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Kristen Coury: The Force Behind the Drama

How the Gulfshore Playhouse founder is leading the way to fresh initiatives and a bold new theater space.



Brian Tietz

 

“​This was by accident. Completely.”

Sitting in her office at Gulfshore Playhouse’s Fifth Avenue South administrative headquarters, Kristen Coury gives a quick shake of her brunette curls and giggles at the irony of the plot twist that wrested her out of New York, landed her in Naples and led her to this moment of reflection on a late August afternoon. The 2018-19 season marks an anniversary year, her troupe’s 15th, but that milestone had not occurred to her until she was asked about it. Coury right now is consumed by a bigger undertaking—as momentous as the company’s debut back in 2004. We’ll get to that news in a minute. Her tale is still unfolding:

“We were gonna go to Miami,” she continues, eyes dancing, voice rising, storyteller that she is. “I had the tour book out, and it says there is a cute, Caribbean-style island called Marco Island.” She laughs again, this time at the mis-characterization. “Anyway, we got off at Exit 107 and came down Pine Ridge Road toward 41 and took a left and for whatever reason ended up eating at Venetian Village and decided to stay overnight.”

The other half of “we” was her former husband, a chef. The couple had been on a much-needed winter vacation from a post-9/11 city that was in a “funk,” and she herself from a theatrical career that, while impressive on paper, lacked emotional gratification. If you know Coury—even peripherally—you know that emotional flatness and she do not jibe.

By the next morning, Coury was smitten.

“I told him, ‘You see that beautiful, multicolored building over there? Those are apartments. We should go home and put our co-op on the market and we should move there. He said, ‘OK.’ And that’s exactly what we did.”

But it wasn’t only the subtropical vibrancy that called to her. Coury found herself consumed by a singular—if slightly preposterous—dream of establishing a professional, New York-caliber producing theater in Naples. Gulfshore Playhouse was hatched in a spare bedroom in that condo, her Realtor serving as her inaugural board member because Coury knew no one else here. In the years since, she’s grown it from one employee (her) with a nonexistent budget to a 42-person, $4.2 million operation that produces six shows per season, runs a full slate of educational programs and offers an ever-growing list of audience engagement opportunities. The only thing missing remains a space of her own; she currently stages performances at the city-owned Norris Center and runs rehearsals out of municipal recreation building.

But not for long.

In this season, Coury will direct her greatest drama yet: a $45 million capital campaign to build and endow a 56,000-square-foot theater and education complex. She hopes to break ground in a year.

She leans in, a little conspiratorially. “You remember that apartment I told you about?” she asks. “I used to stand on the balcony of that apartment and look out at (a piece of) empty land and I would say, ‘That’s a perfect spot for the theater,’ and I would imagine it there.”

A decade and a half later, that same piece of land at the corner of Goodlette-Frank Road and Third Avenue South, still empty, is precisely where Gulfshore Playhouse will be built. Coury and her board pounced on it when it went up on the market (and when she knew she had captured the support of Naples’ most prominent philanthropists, Patty and Jay Baker, who offered a $10 million matching gift to kick off the campaign).

Coincidence?

Cosmic intervention?

The luck of Kristen Coury?

The dogged determination of Kristen Coury?

Maybe it’s all of that—and maybe even more. Now that we’re hooked on this bafflingly circular tale, we tag along with the theatrical maverick at the start of her 2018-19 season to find out what makes her tick, what makes her company stand out, and how she’ll take on the equivalent of a black box-to-mainstage leap with the company’s massive new undertaking.

“We’re at the edge of the diving board, and we’re ready to leap and fly into our future,” she says.

She’s excited on this afternoon. But, really, is Coury ever not excited?

Gulfshore Playhouse founder Kristen Coury shows off a vacant piece of land on Goodlette-Frank Road where her new theater and education complex will be built.

 

Let’s get this out of the way first: Yes, there is something uncanny about Kristen Coury’s fortunes.

She wanted to direct a film; she got a film. (It’s called Friends and Family, her first and, she swears, her only foray into the genre.)

She longed to live in London after college but lacked the money to do so. Until, that is, she went on a game show, of all things, and won $30,000.

And then, of course, the fateful trip to Naples; the theater vision; its reality.

“Are you asking me if I’ve always been a manifester?” she asks. “I guess so. People who know me call me a ‘master manifester.’ I don’t qualify myself as that, but they’ll say, ‘Oh, really?’”

She considers instead another “M” word. “It’s the Merlin Principle,” she says. “It’s thinking from the future, and then figuring out how to get there.”

