by larry knight
To most, the main purpose of operating a theatre is to fill the seats; to adhere to the strict commercial viability of the work. But in some cases, the artistic merit of the piece and the opportunity to showcase homegrown talent are equal to or in many cases supersede the quest to fill the bottom line. Such is the case at Players by the Sea, one of several local Jacksonville community theatres providing local writers with a launching pad. Under the executive direction of Joseph Schwarz since 2001, Players, as it is known to patrons and actors alike, is a premiere community theatre in the region for local writers.
Like community theatres around the country, Players, which first opened in 1966, is equally concerned with profit margins, declining audiences and overall sustainability. As city councils across America continue to reassess the necessity of funding community arts programs, some theatres have abandoned taking risks on untested plays. In fact, the revival of classic plays on Broadway and in community theatres almost serves as a testament to the need to produce proven money makers. But to Schwarz there is always a place for local works. As he puts it, the inclusion of plays penned by local writers adds a certain quality to the theatre.
“I think they help define who we are as an incubator for local work,” said Schwarz. “It’s a very important component of who we are.”
The significance of showcasing local plays is in keeping with the theatre’s mission statement to celebrate the “values of innovation and inclusion, through premieres of local playwrights” and to “provide creative opportunities for the artists of today and tomorrow.”
That statement that he and his staff of volunteers strive to exemplify has been a longstanding philosophy at Players and Schwarz himself has been cultivating it for many years in his personal pursuits. A graduate of New York University in 1977, Schwarz worked in New York City for eleven years before relocating to upstate New York for five years where he amassed an impressive resume working as the executive director of the Common Stage Theatre Company in Woodstock. As director of his own company, Schwarz’s only goal was to produce original works.
Many of the writers and actors he encountered-industry figures such as Michael Cristofer, Mary Louise Wilson, Lisa Loomer, and Wendy Wasserstein-were given the opportunity to showcase their works in their developmental stages.
“They were successful in New York City and were always looking for a place to try something out,” said Schwarz. “90 percent of it didn’t go anywhere, but that 10 percent that did were works like ‘Full Gallop’ by Mary Louise Wilson which I first produced in my theatre before it went on to a successful run on Broadway and in London.”
In the years spent at Common Stage, Schwarz adopted the very same definition of excellence that would come to characterize his accomplishments at Players. To him, theatre has a higher purpose of connecting the complexities of emotion with the art in the hopes of leaving an impression on the theatergoer.
Although Schwarz believes this, he claims Players does not rely solely on such a stringent formula when seeking new work from some of Jacksonville’s most promising playwrights. To him, there is no prescription employed, just the consultation of actors, musicians and patrons, the promise of artistic merit and the taking of risks.
“As a community theatre we service the entire community so we pick shows that are going to be of interest to everybody,” said Schwarz. “The criterion beyond that is that the work has to have some type of artistic merit.”
This kind of risk taking and offering of galvanizing, more provocative fare has in some ways come to define the Players experience. Past season selections such as ‘Cabaret,’ ‘Sweeney Todd,’ and ‘The Price’ have each possessed a type of progressiveness synonymous with the theatre. According to Schwarz, this sets it apart from other local community theatres and allows the theatre, and everyone involved to stretch both artistically and technically. However, he confesses that pieces up for consideration each season need to incorporate some level of marketability. To Schwarz, the key to a successful selection is a sense of balance. He feels the profitability and artistic quality of the play need to work in tandem.
“I don’t think one supersedes the other, I think that they are one in the same,” said Schwarz. “Something that is artistically superb is going to be marketable.”
This balance of quality, entertainment and the prospect of profit are often applied to the three plays a month he receives from locally based writers. Many are in various states of completion, but once the plays or their treatments are received, he and selection committee members read them. Schwarz acknowledged there is no ‘magic formula’; instead they rely in part on the theatre’s philosophy of excellence to guide the decision.
“We encourage people to bring their works to us, especially local playwrights,” said Schwarz. “If their work has merit, if it passes our definition of excellence we want to produce them, we want to give them a chance.”
In recent years, he and the selection committee have chosen a number of innovative pieces penned by local talent. Writers David Sacks, Barbara Williams, Derek Coghlan, and Al Letson have had their work produced by Schwarz and each has seen measures of success both at Players and at other theatres around the country.
“Al and Barbara walked in here seven years ago, I read his work, and said ‘Essential Personnel’ is something that we want to do,” said Schwarz. “I am sure Al would have found his way whether we did it or not, but I am proud that we are a part of his story.”
Letson’s host of other works is in league with fellow local writers who have also enjoyed similar success showcasing their plays at the theatre. David Sacks has seen success with multiple works produced at Players and Barbara Williams, the theatre’s education director, has enjoyed a successful run of her one-woman show ‘Life on the Diagonal’ both at Players and in New York City. Derek Coghlan’s two one-man shows, ‘Repainting Larry Cooper’ and most recently, ‘Tog Out. You’re On’ were both recognized as a blend of humor, wit and satire. Coghlan, a full-time English teacher at Landrum Middle School in Ponte Vedra Beach, attributes much of the success of his two shows to Schwarz’s trust and fearlessness.
“Joe gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted. He trusted me and that made me want to do more for him,” said Coghlan. “Joe gets what a community theater should be. He’s not afraid to take risks and he’s not afraid to trust people.”
As Schwarz prepares to enter his eighth season at Players, he says he is firmly committed to not only strengthening the city’s talent pool, but also delivering quality, original works to patrons and fellow members of Jacksonville’s theatre community. In defense of the theatre’s tendency to take risks on new writers, he feels Players is trying to do what many theatres in the city often overlook.
Schwarz doesn’t see Player’s involved in a rivalry with the other theatres in the city. According to him it is a good thing other theatres make dissimilar decisions and that the differences in the pieces selected are beneficial to everyone. As he puts it, this will ultimately lead to the growth of Jacksonville’s entire theatre community.
“It’s not about competition with the other theatres,” said Schwarz. “The more we work together and help each other, the more theatre there is in Jacksonville, and the more theatre as a whole grows.”
all the stage is his world!
by larry knight