THE NAPLES PLAYERS TURN 65 WITH SPIRITED WORKS
By Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News | USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA
In the mid-1950s Pine Ridge Road was only two lanes wide; Boston-Provincetown Airlines was flying DC-3s into the original pocket-size airport here. But Naples Players already were staging fare like “The Night of Jan. 16” and “Our Town.”
The curtains come up on its 65th season this year, and the Players are honoring that anniversary by threading the classics it was weaned on into a schedule of young plays such as the Broadway hit, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” and a world premiere. This organization definitely will not be applying for Social Security.
However, it is planning a 65th birthday party. Make that par-tay.
‘We’re working with lots of our partners and our neighbors here to create a pretty amazing celebration of the arts in Naples, “ Players Artistic Director Bryce Alexander said. He’s quiet about specifics for now, however, but makes one pledge: “There will be not only a fabulous celebration of the 65th anniversary of Naples Players, but also the 20th anniversary of the Naples Players at Sugden Theatre on Fifth Avenue.
“And Naples Art Association, our sister organization across the street, is also celebrating its 20th anniversary on Fifth Avenue (in the district). so I can assure you there’s going to be a lot to celebrate this year.”
The event is planned for early in 2019.
A special season
Naples Players also planned its coming season with more gravitas than usual because of the dual anniversary. “We looked at a season that would sort of embody the spirit of what we felt like we were doing for the last 65 years, and at the same timeproject into what we want to do for the next 65 years,” Alexander explained. The delicate balance: all-American musicals, which have become the organization’s signature, with “a more contemporary — a modern — Broadway appeal.”
Thus, the “Starcatcher” play, a technologically advanced piece about the origins of Peter Pan as a Victorian orphan. It is among with two classics: Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” and the Loesser-Swerling -Burrows team’s “Guys and Dolls.”
“It’s really a celebration of Broadway,” Alexander continued. “So we have Neil Simon, who has always been popular, alongside a world premiere, which we’ve never done before.”
“The questions we asked of each play was: How does this represent Naples, and how does this represent Naples Players?”
“June and Jason: A Survival Guide to Divorce” is the world premiere, written by a local playwright, and longtime volunteer, Laura Lorusso (she wrote “Afterlife of the Rich and Famous,” premiered here by Studio Players). Naples Players helped her develop it through its Readers Theatre, a series of works that are read by local actors.
To give it a good litmus test, Lorusso sent the work to Lab Theater in Fort Myers as well as offering presentations in Naples. As with any work, dents are still being pounded out, but the reactions have been enthusiastic, Alexander said.
“Audiences love it so much, and it’s such a unique concept, in a sort of fun and fresh sit-com style.” Without giving away too much, the play deals with an intervention, zombie apocalypse-style, to force a warring couple to see their abilities to work together.
Meeting the challenges
As a new play for community theater — licensing only became available in 2016 — “Peter and the Starcatcher” poses a unique challenge because there is only one female in its dozen-character cast.
“It’s always the hardest thing to engage with male performers,” Alexander acknowledged. “But with our growing education program we’ve identified quite a few young male performers in the community and we hope with the title it will bring out more.”
That education program now reaches more than 600 children annually, according to its statistics, and the theater runs a curriculum of programs to beginner’s acting to stage fighting.
And in a pinch: “It’s an all-male cast, but the roles don’t necessarily have to be all played by males.”
The play itself is a magnetic blend of the classic Pete Pan characters older generations know with a component of fantasy that appeals to younger audiences, he said. As with many of the newer works on and off Broadway, the technical demands are sophisticated. The theater is ready for it.
“As technology has evolved so have audience expectations. So Broadway has responded with the best technology. It’s one of the reasons we continue to have our college internship program, actually. We’re bringing students in from all around the country because colleges and universities test that technology before they roll it out to everyone else. And so they come and tell us all exciting technologies that are coming.”
“Luckily, we’ve had great patrons like the Bakers and Eva Sugden Gomez who have helped underwrite the cost of a lot of those technologies.
“Just last year we did about $150,000 makeover of the sound system in the theater. And while the fundamentals of sound are the same, it used to be one voice on each feeder on the board — and we’re running a huge amount of channels over it.
“So we went from analog t o digital very quickly. Our ability to shift how sound is created in the atmosphere of the room is significantly different,” Alexander continued. “Most theaters in the country don’t have the ability to do the things we can do in the Sugden, and that was because of Eva Sugden Gomez, who was willing to make sure we could underwrite and provide those things.”
Their appreciation is emblazoned right on the sound system: “Anyone who comes to the theater will notice that the soundboard in the back of the room is named Eva in her honor.”
“We have Harvard and Princeton. When they all come they’re touring theaters around the country and they when they come here they say, ‘Omigosh, your sound system is the best one we’ve seen in the country.’” “That’s the kind of thing our audiences may not know, but we’re constantly striving to make the best experience for both the people onstage and the audience.”
It’s apparently working. The theater has been voted “Best Live Theatre” for 15 consecutive years in the Naples Daily News Southwest Florida Choice Awards.”
“I think we’ve grown quite a bit over the last 65 years. That was the reason they ultimately made the decision to hire a professional staff, to help lead the amazing members of our community into what is now one of the best theaters in the country,” Alexander said. “We didn’t get here by accident.”
“What’s unique about that is we’re providing both ideals to our art. So not only are we bringing the professional experience that our staff has, we’re bringing the life experience that the community has in the volunteers working in the show.”
“It creates a humanity in the art that is really hard to replicate.”
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