Courage Among Ordinary People Honors The People Downstairs

Amy Miller Brennan as Miep Gies in the world premiere of Michael McKeever’s The People Downstairs at Palm Beach Dramaworks / Photographer Tim Stepien

By Bill Hirschman

Secretly, we wonder if we could be heroic in real life, whether we could find the courage to risk our lives to protect or rescue someone else – not fictional heroes in some movie, but ordinary people like our neighbors or ourselves.

When Palm Beach Dramaworks’ Producing Artistic Director William Hayes first read the play The Diary of Anne Frank, he was intrigued by its sole focus on the plight of the Amsterdam Jews who hid from the Nazis for two years in an attic of her father’s business.

But what fascinated him far more were the employees who kept them hidden at their own profound peril while keeping the business operating in the rest of the building.

His curiosity culminates next month in The People Downstairs, a play Dramaworks’ commissioned in 2019, developed in multiple readings, postponed by the pandemic, and now ready to open as a world premiere Dec. 3.

The play written by Florida’s multi-faceted Michael McKeever does not depict the families hidden behind a prominent bookcase just as The Diary of Anne Frank never showed these people below.

“The fact that they persevered as long as they did and survived as long as they did, it’s extremely important,” Hayes said. “It’s all about what happens when people are one step removed from the line of fire. They love based on that love, and they (act) based on the fact that it’s the right thing to do. I think when someone does that, when someone steps up and literally puts their lives in danger for principle, I think it’s something that needs to be noted.”

He added, “Because of the period we were living in and the things that have gotten progressively worse, I said it’s time to tell the story about heroes and having courage and standing up for persecuted people….  It’s going on with the Asians; it’s going on with Muslims. There’s a rise in anti-Semitism. The story reminds us it’s happening in our own cities.”

This is merely the latest world premiere from a company that was once totally focused on producing “classic” theater pieces. But several years ago, the company created Dramaworkshop, a program developing new work in a series of workshops, new play festivals and readings, including commissioning plays such as this one.

This marks Dramaworks’ fifth consecutive season with a world premiere, and it will be first to have two; Bruce Graham’s The Duration will debut on February 18.

“I felt as a regional theater, we have a responsibility to doing at least one world premiere a year,” Hayes said. “I’m hoping that in the future I’m doing two a year. I think as regional theater, you have (that) responsibility to new work because if you’re not doing it, nobody else is. That’s where all work starts.”

There’s a practical side as well for such a company with the dream of becoming a nationally-recognized theater. If the play is published, Dramaworks will be mentioned in the script. If the play goes on to other productions, Dramaworks will receive a modest financial fee. “It’s not a lot of money, but it has potential revenue in the future, especially if something ends up going commercial,” Hayes said. “It’s not a lot of money unless it ends up going to New York or something. But the more work you develop, the more your name gets out there and you raise your national profile. And, of course, the more you raise your national profile, it’s easier to raise funds.”

Putting It Together

The play’s origins lay several years ago when Hayes was reading the landmark play. “I thought to myself, I want to know what’s going on downstairs.  I just kept thinking that’s a more interesting play about what’s going on down there because their lives are just as much at risk as the people in the attic and they’re going to probably have the same destiny or similar. I can only imagine the stress and anxiety of that environment…and the strength and courage that it took.”

Then the thoughts cemented themselves in early 2018 when he saw the acclaimed 1959 film version.

He invited McKeever to dinner and pitched two ideas for a possible commission.

The first was interesting, but the second, the playwright recalled, “That’s the one that’s the one I want to do. I think it’s an amazing idea. “

It played into McKeever’s interest as a self-described “huge fan of history” and a chance “to look at a story that we all think we know from a perspective that hasn’t really been explored before.”

Virtually anyone who has attended theater in South Florida over the past two or three decades knows of or has seen McKeever’s work: 33 full-length plays, some of which have gone to New York like Daniel’s Husband. Similarly, he is an actor, set designer, poster designer, co-founder of Zoetic Stage in Miami, and three or four other job descriptions, and recipient of ten Carbonell Awards – one as lead actor, eight for writing new works and the prestigious George Abbott Award.

He spent a few months doing research, but as a relatively fast writer, he penned a first draft in three or four months.

Most of the play is rooted in real events and real people including Miep Gies, Otto Frank’s secretary who rescued Anne’s diary. But one character, the one McKeever himself plays in the production, was invented to amp up the tension because it was crucial to have a nervous naysayer always providing a potential weak spot in the defenders who, in fact, were “so stoic and so tenacious and committed to the task at hand,” McKeever said. “I found myself loathing the idea of putting any kind of doubt in their mind because I thought the people that they’re based on deserve better.”

Hayes was impressed enough to slate it as a public reading in the January 2019 New Play Festival. Well-received then, even with rehearsed actors reading scripts from music stands, rewriting began. Even during the pandemic, tweaking resulted from two subsequent readings in June 2020 on Zoom with nearly 500 “devices” tuned in.

Changes included altering the rhythm of lines, based on the words coming out of the mouths of experienced actors like Dennis Creaghan. Characters were sharpened. The sense of the threat unfolding outside was heightened.

