Carrie Lund Cacioppo Quite an Act for Florida Rep
There seems no end to the fascinating characters she can bring to life at Florida Repertory Theatre
There’s a home in Fort Myers familiar to so many, it’s almost a part of the community. It’s come alive often over the years with string lights, tiki torches, fresh florals, incredible spreads of homemade food. But even on a quiet February afternoon void of Lee County’s who’s who, it’s alive in a way unusual for a physical structure.
Winding your way from the front door, you’ll see bright color claims nearly every surface but the home’s white exterior. A lifetime of photographs finds its way to every wall; curious and intimate treasures line every shelf. An enviously effortless mish-mosh of chairs, sofas, benches, tables invites you to pleasant pause at every turn. A tightly coiled staircase leads to a well-loved hammock; a rope hanging beneath it drops into a glittering pool. Rounded archways flanking the water provide escape to a Europe-evoking courtyard, and a rolling lawn awaits beyond. The home is happy, even exciting. Clearly, it says, “An artist lives here.”
That artist is Carrie Lund Cacioppo (along with her husband, Robert)—actress, co-founder and associate producer of Florida Repertory Theatre.
Beneath the creeping tendrils of the courtyard’s pergola, she puts forth a tray of tea and banana bread, offers monster lemons fresh from her trees. Soon, several hours of storytelling reveal that this house unfurls not unlike her life and career. Both are sprawling in the best way, eclectic collections that possess an anchoring heartbeat but make room for offshoots of exploration and desire.
Each experience led her to land in her current, multifaceted role of leading lady for Lee County’s hottest theater. Just last season she dazzled in a one-woman show as Erma Bombeck, gussied up to be the very New York Bunny in The House of Blue Leaves, dressed down for the gambling, gum-smacking Coral in Doublewide. Next season, she’s set to star as at least three more personas. Here, come to know better this child of theater.
Carrie is backed up against a refrigerator, not speaking, a mistress in hiding as her lover’s wife stumbles into the room. And though she’s at this moment shoved as far stage-right as possible, painted into the corner of the set, her presence is front-and-center.
Tonight, as Bunny, it’s not just the flamboyant voice; the gaudy outfit; the seasoned timing. It’s the believability.
Her command of movements big and small cuts through the dark at this packed Tuesday showing—an eye roll, a ditzy high-heeled shuffle, a shimmying, hand-on-hip dance to a little ditty. For a comedy so peculiar and over-the-top, her expressions feel authentic and familiar.
“She just makes wonderful choices that are so distinct to the character, that are very different from the last character she’s played,” says her Blue Leaves lover and longtime Florida Rep ensemble member Greg Longenhagen. He adds, “She keys in very nicely and skillfully into what makes the character tick.”
From the start, Carrie felt “terrible” about playing conniving, selfish Bunny. Truthfully, it was exhausting. But she dove into the role as she does them all: by finding something to relate to.
“There’s always something that’s connected,” Carrie says. “So I will take some of the obvious, stereotypical parts and sort of apply them to the basic nature of that character. I go too big, and then have either the director, like, scrape it off, or if it’s too big that I don’t believe it, then I scrape it off.”
Inspiration comes as much from observing partiers at Fort Myers Beach’s Lani Kai resort as from imagining the life story of a stranger sitting on his porch across the globe.
Her first characters debuted early.
When she was elementary-school young, family gatherings were a time to round up cousins for skits and songs. Garages were a place to assemble neighborhood kids for plays. Even classroom studies, she convinced her teachers, were in need of breaks for rehearsals.
In junior high school, she dressed up as Charlie Chaplin and performed a pantomime for a school variety show. At her all-girls Catholic high school, she started a series of little theater “companies” (more like single acts), advancing three times to national competition.
“Nothing in my life was so far away from that theater bug,” she says.
The second of four children, she grew up “pretty provincial,” in Erie, Pennsylvania. Her father was a lawyer, her mother a professional volunteer.
She remembers her dad helping her write a piece about William Penn. She wrote it, directed it, and played Penn. She remembers her mom combing the streets of Cape Cod, knocking on doors to ask if residents would take in her 13-year-old daughter when she spent her summer (and later two more) in the professional Cape Playhouse. Most of the other students there were in college.
College for Carrie meant not just earning her acting and directing degree from Ithaca College. She tried starting her own theater company; landed roles with others; spent a semester taking in 30-some shows in London; spent a summer with the Green Mountain Guild rotating shows through ski resorts in Vermont.
Each time she left home, her mother would remind her of words spoken by Hamlet’s Polonius.
“The line was, ‘To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thoust cannot then be false to any other man,’” Carrie recites. “Her meaning for me to understand was, don’t give up yourself; don’t give up your past.”
With pin curls in her hair, Carrie navigates the bowels of Florida Rep—the windowless dressing room where she applies her stage makeup, the humming alleyway where she warms up, the stage where she drags her slippers in realistic patterns across the freshly vacuumed carpet.
To learn her lines, Carrie codes her entire script, writing just the first letter of every word. Outside of rehearsal, she doesn’t run the words aloud. When they live in your head, she says, they meld with your own personality and flow more naturally, for each audience anew.
