That’s the Ticket!
Not long ago, if theater lovers in Southwest Florida wanted to see professional actors, they had to travel to Miami or Fort Lauderdale. These days, East Coast actors are commuting to perform in the Gulfshore’s own professional theaters. Part of the attraction for both out-of-town actors and local audiences is a progression of the type of plays produced here.
The area has long boasted fine dinner theaters and top-notch community troupes, but Michael McNally, a retiree and theater aficionado who has lived in Southwest Florida for 25 years, says he’s seen big steps forward. "Collier and Lee counties are really catching up," he says.
McNally remembers when the Naples Players performed in a small space on Goodlette Road rather than the Sugden Community Theatre. "The line-up was mostly old chestnuts, proven fare, like Neil Simon comedies or Arsenic and Old Lace. I think the intelligence of our audiences was underestimated." McNally says about 20 years ago, Naples Players presented an evening of Edward Albee one-acts, which was attended by the legendary and controversial playwright himself. "That was around the time when all the theaters started stepping up with more interesting works," McNally says. "People didn’t have to travel to Miami or Fort Lauderdale to see theater that made them think anymore."
There are now three professional Equity actors’ union theaters along the Gulfshore. It started with the Pirate Playhouse, which originated on Sanibel Island in the late ’80s, and grew under the direction of Producing Artistic Director Robert Cacioppo into the renowned Florida Repertory Theatre in downtown Fort Myers. Now, two Equity theater companies in Naples have upped the ante: TheatreZone and Gulfshore Playhouse. With three critically acclaimed Equity houses here, East Coast actors have a new playground just a hop, skip and a jump across Alligator Alley.
John Felix of Fort Lauderdale, a stage veteran of more than 30 years and a Carbonell Award winner (the equivalent to the Tony Awards on Florida’s East Coast) has done a dozen shows with Florida Rep since the late ’90s and most recently returned to the Gulfshore to perform in TheatreZone’s December musical, The Fantasticks. "You have Sanibel and Captiva islands, where you can unwind on a day off," he says. "Downtown Fort Myers has really grown over the years, but it has that small-town feel and still has so much culture. I love the East Coast, but it’s much busier and more urban."
Felix notes that I-95 runs from the Northeast to the East Coast of Florida, whereas I-75 follows the trail to the Gulfshore from the Midwest. "Because the audiences in Southwest Florida perhaps haven’t been exposed to newer plays, I think it makes them more open to it. I’ve noticed that the audiences in Fort Myers and Naples are generally younger, and they’re very appreciative of good theater."
Cacioppo says, "The amount of Florida actors turning out for our auditions has grown tremendously over the years, and it’s reflective of the work we do." Florida Rep is currently running the area premiere of the award-winning play, August: Osage County by Tracy Letts.
Kristen Coury, producing artistic director of Gulfshore Playhouse, says, "I love that we’re attracting such great talent from the other side of the state, but it’s not surprising. We choose challenging shows, and we treat the actors well and offer them a great working environment."