Scroll down to read the full newsletter, or click on an article above.
by Sheryl Flatow
When playwright Lyle Kessler was a teenager, he was so involved in what he describes as “the science fiction fandom world,” that he published an amateur science fiction magazine. “I was always interested in writing,” he says. After seeing Elia Kazan’s film East of Eden , he also became interested in acting. In his early 20s, Kessler starred opposite Bruce Dern in the Philadelphia premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot . “It was transformative for me; I just felt like Waiting for Godot was in my bones. I love Beckett and his plays.”
With hindsight comes insight: decades later, it’s easy to see how these formative experiences influenced Kessler’s work, including his world premiere play House on Fire , directed by William Hayes, which runs through December 30. Beckett’s experimental plays established a new kind of theatre that went beyond naturalism. For Beckett, it was what came to be called Theatre of the Absurd. For Kessler, it’s magic realism, which heightens reality with elements of surrealism – not a great leap for someone who had once immersed himself in science fiction. “That’s a wonderful analogy,” he says. “I think that’s what happened. I never had a plan where I said, ‘I’m going to do magic realism.’ It just turned out that way because I had an affinity to it.” 
Kessler says that most of his plays are about “family, and the extreme emotions of a family pushed to the edge.” That’s certainly true of House on Fire , a moving and funny parable of love, resentment, and redemption. Colman returns home after a self-imposed, decade-long absence upon learning from his brother, Dale, of their father’s death. Despite the presence of the Old Man’s lifeless body, Colman is not convinced he’s actually gone. Before long, all three men are battling for dominance. Then two uninvited guests arrive, and lives are changed forever. 
House on Fire is set in Fishtown, a neighborhood in Philadelphia, Kessler’s hometown. “Most of the plays I write end up in Philadelphia,” he says. “I escaped from there when I was 18, and I keep saying I don’t want to go back to Philly. But somehow, I do. I guess you have to go back to your roots because that’s what feeds you. But I don’t write plays that are autobiographical in nature: I only wrote one play that came close to that. All my other plays are really magic realism. They come from my imagination. The characters are real and have an emotional core, but they’re not based on real people. They’re conglomerations of inner issues in my psyche. All the plays I write are about identity, and most of them have to do with inner emotional issues and conflicts that I’m not aware of in my conscious mind. They’re unconscious issues and I’m trying to work them out in the plays.”

Still, there are aspects of House on Fire that connect to Kessler’s life. Baseball is integral to the play, and it was also an important part of his relationship with his dad. “My father played baseball, I played baseball, and when I was a kid, he would take me to see the Philadelphia Athletics,” says Kessler. “The history of baseball in my family and our passion for baseball is personified by the father in the play.” In fact, Kessler’s father told him about Hugh Ignatius Daily, a pitcher whose story is discussed in the play. And though he’s quick to distance the overbearing character of the Old Man from his dad, he concedes that “a lot of my father went into him. My father was larger than life. The character is not my father, but I see that energy that my father had as a baseball playing guy.” 
Rob Donohoe, Hamish Allan-Headley, and Taylor Anthony Miller
Georgia Warner and
Christopher Kelly
Rob Donohoe and
Hamish Allan-Headley
Kessler, whose 1983 play Orphans has earned international acclaim, has distinguished himself in virtually all aspects of theatre. Following his performance in Waiting for Godot , he wound up at the Actors Studio in New York where he studied with the legendary Lee Strasberg; in 2001, he played Strasberg in the TV biopic James Dean starring James Franco and directed by Mark Rydell. He believes that being an actor helps his playwriting. “I think it circumvents struggling with material to see what works and what doesn’t work,” he says. “Because I was an actor, I know characters and I know actors and what they need. When I write dialogue, it’s dialogue that actors will love. Whether a play works or not, the characters are really strong and actable.”

His other commitments, particularly to his writing, have limited his work as an actor but Kessler has not retired from performing. “I never said, ‘Okay, now I’m going to stop and be a writer.’ I love acting and I don’t think you ever stop; I just really don’t have the time for it. But if [Martin] Scorsese offered me a role, I wouldn’t turn it down.”

Kessler is also a renowned teacher, who was for many years director of The Actors Studio West Playwright/Directors Unit ­­and currently serves in that capacity at The Actors Studio East. In addition, he runs the Lyle Kessler Theater Workshop in New York, a weekly, four-hour session in which actors work on contemporary and classic material, and contribute to the development of new work. “We have wonderful actors who come in and participate, including Alec Baldwin, Malcolm McDowell, and Chazz Palminteri,” says Kessler. “The class is very exciting. Sometimes writers come in with ne­­w material, and directors come in and observe. A lot of people have gotten work, and plays have come out of the classes. It’s great for me because it keeps me very active.”  