When she’s in a show, she goes to bed running lines, sleeps running lines, wakes running lines. It’s all not exactly gotten easier with time, Carrie, now 59, admits. Yoga helps. In recounting for Breaking Character Magazine her experience playing Erma Bombeck, she says: “I find nerves of steel weaken, flexibility lessens, and brain capacity has limits. In short, we age.”
Consistent, however, has been her tendency to bring characters home. While playing Erma, she was happy as a clam. During more unfortunate characters, though—her husband lives with different effects.
“And that is why,” Robert jokes, “I will never have her play the Lorena Bobbitt story.”
She and Robert, the animated personality well-known as Florida Rep’s co-founder and producing artistic director, do have a unique tale of their own. It began in Vermont. Robert was there directing; Carrie was there learning to produce. Neither was single.
They entered into an affair and shook on it lasting just the duration of Robert’s directing gig—two weeks. They’ve now been married almost 30 years.
Carrie opened a secret P.O. Box on Sanibel, where she was living; Robert called her from phone booths in New York City, where he was driving cabs; they left phone messages for each other through Robert’s best friend (John Martin, now Florida Rep’s managing director). Hundreds of the handwritten exchanges live on in a Reebok shoebox.
Together, Carrie and Robert took downtown Fort Myers’ historic Arcade Theatre building from operating just 35 days a year to lighting up in 1998 as the permanent home of Florida Rep.
It wasn’t the first time Carrie had transformed an establishment from dark.
Carrie’s adult career beginnings were, like her college years, varied and determined.
“The way I treat theater is like my religion,” she says. “So, you know, monks and nuns will make lots of sacrifices, and that’s the sense I feel about it.”
While holding day jobs in New York City, she would bike in a fairy godmother costume to perform in a “not-so-good” children’s theater in a not-so-good part of town. At one point the day job was working the switchboard at a squash club. Carrie recalls once a month making every one of its six phone lines ring into the Ross Report, where unrepresented actors had an hour to call in for work. Once, she got through—leading to 15-plus episodes as an extra on As the World Turns.
After a few years, she and her long-term boyfriend (“Robert the First”), with whom she sometimes partnered professionally, auditioned around the country. Both were hired as resident actors in Pittsburgh, and Carrie came to wear many respectable hats for the city’s theater community. But she wanted to get onstage in a permanent way—to start her own theater.
Well, while on vacation with her family to Sanibel Island in 1984, a family friend told her the island’s old schoolhouse, then Pirate Playhouse, was for sale. Long story short, she came to run the theater for the fellow who outbid her, and to major success.
That summer is when Carrie met Robert Cacioppo, by the way. Robert the First was still in Pittsburgh. Both Roberts did in time come down to Pirate Playhouse, and Carrie did in time break it off with Robert the First and, in 1987, marry Robert the Second. And yes—the Roberts did overlap professionally.
Many theaters have dramatic tales of closings or firings, Carrie says. For her, at the hands of the Playhouse board, it happened twice.
The first time, the Cacioppos were forced to strike out on their own for two years—extremely poor and Carrie pregnant with their first child, Matthew. They drew crowd after crowd as the vagabond-like Carrie Lund Presents until the Playhouse asked them to return. The second time, they never looked back.
The next stop was Florida Rep, and all the Pirate Playhouse donors, artists and audience members would come along for the ride. Carrie now sees the adversity—the politics, the roller coaster that is entrepreneurship, the raising kids on food stamps—as contributing to the eventual success.
They finished their last season with Pirate Playhouse in 1998. The ironic soundtrack to their last production’s curtain call? Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone.
“All the sudden, we look up and you can’t see land.” John Martin, Carrie and her then 11-month-old daughter, Julia, had been floating on a raft in the Gulf, he says, reconnecting after two years apart, when they drifted more than a bit too far. That’s just how easy Carrie is to talk to, he says.
He’s not alone in his connecting to her energy. While he calls her “an original,” many friends call her “Mama Cac”; another has labeled her a “magical mom.” Robert evidences the latter with one of his wife’s recurring roles: balloon fairy. To this day, on every birthday of Matthew and Julia (and Robert), she blows up close to 100 balloons and fills the bedroom of the birthday boy or girl while he or she is asleep.
“I must say, about five years ago you felt this real, other level that she went on as an actor,” Robert says. “I realized what it was. Our children were now out of the house and on their own, and doing well and independent. Because even though she was an actress, a producer, an accomplished woman—being a mother and a parent was always No. 1.”
Actress Viki Boyle bonded with Carrie quickly, while sharing a dressing room for the farce Noises Off. Their third show together, Arsenic and Old Lace, had them holding hands as murderous old maiden sisters.
“I said, ‘Boy, you have to really trust somebody that you’re not romantically involved with (to do that) for three acts,’” Boyle says.
What Carrie serves you is genuinely who she is, Boyle says. She’s witnessed no airs, even with donors. She calls it a gift.
“I think she’s only half-done,” Martin says of Carrie. “I think she has at least a career as long ahead of her as she’s had behind her. If she wants it.”