The new theater and education complex, she stresses, is not a blind leap of faith like the move to Naples (and that wasn’t exactly, either, as she’d consulted carefully with a New York entertainment lawyer about starting the theater). “We have done an enormous amount of research,” she says, citing feasibility studies, industry consultations, strategic and transitional plans.

Coury is relentlessly detailed. You can see it throughout her day-to-day operations, but it is perhaps most apparent when she’s working on her first love: directing.

 

Opening the 2018-19 season is An Iliad, a one-man drama starring Jeffrey Binder, Gulfshore Playhouse’s associate artistic director. The show centers on Binder’s anguished narrator endlessly recounting mankind’s wars. Coury, Binder and a few other key staff members meet in their rehearsal studio, a rec room at Fleischmann Park, for a preliminary run-through. The director offers a few stage directions (minimal ones because she’ll want Binder and other artistic staff to contribute their ideas later). And then she stands, one hand on hip, and studies the actor’s delivery—his movement, tone, inflection, emotion.

Coury, director of An Iliad, demonstrates mood and movement for Binder’s character.

They pause after a few minutes. Coury encourages Binder to probe more deeply into the character’s psyche. The storyteller is frustrated, she suggests, because he can’t recite his verses the way he used to. Binder takes another go. “Wow. Already I feel it’s really ... more layered,” Coury says. She glances periodically at her script. Colored ink denotes stage directions: green for props, red for sound, blue for light and orange for costumes. In the margins and blank pages, she’s written countless other notes: “Who is he?” “The Poet, The Storyteller.” “Enlightenment is hard.” “He’s a man of his day, but also of all days.” “His life is a BURDEN.”

Coury has the presence and stage-commanding energy of a leading lady—the attributes that make outsiders as excited about her cause as she is. But you won’t find her in a spotlight. She prefers her unseen role, even if the action on-stage bears her indelible stamp.

“I feel like I am one of the lucky, blessed people in the world because I get to watch artists create art,” she says. “(Directing) is working with another human to try to dig deep into the deepest aspects of humanity.”

 

You might say that “humanism” drives Coury’s business practices as much as it does her theatrical philosophy. That starts with her insistence that the education division carry equal weight to the performing one.

“We had a kid recently who was in a poetry workshop that Hester [Kamin, the education director] was teaching,” Coury remembers of a school outreach project. “He had his hoodie down, not paying any attention. At the end was a poetry contest, and he wrote this beautiful poem and he won. ... Hester asked, ‘How come you didn’t raise your hand in class? How come you didn’t speak up?’ He said, ‘Because I failed every English class I ever took and I didn’t think I had any talent.’” Coury has told this story before, but it still gives her pause. “That’s what the arts can do—break down the barriers, help us fan the flame of self-expression. Get us into the world in a new way. We learn by telling each other’s stories. It’s in our DNA.”

Her desire for connectivity reveals itself in the theater’s design. Coury highlights an artist rendering of the lobby with a bar and lots of space for mingling.

“In this day and age, what we’re learning is that the engagement spaces are equally as important as the art-making spaces. ... With technology the way it is, the isolation behind our screens, I want to go back to our roots, to the Greeks and the birth of our democracy and the ability to have discourse and debate and discussion,” she explains.

She upholds similar ideals for staff interaction, crafting a sort of kindler, gentler production company in an industry notorious for its competitiveness, pace and artistic temperaments.

On a mid-September afternoon, the staff, which is split among three worksites, gathers at the rehearsal space for the first reading of Starcrossed, Kamin’s adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. The all-hands-on-deck affair is unusual (most theater companies would have exempted staffers like the carpenters, props designers and front office administrators for a play’s first read), but Coury wants everybody to feel fully invested.

“It’s a great opportunity for us to come together and celebrate the thing we do, and to celebrate each other,” she explains. “It’s about us coming together as a group.”

She’s tossed out a lot of other norms. In her company, the stage manager is encouraged to offer feedback to an actor, for example, in violation of the unwritten rules that keep artists and technical specialists from commenting on each other’s crafts.

“This is not usual for an organization to be this productive and happy,” Joel Markus, the newly hired managing director, remarks to the seasonal staff and interns during their orientation.

“We are working on opening things up, and not necessarily do it the way it’s always been done if that way isn’t the most effective or optimal way,” Coury explains. “It’s been a work in progress. It’s art.”

Coury addresses her seasonal staff and interns on Sept. 5, their first day of work and the informal opening day of the 2018-19 season.