Not that he seems to have any down time. Following House on Fire , Kessler has another world premiere, entitled Perp , being produced Off-Broadway by The Barrow Group in March. He says that his plays usually start with two characters in conflict, and that he never knows where that will lead him. “I don’t know what the conflict is at first, but they’re going back and forth,” he says. “Sometimes it develops into a full-length play, sometimes it dissipates. House on Fire began with the two brothers in conflict about the dead father and the issues between them. And then the play evolved. Sometimes you just get lucky.” 
If you regularly read our playbill and our newsletter, you’re aware of PBD’s steadfast belief that theatre can be life altering. In fact, our vision is “to enhance the quality of life through the transformative power of live theatre.” And we know, because many of you have told us, that the work we do onstage and in our education programs has greatly affected you.
Actress Margaret Ladd, wife of playwright Lyle Kessler, says her life was changed the moment she stepped onstage for the first time. And she, in turn, has helped improve the lives of thousands through the Imagination Workshop, a non-profit organization that she founded in 1969, which enables homeless veterans, at-risk youth, and people with mental illnesses to tap into their emotions, gain insight, and express themselves by writing plays and performing them before an invited audience. Guided by professional actors, playwrights, and directors, “the participants create characters and then work with each other to imagine storylines, improvise scenes, and experience the pleasure of genuine creation,” says the Imagination Workshop’s website. The Workshop was launched at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, and is now located at the UCLA Semel Institute.

“It’s not therapy,” says Ladd. “It’s about giving patients self-esteem by creating a work of art. These people need to feel that there’s something in them that’s special and healthy, and that's what we work on.” Among the artists who have worked with the patients are Blythe Danner, Sam Waterston, and the late Jill Clayburgh.

Ladd was a shy child who was wounded by a trauma she experienced at a young age. She began acting at Bard College, and says, “My whole personality changed when I was playing a character. People would say to me, ‘You’re more real when you’re onstage than when you’re off.’ The fact that I could somehow be my real self onstage was like a miracle.”
The Imagination Workshop has produced impressive results thanks to an immersive creative process. Studies have verified that by writing and acting in plays, patients have higher self-esteem, improved their social skills, and fared better on job interviews. “By playing characters far removed from themselves, they start to feel the pleasure of being in a safe, social environment,” says Ladd. “These are people who have lost the ability to feel joy, and we help give it back to them.”  
Ladd gives her husband much of the credit for the Imagination Workshop’s success. “If we hadn’t met, the program never would have happened,” she says. “I could create characters with the patients, and they could do little scenes. But I knew I needed a playwright because I didn't know how to make the stories end. We couldn’t allow the illness to grab hold of their imagination.”

Photos: and
by Sheryl Flatow
Since its Off-Broadway premiere at Playwrights Horizons in 2001, The Spitfire Grill has become something of a phenomenon, having been staged more than 500 times including productions in Canada (15), Scotland, England, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and The Netherlands. In 2018 alone, there were 39 productions around the United States. This spirited and uplifting musical by James Valcq (music and book) and the late Fred Alley (lyrics and book) tells a heartfelt tale of second chances and new beginnings that resonates powerfully with critics and audiences alike.
Bruce Linser, who will direct PBD’s production (February 1-24), counts himself among the show’s fans. “I’ve seen the musical once and I’ve read it several times because I’ve always wanted to direct it,” he says. “It’s a beautiful story with great characters, including strong women characters – and I think we need a lot more of those, especially in musical theatre. I also like the bluegrass score; the music itself is really intricate and interesting.”
In The Spitfire Grill , a young parolee named Percy starts her life anew in fictional Gilead, Wisconsin. It’s a place so desolate that Joe, the sheriff, refers to it as a “ghost town.” Percy gets a job at the Spitfire Grill but most of the locals, including her boss, Hannah, are wary of her, and the feeling is mutual. When she learns that Hannah has been trying to sell the grill for 10 years, she comes up with an idea that ultimately has a profound impact on her and the moribund town.

The show is based on a 1996 film of the same name, but in addition to musicalizing the material, Valcq (above left) and Alley (above right) made major, substantive changes. Broadly, the musical is a much more hopeful piece with a far different ending than the movie. They also changed the locale from rural Maine to Wisconsin, their home state. As it happens, Linser is also from Wisconsin and sometime in the 1980s, when he was just getting started, he appeared in a community theatre production of Oklahoma! with Valcq. He says that knowing the landscape is a huge plus as he approaches the show. 

