Behind the Curtain with The Naples Players

The community theater exemplifies what's possible when art lovers unite. Meet the hearts and minds that extend the theater's reach far beyond the stage.

BY May 1, 2024
The Naples Players
The Naples Players CEO Bryce Alexander knows the theater’s success relies on his team; he puts the right people in place and lets them do what they do best. In the wardrobe department, a group of four designers and a host of volunteers make roughly 50 percent of the myriad costumes seen on stage. (Photo by Anna Nguyen)

Throughout my years as an arts journalist, my stories about community theater have rarely strayed from the narrative of underfunding: We could do so much more with more support.

In Southwest Florida, I’ve seen, perhaps for the first time, what a community theater can achieve with proper support. Over a two-week span, executive artistic director and CEO Bryce Alexander granted me unfettered access to his offices and staff to see how The Naples Players (TNP) is furthering its mission to foster community and provide radical, inclusive access to theater for people across the region.

Peals of laughter spill into the hallway of the preschool building at Naples United Church of Christ, where TNP’s costume department has set up shop while their home base, Sugden Community Theatre, undergoes a $21 million renovation. I walk in and see tables lined with boxes of buttons, pins, fabric and shoes; closets swell with donated furs and jewelry; and mannequins display past costumes. The shop’s matriarch, Dot Auchmoody, flips through a 1950s design book looking for cat-eye glasses for Mrs. Peacock for an upcoming production of Clue.

Her team makes about half of the troupe’s costumes in-house (an eight-week process); the other half comes from thrift shops, other theaters, donations and New York nonprofit Theatre Development Fund. During her 22 years with TNP, Dot has built the largest costume repository in Southwest Florida. “[The Laboratory Theater of Florida] up in Fort Myers lost everything in the hurricane,” she says. “So we said, ‘Hey, come shop.’”

A few days later, resident scenic designer Michael Santos is on the set of Laugh, Cry, Pee, Repeat!—a production exploring the experiences, wisdom and humor of older women. Written by three local ladies, the story doesn’t offer much precedent for the stage design. Michael’s Greco-Roman park is layered with symbolic meaning. Three mock-stone arches reveal curls of ivy and three painted wooden reliefs depicting a bouquet vase, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace.Venus de Milo is about inner beauty and how you feel as a person. The Winged Victory is your struggle, your fight. The center vase is the encapsulation of family,” he says.

Developing the costumes and sets is part of a collaborative process that begins with a script read and a concept meeting with the director. “Bryce will ask probing questions like, ‘How do you want this to feel?’ and ‘What colors do you see?’ Those answers from the director tell us how best to work with them,” says props director Amy Hughes, a lifelong theater kid who quit her day job last year to work full-time with The Naples Players.

At the group’s offices on Fifth Avenue South, Nick Dalton, Craig Price and Summer Pliskow trickle into a sunny conference room to discuss plans for expanding off-site programming. These three make up the arts access department—developing, organizing and leading several weekly classes (in multiple languages) geared toward students of all ages and ability levels. 

Each team member holds an impressive roster of certifications and degrees add in fields related to theater and clinical care, but the bulk of the basis for their programming comes from conversations with partner organizations, students and local families. Craig, the most TNP-tenured among the group, has worked with the organization for 17 years. He  joined the team full-time seven years ago, when he and Bryce decided to build on their desire to provide programming for people with disabilities. The ethos is now embedded into the fabric of The Naples Players and reflected in the Sugden renovation. In addition to training front-of-house staff with ASL instruction for future shows, The Naples Players is also building a sensory-friendly viewing booth with a private entrance for guests sensitive to crowds or sensory stimuli.

The Naples Players has long offered creative programming, such as improv classes, to aid members of partner groups like STARability and Collier County Public Schools in developing social and communication skills. Two years ago, the group welcomed Summer, the education programs coordinator, who expanded the program to offer singing, acting and dance classes. Today, she’s been writing a script for The Greatest Showman for her STARability students. Over about nine months, her students pick a musical and practice their skills with Summer every week.

Down the hall, advancement director Elizabeth (Liz) Rountree shows me her office wardrobe—a stack of neat blouses, dresses and pants hanging on the back of her door. In an organization brimming with creatives, Liz is attuned to numbers and relationships, ensuring The Naples Players has the financial support it needs to grow and sustain Bryce’s vision. “In order to do that, we need to bring in new people who have the capacity to help—people who probably don’t know anything about us,” Liz says.

This includes co-writing personalized letters from Bryce, setting up lunches or cocktail parties, and developing new programs, such as the Director’s Donors Circle, where substantial gifts ($10,000 or more) are celebrated with insider perks. Prior to joining The Naples Players in 2023, Liz worked in similar capacities at The Shelter for Abused Women & Children, Gulfshore Playhouse and Artis—Naples. A year ago, the 65-year-old thought she was nearing retirement. Now, she’s not so sure. “This is the most fun organization I’ve ever worked for,” she says. “I think I could do this a lot longer.”

The next morning, Bryce navigates a full-staff meeting, covering everything from a boom in ticket sales to expanding accessibility to the ongoing construction. Toward the end of the meeting, it’s time for Whales, Whoopsies, Woohoos and WTFs. Members from every department recognize exceptional work from their peers (whales), their own mistakes (whoopsies), moments of pride (woohoos) and things that made them wonder, ‘What the heck is my coworker thinking?’ Bryce is unanimously (and hilariously) named WTF winner for forgetting his socks at a recent commercial shoot with Porsche. Dot and her team simply cannot let that go.

The day proceeds at a breakneck pace. Bryce and Liz meet Rocco and Joan Di Lillo for lunch on the balmy veranda at Campiello to espouse the upcoming advancements to the theater and discuss how to best celebrate the Di Lillo’s recent $1.5 million donation. From there, at any moment, Bryce could run across the street to review progress with the construction team, take a call from the mayor, train staff on using TNP’s database, direct a performance, hold auditions, lead a class and rub shoulders with patrons. We hit at least 80 percent by 7:45 p.m., then scurry over to the evening’s production of Laugh, Cry, Pee, Repeat!.

Bryce ping-pongs around the room like a dinner party host. “I usually look for people who look grouchy first,” he tells me, identifying his first group to greet. In an instant, groups of ladies anxious for the show to start are laughing at Bryce’s banter. Then, in a flash, he sweeps backstage to wish the cast good luck, thank volunteers and check on the crew before taking the stage to introduce the show.

Later, we sit on the front steps of the church, both sweaty and exhausted, and Bryce reflects on what his job must look like through my eyes. “I feel lucky that we get to be part of a community of people who care about the culture of the county and how we serve our patrons the best,” he says. “It is a lot of work and a lot of hours. But it’s also the best job in the world.”  

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