or multiuse complexes such as Villages at East Ocean, Ocean One, 500 Ocean and Riverwalk Plaza.
“We would love to have a theater in Boynton Beach,” Groff said. “But to keep it affordable, they can’t afford market rates."
"So we will keep looking," Pagliaro said. "We just haven’t found anything yet."