Not only the play, but the musical. And state-of-the-art theater and performance education and classroom spaces. One other thing? Enjoying shiny new theaters that play a big role in pushing Naples to the top of the Florida list of arts and cultural Meccas.
This is all thanks to a pair of nonprofit theater entities undergoing transformative projects that, combined, are worth some $90 million. One is a renovation of The Naples Players main playhouse on Fifth Avenue South. The other is a new construction of the Gulfshore Playhouse Cultural Campus, at the corner of Goodlette-Frank Road and 1st Avenue South, in what’s commonly known as the East of 41 area.
The theaters are about a mile apart from each other in downtown Naples. Close by, meanwhile are at least two other significant arts complexes. Artis-Naples, home of the popular Naples Philharmonic, is five miles north. And Opera Naples is 1.5 miles or so away from the theaters, just across Naples Bay.
Executives say the projects, beyond the internal benefits, will enhance the economic impact each theater organization already provides for the region. “We’re really excited about what each other’s theater projects can do for Naples,” says The Naples Players CEO and Executive Artistic Director Bryce Alexander. “We are putting Collier County on the international map.”
The Gulfshore Playhouse Cultural Campus is expected to welcome new patrons by fall 2024, with an announcement of shows in February. The Naples Players is expected to open in summer 2024.
A deeper look at each project shows how each theater plans to use its new digs to both connect more with repeat audiences and draw in new theatergoers.
Kristen Coury, founder and artistic director at Gulfshore Playhouse, recalls the early days of the organization in 2004. That’s when Coury, then a newbie in Southwest Florida, peered out the balcony of her Naples apartment — unwittingly eyeing land that’s now Gulfshore’s new home. “This is really a dream come true,” Coury says.
Coury’s vision, after a career working for Broadway producers in New York City, was to bring top-flight working professional actors and set and stage designers from all over the country to deliver Broadway-level theater to Naples and Southwest Florida. The first show, in 2006, was the play “Oleanna,” by David Mamet. It starred Tony nominee Alan Campbell.
A decade or so later, Coury went from thinking about the idea of building a new space to taking steps to doing it. The theater had it outgrown its facility, on Eighth Avenue South. “We looked for land everywhere, from Fort Myers to Marco Island,” she says.
When the site on Goodlette-Frank Road became available, Gulfshore took a page from theater ethos and seized the moment. The first big win, in 2016, was a $10 million matching gift challenge from prominent Naples philanthropists Patty and Jay Baker; Jay is a co-founder of national retail chain Kohl’s.
Big win No. 2 came in 2017, when the organization bought the 3-acre site for its new home. Coury, with a flair for the dramatic, notes the magical symmetry of the purchase: closing, she says, was May 15, 2015 — 5/15/15 — when, at 5:15 p.m., the Bakers wrote a check for $5.15 million.
The new complex — which Coury expects will serve at least 100,000 people next year — includes the 45,000-square-foot Baker Theatre and Education Center. Other highlights include the 350-seat Mainstage Theatre, with, says Coury, wider wings for performances; a second, more intimate, 125-seat Studio Theatre; and Struthers Hall, which Gulfshore, on its website, describes as a “light-filled, open and airy space” that “will welcome patrons and visitors.”
The space will also be available for rentals, special events, weddings, parties and more.
The $70 million budget for the project is up from about $40 million in 2017. “We went from $60 million to $66 million a day after the groundbreaking,” in December 2021, Coury says. There are myriad reasons for the increases, from what’s now mostly standard supply chain and labor challenges to a specific flood zone issue that required the building to be lifted up. The pandemic, of course, was another challenge.
Another reason for the higher budget? Coury wanted to have a few million dollars at the ready to pay for a variety of finishing touches. “Most theater companies run out of money by the end,” she says, “and they aren’t able to put in fantastic finishes.”
Speaking of other theater companies, Coury beams with pride over how rare it is to successfully pull off a project like this. “The buzz is getting higher and higher,” says Coury, taking a break during a rehearsal one early evening in mid-November. “Something new is happening every day. The stucco is going up. Windows are going up.”
She adds that Gulfshore is receiving a wave of calls weekly, even daily, from people who want to buy tickets, sponsor shows and just be in the loop. “It’s not often a new theater building gets built in America,” she says, citing the last one, in Glencoe, Illinois, at least a decade ago. “We are getting a lot of national visibility for this. It’s a really big deal.”
The Naples Players
The past 11 months have been big ones for The Naples Players — not only for its ongoing renovation, but in celebrating the past: The organization, with an annual operating budget of $4.3 million, turned 70 years old in 2023.
The idea for The Players goes back to the living room inside the home of Henry and Mary Watkins, part of the family that operated the Naples Beach Hotel and Golf Club for decades. Its first production was “I Remember Mama,” in what’s now Gulfview Middle School.
Several other homes followed, including a Naples storefront. It moved into its current location, on Fifth Avenue South, in 1998. The area was struggling then — far from the tony national draw it is today.
Alexander, who relocated from a nonprofit theater leadership role in Denver in 2016 to oversee The Players, says theater leaders began thinking about a renovation of the facilities three or four years ago. The group kicked off fundraising for the $20 million project with an event at the home of iconic Naples philanthropist Myra Janco Daniels at what turned out to be an inopportune time: February 2020. The pandemic that started the next month delayed progress.
But since then Alexander says the organization has raised more than three-fourths of the $20 million. The renovations include essentially gutting the 39,000-square-foot space, says Alexander, and adding another space for education and community programs, including an innovative arts and wellness offering. Other additions include a 450-Broadway style theater, balconies, two black box theaters, classrooms, a cafe and a costume shop. Alexander is especially proud of the sensory box theater, which he says will be a welcoming spot for children and adults with disabilities.
Two other parts of the project hold deep meaning for Alexander.
One is community support, especially from longtime Naples residents, who, like many others in fast-growing Florida hot spots, are worried about the impacts of uncontrolled growth. So getting unanimous approval from city leaders on the project, he says, was nice. “Development is really hot in Naples right now,” he says. “People don’t want to see Naples overdeveloped.”
A second win for Alexander is that he believes the newly renovated complex will retain its comfort-food charm. “It will be a very intimate Broadway-style house,” he says. “We love that when people come in here, one of the things they often tell us is that coming here is like getting a warm hug.”
Mark Gordon is the managing editor of the Business Observer. He has worked for the Business Observer since 2005. He previously worked for newspapers and magazines in upstate New York, suburban Philadelphia and Jacksonville.