By Bill Hirschman
The Naked Stage, the eight-year-old company that has won widespread acclaim and Carbonell awards despite a tiny budget and no permanent home, is planning to open a theater venue in downtown West Palm Beach.
A 145-seat theater in a former antiques shop on west Clematis Street is expected to open in six months at the earliest, but more likely a year, Artistic Director Katherine Amadeo said Wednesday afternoon.
While The Naked Stage has invested a youngish vibe in productions ranging from the surreal to the classic, the new iteration will target patrons 20 to 45 years old who currently come to Clematis Street for dinner and entertainment, she said.
Efforts have been quietly underway for months for the Miami-Dade-based troupe to buy and renovate the former Authentic Provence shop at 522 Clematis Street, but Amadeo had not gone public because the purchase was not slated to close until next week.
The project became public Wednesday when the prospective title owner, Amadeo’s father Boca realtor Michael Paul, was granted a “text amendment” to zoning laws that had not allowed a theater in the immediate neighborhood. But the city Downtown Action Committee agreed to the change this week.
The plan is to gut and build back out the 6,500-square-foot space into a state-of-the-art theater, she said. Architects have already been contacted to design a proscenium theater in the 1922 building with an intimate feel much like the curved space of the old Florida Stage venue in Manalapan.
Katherine Amadeo and her husband, company co-founder Antonio Amadeo, have been thinking about a theater-for-young-audiences project for years, but the sudden availability of this space slingshot the idea into the need to develop concrete logistics.
“We had been thinking about the trying to get the people who are hanging out on Clematis, people who might be coming down here for dinner, then they could come see our show, and then go to a club afterward,” Katherine Amadeo said. In fact, she has been testing out her ideas on friends at her gym, many of whom have never seen a professional theater production.
The Naked Stage was created in 2007 by Katherine, an actress; Antonio, an actor, designer and artistic producer, and their friend John Manzelli, an actor-director-producer. It has performed mostly in the tiny 45-seat Pelican Theatre on the campus of Barry University in Miami where Manzelli teaches.
Its choice of plays has been diverse, encompassing a straight ahead version of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit; a stunning two-character version of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Antonio Amadeo’s own A Man Puts On A Play; and 4:48 Psychosis, a surreal look at a woman on the verge of suicide, just as its British playwright Sarah Kane actually was. Manzelli’s involvement decreased after becoming producing artistic director at City Theatre, but the Amadeos frequently use local director Margaret M. Ledford.
Among the company’s honors, The Naked Stage won the Carbonell’s Ruth Foreman Award last spring for its annual 24-Hour Theatre Project in which volunteer actors, directors and playwrights create a series of short plays from blank page to production in 24 hours. The all-shoulders-to-the-wheel effort has been credited for helping cement bonds across the region’s theater community. The Amadeos also spearheaded a similar project last fall to benefit Dana Castellano, a theater supporter fighting cancer.
The company has operated on an ad hoc basis – scheduling, postponing and rescheduling productions as they have been able to raise funds. But it turned its lack of financing – a few thousand dollars to put on a show — into a virtue by relying on theatrical skills and imagination in such realms as its acclaimed sets, most designed and built by Antonio Amadeo.
By contrast, the new project will likely have an annual production budget of about $400,000 to $600,000 a year under an Equity contract that can use both union and non-union cast members. They expect to mount four shows a year as well as two shows under a children’s theater program to be headed by Antonio Amadeo that will favor shows that can genuinely be enjoyed by the entire family.
The sea change is not lost on the Amadeos who previously concentrated on the artistic end of the company because Barry University donated the venue. “We’re scared!” Katherine Amadeo said Wednesday afternoon about the need to learn the business side of the undertaking. “This is really going to be buckling down learning the business from having subscribers and a board and finding donors.”
The committee’s willingness to rewrite the code for the project is indicative of the city’s overall support over the past few years to bring the arts into the downtown district as an economic development engine. Downtown had languished for several years with empty storefronts, but the city has battled to revitalize the Clematis area as a trendy entertainment district with new bars and restaurants as well as shops. To that end, city staffers urged the committee’s blessing in a memo that stated, “Cultural establishments are important to the vitality and vibrancy of the Downtown Master Plan… and are compatible with retail uses.”
If new venue on the western edge of the business district will create bookend theaters with Palm Beach Dramaworks, the nationally-recognized company at the eastern edge of the Clematis district. Dramaworks’ founders William Hayes, Nanique Gheridian and Sue Ellen Beryl pioneered partnering with the city government for help buying and overhauling their current location in the old Cuillo Theater a few years ago.
The Dramaworks team has been crucial mentoring the Amadeos in their business effort, especially in negotiating the shoals of government. Beryl was present at the committee meeting Wednesday.
“Bill and Sue Ellen are gifts from God,” Amadeo said Wednesday. They have gone to meetings with us, they have written letters for us. I don’t know if we would have gotten this (rewritten language) without them,” Amadeo said.
Hayes wrote in an email Wednesday evening, “Competition? We are not an organization that looks at another theatre company coming into town as our competition. That is backwards thinking. We believe there is strength in numbers. The more theatres there are, the more theatregoers are attracted to the area. We would much prefer to live in a ‘theatre district,’ rather than being the only game in town. It is good news that Naked Stage is planning to be our neighbor. And, as the leadership of Naked Stage knows, PBD has been very vocal with the leadership of West Palm Beach in support of this venture.”
In fact, Dramaworks’ second home was a vest-pocket storefront at 330 Clematis, a few doors away from the proposed Naked Stage site.
The announcement in the cusp of a new South Florida theater season would seem encouraging in the constant ebb and flow of theaters companies in the region recently.
Since 2010, start-up theaters that have approached as much financial health as an arts undertaking can find have included Zoetic Stage in Miami, Island City Stage in Wilton Manors/Fort Lauderdale, and Slow Burn Theatre Company first in west Boca Raton but moving to Fort Lauderdale. Others are emerging like The Wick Theatre and Evening Star Productions, both in Boca; Outré Theatre Company moving from Boca to Fort Lauderdale this fall, and Primal Stages, which is moving into Arts Garage in Delray where Louis Tyrrell’s initial company closed this year. Some troupes are just starting up like MNM Productions and Marquee Productions.
Casualties on the debit side of the ledger since 2011 include Florida Stage after a move from Manalapan to West Palm Beach, Promethean Theatre in Davie, Mosaic Theatre in Plantation, The Plaza Theatre in Manalapan, Boca Raton Theatre Guild and Women’s Theatre Project in Sugar Creek Park in Boca, Parade Productions Inc. in Mizner Park in Boca.