“I’m a big one for having a personal connection to the work and I try to find that with my actors as well,” says Linser, “so anything that puts you in the mindset of these people and their lives is very helpful. Being from small town, Wisconsin – not Gilead small, but small – I understand that sensibility of Midwest nice and Midwest caution. By that I mean we’re not necessarily open to strangers and especially a stranger like Percy, who has a past. I also understand this sense of ‘buttoned down-ness’ of Midwesterners. We can be really open and we can be really protective. I think that that's a big part of where I'm going to start with the actors. All of these characters are damaged in some way. They’re all really stuck in places and they're very protective of their ‘stuck-ness.’ That this woman, a complete outsider, comes in and because of her everyone finds redemption and finds forgiveness and finds beauty in what has become very routine, is really powerful. And I understand that from an Upper Midwest perspective.” 
In the wrong hands, a couple of the characters could come off as one-note and simply dislikeable. Linser, who also teaches acting, says, “I always tell my students that you cannot judge your character, because the minute you start judging them, you can’t play them honestly and truthfully. ‘Nasty’ characters are nasty because they've been hurt, because they’ve been damaged, because they have some need that's not being met. Our job as actors is to find both sides of everything. I also tell my actors all the time that it’s way more interesting to watch a character play two things than one. So, you can love your mother because she's your mother and she can drive you up the wall, all at the same time. And I think that's really what's going on with the characters in The Spitfire Grill : they are hurt, they are scared, their livelihoods are at stake, their emotional states are at stake. They have great heart and they have great pain, and finding both of those things is always a part of my rehearsal process. I think that’s what makes it interesting, for actors as well as audiences, and I think it's what makes them human. And if we do nothing else in the theatre, we present the human condition in ways that people can relate to and understand. So, even the worst villain onstage believes that there’s right in what he or she is doing. And it’s our job to find that and flesh it out.”

Linser says the musical speaks to him on many levels. “Redemption is certainly a big part of it,” he says. “So is forgiveness, both forgiving others and forgiving ourselves. Hope is also a huge part of it, being able to move forward, being able to accept who we are and where we’ve been and what we’ve done. And as I said earlier, it’s so important that we are showing strong and capable women who, for lack of a better way of saying it, don’t need men. What I want to bring out in this piece is the humanity, the vulnerability of who we are in our hearts and souls. We’ve gotten so far away from heart and soul, and I think we need more of it. And this show gives it to us.” 
In September 2017, PBD launched its first One Humanity Tour, which was conceived out of the conviction that theatre can contribute to the development of informed, thoughtful, and compassionate citizens. That original tour, which completed its second season in October, brings Eric Coble’s powerful play, Swagger , to sixth graders in Palm Beach County middle schools, free of charge. Coble was commissioned by PBD to write a balanced play addressing the tensions that our community and our nation are experiencing between citizens and law enforcement. In its first two years, Swagger has been seen by 11,000 students and has been a big success with them, with educators, and with law enforcement officials.
Next season, PBD will introduce its second One Humanity Tour, this one aimed at seventh graders, featuring a commissioned work that will examine another urgent issue: human trafficking and online safety. The play will premiere during Human Trafficking Awareness Month in January 2020, and each performance will be followed by a talkback. There will also be supplemental materials for teachers, administrators, and parents. Swagger will continue to be performed for sixth graders in the fall.

“Over 20 million people globally are victims of human trafficking, and according to the Florida Department of Health, South Florida is ranked third in the nation as the most trafficked destination,” says Gary Cadwallader, director of education and community engagement. “A dire component of this statistic is that 50 percent of all victims are under the age of 18, and according to the human trafficking unit of the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office, many are middle school children. Eighty percent of these victims are girls. Human trafficking victims cross all socio-economic profiles, and many trafficked children remain at home and attend school. According to the Florida Department of Children and Families, last year the total number of cases reported in Florida was 1,923, with 612 being minors. The estimated number of unreported persons trafficked in Florida is 4,983; 50 percent are estimated to be underage. A Palm Beach County middle school principal recently remarked that this topic ‘keeps him up at night.’”
The play will present a narrative of cause and effect, and the post-performance talkback will include a discussion about online safety and emphasize to the students how their smartphones are a gateway for traffickers. A survivor will also speak about her personal experience.

“We’re offering this show to seventh graders because the Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office says that they are prime targets of human traffickers,” says Cadwallader. “Puberty often creates anxiety at this age, and physical changes sometimes lead to mood swings and low self-esteem. Cognitive development in seventh grade students shows more independent-minded youth detaching from the structure imposed by parents or guardians. These factors combined allow predators to groom and entrap teenagers. This project will guide children to think critically about all facets of this topic.”
This new initiative provides young professionals who love theatre with the opportunity to see a play and meet others who share their passion. Studio 201 offers reduced-price tickets and a pre-performance cocktail hour beginning at 6:30pm. Studio 201 takes place on the following Wednesday evenings:

January 30:  The Spitfire Grill
March 27:  Fences
May 15:  The House of Blue Leaves
On October 30, PBD and Compass Community Center unveiled The Legacy Project, an intergenerational storytelling initiative in which LGBTQ elders share their personal histories with participants in the Compass Youth Program, who preserve their reminiscences on video using multimedia. It was a moving, gripping, and uplifting evening, with more to come: the second annual event will take place in the fall of 2019.

For more information about The Legacy Project, contact Gary Cadwallader
561-514-4042 x123 or email .
CALL THE BOX OFFICE 561.514.4042 x2