 

Lest you think Gulfshore Playhouse materialized out of some sort of theatrical magic, let’s walk through a sample day in Coury’s life: a visit with newly arrived seasonal staff; thank-you calls to donors; a get-to-know-you lunch with interns; a meeting with the outside marketing specialist; another meeting to pick the finalists for the New Works Festival; rehearsal with Binder.

Staffers mention getting emails as late as 11 p.m., with a standard disclaimer: “You don’t have to answer this now, but...” Coury says she writes them not to overwhelm her staff but to log her ideas, which come to her at all hours. A notebook and her phone’s audio recorder are other favorite “capture tools.”

This season, Coury anticipates working until 10 p.m. most nights, scheduling late rehearsals so that she can work on the capital campaign and administrative matters through mid-afternoon. Ballroom dance offers her an outlet, though she’s no less driven on the dance floor. Her instructor knows the best way to provoke mastery is to express doubt that Coury will have perfected her steps before a showing.

“She has more energy than anybody I know,” Binder says. “Her mind is constantly working. It is always amazing to me how she can switch—from the capital campaign to directing a show to marketing to dealing with some other aspect of the business. She compartmentalizes it so well, but it all sits in her head, and once she invests in whatever the task is, it’s as if she’s been thinking about it all day. She is just tireless.”

Markus describes her work habits this way: “She keeps a running list in her head. I don’t know how she does it, but she walks by somebody and, ‘tick, tick tick,’ knocks things off the list,” he says. “She speaks fast, and she knows what she wants. ... She has a very full plate, but she cranks through it quickly.”

She is, in short, still very “New York.”

Markus’ position is new and signals a turning point for the company and Coury’s evolution from fledgling entrepreneur to seasoned CEO. “I’m trying to take things off of her plate because her plate is too full,” he says.

Coury may be shifting toward a more big-picture role, but that’s not to say she’s any less engaged in day-to-day matters.

“So let’s talk about ‘social proof,’” Coury says toward the end of a marketing meeting, after her consultant, Angela Bell, outlines the season’s outreach strategies. That’s the idea, Coury explains, that people will conform to whatever they think is socially acceptable or popular among the in-crowd. Think: a laugh track cuing audience response; the intrinsic want to “keep up with the Joneses.”

“How do we create the social proof that Gulfshore Playhouse is the cool thing to support? That’s the thing on my mind,” Coury says.

The buzz, already, is intensifying. Ticket sales and subscriptions are up, even for the New Works Festival, on the day that the artistic team debates the finalist scripts.

The company’s prominence is growing outside of Southwest Florida, too.

“When I announced I was coming here, I must have gotten 50 phone calls and emails from people saying, ‘When can you have me work there as a designer? What show can I direct down there?’ I know all of these people who want to work here,” says Markus, who has worked at theaters around the country.

“It’s distinct in its ambition,” says Binder, whose credits include an 11-year stint with The Lion King. “It’s distinct in its drive to constantly push the boundaries of what we can create and what we can do.”

 

Bob Harden, the board chairman, drops by for a quick finance meeting on the opening day of season.

“I tried to talk her out of it,” Harden admits when he’s asked about his history with the company. “I told her it’s a bad idea, an impossible dream, but there was something about her that led me to believe that if anyone can pull this off, she can.”

He’s headed the board for 14 years.

Nevertheless, the company’s success—Coury’s success—has meant letting go of other parts of her life. “I got divorced in 2010. I usually joke and say the husband went up against the theater and lost, but it’s kind of true.” They did not have children, deliberately. They ended the marriage when it might have inhibited them from pursuing their passions; her spouse got a job offer in Hong Kong, and Coury aspired to see her nascent company to maturity.

“I don’t (regret it). I have a vibrant, full, interesting life. I’m always busy. I’m always surrounded by cool, exciting people. I travel a lot. I see exiting things. I do exciting things,” she says. “I don’t look at it as a cost, but more like women are free to make choices now in a world that wasn’t always like that.”

Over lunch after the Starcrossed reading—her only unscheduled block of the day—she reflects again on the circumstances that brought her here.

“I’m a big believer—I guess you would call me a fatalist—in destiny. I do feel you live in a free-will universe, and everything is up for grabs in a sense, but I think somewhere in the universe they wanted a theater in Naples, Florida, a professional theater, and they put out the clarion call and somehow I answered.

“And I don’t think it was necessarily my destiny. I really believe the destiny was for there to be a theater in Naples. I think they—whoever they are—were looking for somebody to say ‘yes.’”

Lucky for Southwest Florida, she did.

 

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