Most of the cast have been in one or more iterations of the work from the beginning:  Creaghan, Bruce Linser, Tom Wahl, Matthew W. Korinko, John Campagnuolo and McKeever.

The lead role was offered to veteran Amy Miller Brennan, who had been outstanding in Dramaworks’ 2019 The Spitfire Grill as the mousy but blossoming housewife. But taking on a lead role at this exact time was problematic as she juggled a teaching post and raising a family with the help of her husband, the actor Shane Tanner.

Part of the lure was because, she said, “I have loved this story…and wanted to know more about this story since I was about ten. So, when they approached me about it, I would have probably said no to any other project at this time, but it’s something I feel really strongly about, and it’s a story that I feel like really needs to be heard right now because it’s relevant.”

But the importance of the piece also weighed in on her decision. “Shane and I were talking a lot about this, like, we’re not just making believe. We’re not just going out there doing something fun, but going back to the passion behind what we do and the relevance of what we do.”

She researched Miep, who wrote a book about her experiences and died in 2010, including watching YouTube videos of the heroine.

But as rehearsal approached “I’ll be honest, I was sick to my stomach in the first, like the week leading up to it. And actually, all last week, I was physically scared out of my mind. Just being away from the kids all day. And I’m still teaching about 30 hours a week at Lynn University, COVID and juggling the girls’ school and everything. I was really nervous being around people who I love and haven’t been around socially (since the pandemic). I was really nervous. It’s just a very odd feeling that I have never, ever felt before because I’m a very laid back, confident person. So to feel all those things, I really struggled. I really did. But now I feel like, okay, yeah. I remember what I’m doing and I had to do this.”

Like most theater artists, the Downstairs team are imbuing their work with personal insights and connections.

For Miller Brennan: “One, I lived in Germany for a couple of years, and I studied there, and I learned the language and sought that culture. And I went to Amsterdam several times because of my passion. So I’ve walked those streets. I’ve been in that building. I had already sort of…imagining what it is like to live and to walk in their shoes.”

But closer to home: “Personally, what I’m really focusing on is the protectiveness that I have for (her daughters) Maggie and Daisy as their mother, to protect them and make choices that are the best thing for them. Miep was doing that every day showing strength at a time when women wouldn’t have spoken up and said this or done this.”

McKeever inserted a personal connection into the script: the father of one of the people downstairs built the bookcase that hid the secret entrance. The real-life carpenter took ill and died during the Franks’ ordeal. So McKeever made the carpenter the father of the sole imaginary character in the play – whom McKeever plays in the production and who is always leaving the office to check on his father.

The connection: “I lost my father about seven years ago and so I drew on that emotion, not only as an actor but as a writer, to talk about the relationship and the influence that the father has on that character, the same way my father had on me. I’m a firm believer that when you write from reality and you write things you understand, the storytelling becomes that much more poignant and that much more empathetic because you’re writing from a place of truth and a place of understanding.”

A Whole New World

Of course, producing live theater in an enclosed space is much different today than two years ago, partly due to common sense precautions, partly because Actors Equity union has strict rules to allow their members to participate. Actors, crew and anyone who comes in contact with actors is tested two or three times a week. Everyone has been vaccinated. When someone is not onstage acting, everyone wears masks—sometimes even while they are rehearsing on stage. Artists are strongly encouraged to restrict their socializing.  Some lunch breaks are held outside. Press interviews are done by telephone. The sole “relaxing” of measures is allowing people to wear paper masks rather than the N-95.

A once rare but now more common tactic locally, Dramaworks is employing a full Equity understudy for Miller Brennan; a man to understudy the rest of the ensemble; plus as a backup, Director of Education and Community Engagement Gary Cadwaller.

That has boosted payroll costs 20 percent, but it means that the show will still go on if someone gets sick. The understudies, testing costs and other changes make this and future productions this season considerably more expensive – with an ever-present hope that crowds return.

Hayes and his Manager Director Sue Ellen Beryl are famously prudent business people whose company has been in the black throughout its 20-year history.

“I felt I need that insurance policy,” Hayes said. “I just had to understand that this year I’m probably not going to make any money because I think it’s more important to open for morale and for psychological reasons, not only with staff but also with the patrons, and move forward.”

“There’s a part of me that thinks we’re getting too free too quickly. There’s a little bit of a concern that this thing ain’t over. I hope it is. But I always say prepare for the worst and hope for the best.”

All patrons will be required to wear masks that completely cover the nose, mouth, and under the chin for their entire visit. Anyone who does not comply will be escorted out of the theater. Dramaworks will also require documentation (printed or digital): Fully vaccinated guests have the option of voluntarily presenting documentation showing full vaccination status. Alternatively, all guests can present documentation of a negative COVID-19 PCR test result conducted within 72 hours prior to the performance, or a negative COVID-19 Antigen test result conducted within 24 hours prior to the scheduled performance start time.

The People Downstairs will run Dec. 3 through Dec. 19 (previews Dec. 1 & 2) at Palm Beach Dramaworks, 201 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday, Sunday. Post-performance discussions follow Wednesday matinee and Sunday evening performances. Tickets for all performances are $79, except for opening night of each production ($94) and previews ($59). Call (561) 514-4042 ext. 2, or visit palmbeachdramaworks.org.

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