A Conversation with Dave Lawrence
Dave Lawrence is the president and CEO of the Cultural Council for Palm Beach County, which makes him the No. 1 arts advocate in the region. A graduate of DePauw University, Lawrence spent almost two decades at the Arts Council of Indianapolis, serving as president and CEO for nine years prior to assuming that role here in August, 2018. In the two years that he’s been in PBC he’s demonstrated extraordinary leadership skills, particularly during the pandemic, pulling the arts community together through his accessibility and ongoing, open dialogue. Lawrence regularly attends Palm Beach Dramaworks, and we wanted to speak to him about the state of the arts and the state of the company: past, present, and future.
He first became aware of PBD in 2013, when he served as a grant panelist for the Cultural Council. “The [grant] application from Dramaworks stood out to me above all the others because of the programming they were doing,” he says. “I saw a list of plays that they’d just performed, and one was Ionesco’s Exit the King. And I thought, ‘What theatre company that’s trying to build an audience is doing material like this?’ It was thrilling to see a company that was bold enough to make a choice like that. For a theatre to be bold, it means they have to trust their audience, and I applaud theatres that do that. Theatres that only do shows they know are going to sell are missing the opportunity to challenge their audience, to help their audience grow, to expand the canon of theatre.
“Now, it wasn’t until I began work at the Cultural Council that I got to see a production at Dramaworks. The first show I saw was Indecent, which was a profoundly moving experience. It’s one of the finest things I’ve seen; I’d put it up against anything I’ve seen in New York. The quality of shows here is astounding, and audiences know that. I think those theatres that are producing great work and challenging their audiences, listening to their audiences, are rewarded with better ticket sales and more contributions, and it shows in an organization's bottom line. That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t all use more audiences and more contributions, more support from the community. Producing theatre is not cheap. Owning your own building, as Dramaworks does, is not cheap. For them to be able to do that, and mount quality productions, and then balance the budget is a feat.”
Of course, the theatre has been dark since the pandemic began, and will not be opening its doors any time soon. But the response to PBD’s online programs has been so positive that its virtual presentations will continue to expand over the next few months. It’s an option that companies all over the country – and the county – have embraced as a way of maintaining a presence and staying connected with their audience.
“The number of virtual events provided by local organizations is skyrocketing,” says Lawrence. “We’ve run a survey, and since the beginning of March there have been 778 virtual events. An additional 529 are planned through the end of the year, and this is with only about half of the organizations responding. Pre-Covid, most of us were looking at digital conveyances of culture as something that was going to eat away at our audiences and destroy the artistic product. Then Covid happened, and the only way we’ve been able to consume cultural experiences is online. I think the fear before was, ‘We'll never get these audiences back.’ But I have heard so many times in the last few months, ‘I can't wait to get back to Dramaworks,’ or ‘I can’t wait to go to Kravis or to the Norton.’ People hunger for that live experience.”
The appeal is broad: In a normal, non-pandemic year, the arts in Palm Beach County generate $633 million, underscoring how central they are to people’s lives and to the economic health of the county and state. But even in the best of times, Lawrence says it’s “an uphill battle” to persuade many of those who hold the purse strings that theatre and music and dance and art are indispensable. “It’s not just a problem in South Florida,” he says. “I've had politicians say to my face, ‘The arts are not essential,’ and I've had to say to them, ‘With all due respect . . . .’ I often harken back to 9/11. One of the very first things that members of Congress did is they went out on the steps of the Capitol and sang together. When Italy was first shut down during the pandemic, everyone was going out on their balcony and singing. The arts are essential to our lives because they connect us to one another. They also educate. Those are the kinds of things that I try to share but it’s tough, because they are sort of touchy-feely arguments. The economic argument -- $633 million a year – is very clear. But I think it’s really important when we talk about the arts to say at some point that they have to exist for themselves. Art doesn't always have to be in service of something else. Art needs to exist for art's sake, and it’s important not to lose sight of that when you’re trying to justify its existence for all these other reasons. It’s enough that we need beauty in our lives.”
The far-reaching interest in the vast number of arts programs offered online during the pandemic underscores Lawrence’s point. “I’ve seen so many memes where people said, ‘If it weren’t for the arts, you people would be pulling your hair out right now,’” he says. “The arts have kept us sort of sane during this time.”
And the response to their efforts has kept many arts organizations functioning and compelled them to think outside the box. “I talked to somebody in Indianapolis who had been told by a futurist that we need to think about the pandemic not as a disrupter, but as an accelerant,” Lawrence says. “I think that is so prescient, because the organizations that will thrive post-pandemic are those that have taken this as an opportunity to innovate and grow. And Dramaworks certainly is at the leading edge of this.”
A quick reminder: The wonderful Karen Stephens, who has been seen at PBD in Fences, On Golden Pond, and Hand of God, is featured in the next Dramalogue: Talking Theatre! on Friday, September 4. The program starts at 7:30pm and will be recorded for viewing on PBD’s YouTube channel. Marlene and Martin Silver are the sponsors of Dramalogue. Tickets are free, but reservations are required. Go to www.palmbeachdramaworks.org or call the box office at 561.514.4042, x2. And donations to PBD are always welcome!
There will be no Drama(in the)works on Labor Day. The series resumes on September 7.