A tale of acceptance – the perfect way to describe The Naples Players’ (TNP) upcoming production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Austin Gardner’s experience thus far. Gardner, cast as Claude Frollo, works as a contractor and moved to Naples from Florida’s east coast after Hurricane Ian. “I’ve loved doing theater ever since I was very young, so I looked up local theaters and The Naples Players came up. I feel welcome here and everyone’s been so friendly and professional – they’re such a wonderful group of artists working here. I’m one of the newest in the cast, and our cast and creative team already feel like a happy family. It really is a home away from home here.”
While new to The Naples Players, Austin is no stranger to the stage. “I’ve always loved bringing stories to life. Theatre is an outlet where I can be myself and use my talents, while also stepping into the shoes of different characters, traveling through time, and capturing a lot of amazing ideologies and the encapsulation of the human experience that is found in theater and these amazing stories. When I was eight years old, my mom entered me into the humorous monologue category of a speech competition. I ended up winning first place in regionals and state. I never stopped doing it, and I won every single year – I even went to Nationals. ”
Eventually, Gardner tried his hand at live theatre at the age of 18 and has been in love with performing ever since. “Performing gives me a feeling of fulfillment I don’t find anywhere else. I think it’s that ‘chasing the dragon’ feeling that keeps me coming back. I’ve never been able to stray too far from it because I’ve fallen in love with the process of being a part of something bigger than myself and creating art that makes people feel. The wonderful, positive experience of creating something with others as a team and creating new life experiences is something that I want to relive over and over.”
TNP has offered Austin a collaborative environment that he has been unable to find at other professional and community theaters. “TNP does a great job of reminding us why we’re all here volunteering. We’re contributing our time for nothing more than the love of theatre. And that’s really the best thing that you can put your time and energy into. It feels like a unit here. You can feel the love from everyone – the cast, the crew, Dawn, Charlie – as soon as you walk through the door. They are all here with one purpose in mind and that is to help you grow as a performer and person. When you grow, everyone grows because we’re a team. It’s important to support one another and look at each other as one cohesive unit exalting the story. ”
While our community and “high-caliber” productions are some of the reasons Austin decided to audition for TNP, his main reason was the show itself. “I’ve always wanted to do The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The story is so important to tell.”
Gardner says that the audience will be drawn in from the very beginning. “In the first song, Quasimodo comes out and sings the line, ‘what makes a monster and what makes a man?’ Shortly after he says that line, he transforms into the hunchback and right away you’re immediately drawn to that theme. What does make a human being? What are some of the things that make a good human being? Love, reaching out to others, respect, promoting well-being, reducing harm; these are all things we look at and say ‘that makes an exemplary human.’ But, beauty is not just skin deep. In many ways, we tend to judge and observe people’s physical characteristics rather than looking at their heart. Despite your physical circumstances, despite your situational circumstances, you can always be a good person. It doesn’t cost you anything to be a good person. The plot promotes that and exalts that principle throughout the entire show. I think the audience is going to very much benefit from the lessons to be learned in the show.”
Working with our industry professionals has been one of Austin’s favorite parts of the process so far. “One of the cast members has already predicted that I’m going to end up staying in this area because of how wonderful the theater is. It’s a pretty tempting offer. My experience has been overwhelmingly positive so far. Dawn and Charlie are both excellent professionals pushing me to do my best in the character (Claude Frollo) and explore new angles that I’ve never explored before, especially with how vastly different I am in person from Frollo. I’ve always appreciated directors that don’t just let you phone it in and really want you to think about your intentions and your motivations and the things that drive the character forward. It expands the creative process and makes it so much more fun. I’ve really appreciated their attention to detail.”
Even just three weeks into the rehearsal process, Austin considers this opportunity “life-changing” and this show to be a “must-see.” “This show and TNP have really reinforced my love for theater and made me realize and understand that this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. I love having the opportunity to not just perform but do it well, and create something that I can be proud of. Theatre has served me so greatly in the past and has made me a better person, and I think here (at TNP) it will continue to do so.”
“You’re not going to regret seeing The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I’ve invited all of my friends and family to take the two-and-a-half-hour drive to come
see it, and I don’t do that with every show. This show is different and it’s definitely one of the most powerful and impactful shows I’ve been in in a long time. Come, enjoy, and ultimately be impressed because we’ve got something really special here. You’ll be glad you did.”
A warm welcome to Austin, and congratulations on your first production at TNP! The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be performed at Community School of Naples, home of TheatreZone, July 5 – 23, 2023.
All of our staff and volunteers love to get new volunteers into the mix! If you’re new to the area, or just new to volunteering at TNP, don’t hesitate to join the fun. Test your skills at the next audition or contact Pamela Larkin Caruso at 239-434-7340, ext. 104 to find out what other opportunities there are backstage and front of house!