Bill Hayes and Sue Ellen Beryl share lots of things. The married couple, who founded Palm Beach Dramaworks in 2000, share a common leadership philosophy and a similar artistic aesthetic. The duo also shares an office. Hayes is artistic director and Beryl is managing director, and they credit their ability to both communicate and segregate duties as the reason the theatre has operated in the black for 18 seasons.
Bill and Sue Ellen met as many theatre couples do—while working together on a community theatre production. Hayes was a businessman and had moved to Florida for an executive job in the retail industry. Sue Ellen was an accountant. Both moonlighted as performers.
When they met they were divorced and separated from previous spouses, and their relationship ushered in a new chapter for them both. “We were friends for several months, and it was just natural,” recalls Hayes.
Both had small children, so their “dates” were usually trips to Home Depot or other errands with kids in tow. Beryl laughingly recalls their first romantic date, when Hayes cooked dinner for her at his home.
“So, we were in Florida, and Bill’s home didn’t have a fireplace—it wasn’t even cold, it was the summer—but he opened his barbecue grill and put in a Yule log to create atmosphere,” she says with a laugh.
Their experience in business, paired with their passion for theatre, seemed to be the perfect match to achieve one of Hayes’s goals: to provide more theatrical opportunities for the talented pool of Florida-based artists. Beryl needed some convincing.
“Bill had this idea that we should start a theatre company, which I said was the worst idea that I’d ever heard,” says Beryl. Still, she says, she “knew that he needed me by his side, so I joined him in the effort.”
The transition from standing in the spotlight to planning seasons and managing the books came easily. “We both came from business backgrounds, so that part of the administrative aspect of the theatre wasn’t as difficult to us as development,” says Beryl of fund-raising. “Development was a skill that we learned as we went.”
Together they’ve mastered an approach to raising funds and finding donors that befits a couple: They roll it all into date night.
“I think it is a great advantage being married, because when we are wining and dining donors, attending outside theatre events, and doing community outreach, we’re doing it together,” says Beryl. “It also strengthens the marriage,” adds Hayes.
Outside the theatre they enjoy going to the ballet, seeing films, and walking together. They also travel to California to visit children and grandchildren (5 of the latter, 4 of the former, as well as 2 step-grandchildren). Their favorite pastime, though, is taking cruises. Last month in the midst of rehearsals for House on Fire, which Hayes directed, they set sea for 10 days.
“We both love cruises on smaller ships,” says Hayes. “In fact we make a point to do it once or twice a year at the height of the season. That’s the time we need to get away! I can still take an hour or two on the ship and do emails and communicate with staff. It is much less stressful to sit on a balcony with a martini staring at the ocean on my computer than to be at the theatre.”
Much like lighting a Yule log on a summer evening, a creative approach to changing the atmosphere—whether at sea or the office—can make all the difference. At the Palm Beach Dramaworks, Hayes and Beryl say they promote a lighthearted environment that all but welcomes Cupid. “Several of our employees have met here at the theatre and have gone on to get married,” says Beryl. “There are a lot of couples here.”
“That’s a very unique quality here,” says Hayes. “We’re setting the example, I guess. Obviously, we can’t discourage it!”
“We definitely can’t tell people not to date at the office,” adds Beryl.
When the theatre underwent renovations a few years ago, Beryl and Hayes opted to keep their shared office space instead of building out offices of their own. “We always run everything by each other—it is great to have someone to bounce things off of,” she says. “But if we have a disagreement, he gets to decide.”
“No, she still gets to decide,” says Hayes with a laugh.
Their planning begins when Beryl drafts the budget; Hayes then picks a season to fit those parameters. The theatre’s motto is “theatre to think about,” which informs its lineup of edgy new plays and musicals.
“You think of Florida as tennis and golfs and beaches and maybe the occasional tour of Fiddler on the Roof, but there is a lot of serious theatre happening in Florida,” says Hayes.
Next on the docket this season: a new-play festival featuring five works, as well as productions of The Spitfire Grill, Fences, and The House of Blue Leaves. (And maybe a cruise or two.)
Hayes’s hope for the Florida theatre scene is to expand Palm Beach Dramaworks’ dynamic approach of “communicative leadership” throughout the region.
“My No. 1 goal is to get theatres to talk to each other,” he says. “I do believe we’re stronger together, we’re not competitors—we’re colleagues. That thinking needs to change throughout the country. We need to talk more so we can all survive and all be strong. We have an uphill battle in theatre, and the only way to do it is to do it together.”