by Robin F. DeMattia for Naples Daily News
Blue Zones Project-Southwest Florida
During some shows by The Naples Players, the house lights remain on, the sound is turned down, and audience members are told in advance about when loud or startling moments might occur. Guests, capped at 50 percent capacity, are also free to walk in and out at all times.
These are sensory-friendly performances that provide access to theater for people with special needs.
This program is just one way the Naples Players, a Blue Zones Project Approved worksite, supports people with physical and mental health challenges and their families as part of a broad education curriculum of online and in-person classes for everyone.
“Our mission is inspiring our community and defining our culture,” said Craig Price, director of community education and wellness. “We make sure that every aspect of theater – singing, dancing, acting, improv, and volunteering – is available to everyone.”
To reach children with special needs or current life challenges, the Naples Players partners with organizations such as NCH Healthcare System, Collier County Public Schools, STARability, Grace Place Kids and Avow Kids.
Craig Price works with KidzAct students as part of an inclusive theatre class at The Naples Players
These programs have continued online during the pandemic and are starting to open back up for in-person sessions.
During the “Improv for Communication Skills” class, for example, high school students in the school district’s transition program, who have intellectual disabilities, learn skills to help them plan for post-school work or studies when they age out of the program at 22.
Price takes traditional fast-paced improv games and gears them toward what the students need.
“We learn listening, supporting each other, saying yes to the support we need, taking risks, and learning to let go of mistakes,” Price said.
He also focuses on recognizing emotions, he said, because many of his students have autism and have a difficult time recognizing and showing emotion and also making eye contact.
“The things we teach in these games are so important in the real world.”
Participants from STARability not only take an improv class weekly, but they also volunteered once a week at the theater, prior to the pandemic, to learn additional skills. They assisted with costumes, painting scenery, filing, and cleaning.
The theater partners with NCH Healthcare System and Collier County Public Schools on Project SEARCH, an international job skills training program for young adults with developmental disabilities. Price and Dianne Durante, a licensed marriage and family therapist, discuss tools for dealing with anxiety in the classroom, home, and workplace.
Craig Price of The Naples Players teaches an improv course for the StarAbility Foundation participants.
Price uses improv to develop their interviewing skills.
“We play fun and interactive games that teach how to remember names, how to respond to questions, customer service, and how not to be so nervous in interviews so they can get a full-time job.”
A recent thank you note from the 2021 Project Search class taught by Craig Price.
He said many of the participants get hired by NCH to work in the cafeteria, janitorial services, or offices. The Naples Players also has paid internships available for participants in its education programs.
While students in these established programs continued to participate during the past year, many people throughout the community found solace and strength in all of the theater’s education programs, particularly if they were isolated at home.
“Mental health is something we’ve been working with because it’s such an important issue,” Price said. “Keeping connected through theater has been such a valuable tool, especially online in the past year when people felt so disconnected. They were in such desperate need of connection with each other.”
He goes off-site to locations such as The Arlington and online with the Naples Senior Center to teach improv techniques that help caregivers with loved ones who have Alzheimer’s or dementia.
“They have to be ready for anything, think quickly on their feet, and treat their loved ones with patience, love, and creativity,” Price said. “It’s a great class.”
Craig Price works through an improv exercise with a resident of The Arlington
Price said all of the theater’s education programs tie into several Blue Zones Power 9 Principles.
“So much of the singing, dancing, acting, and improv is helping us find that tribe,” he said. “That bond you feel when you’re performing with a cast or working backstage with a crew plays into Down Shift, Right Tribe, and finding your purpose. You’re able to get involved with a group of people outside of work and school. So many of the kids and adults we work with find confidence from being involved with the theater that helps them with school, work, and at home.
“The lasting friendships that people make at the theater are a huge benefit of the education program,” he continued.
But the benefits extend to audience members, too, especially children.
“Exposing your kids to the arts has lifelong benefits,” he said. “We know that we can learn empathy and compassion by experiencing someone else’s life through a play.”
The Naples Players performs in the Sugden Theatre at 701 5th Avenue South. Learn more at naplesplayers.org or call 239-263-7990.
Learn more about Wellness and Outreach Programs at TNP
Brought to Southwest Florida by NCH Healthcare System, in collaboration with Sharecare, Inc., Blue Zones Project is part of Southwest Florida’s well-being improvement initiative that encourages changes in the community that lead to healthier options. For more information, visit southwestflorida.bluezonesproject.com.