The Historic Arcade Theatre

Best of Enemies

The Uninvited Guest

Becky's New Car

Down By The River
Florida Rep Celebrates 20 Years

by Paula Bolado

INSIDE THE ARTSTAGE STUDIO Theatre in downtown Fort Myers, an audience member can experience the small rural Irish setting of Outside Mullingar, a four person modern-day play complete with spot-on Irish accents and hints of weather changes — such as rain drops on jackets — to mimic the damp, cold Irish climate. The intimacy of the Artstage, the smaller of the two theatres located inside the Historic Arcade building that houses The Florida Repertory Theater, allows the audience to sit quite close to the characters, making impossible not to become part of their story of love, loss, and land dispute.

Florida Rep (as it is referred to) is celebrating its 20th year in Southwest Florida. Recently, Founder and Producing Artistic Director, Robert Cacioppo discussed the diversity in the shows, the importance of communicating cultural issues through the stage, and how music and educational outreach are pinnacle to the success of this organization.

Cacioppo’s mission is to use a wide variety of people and works that showcase not only the talent and writing, but promote conversations about culture in our country. “Theatre is a place where ideas can be exchanged,” he says.

Considering the racial violence in America that is dominating the national landscape, Cacioppo presented a play last year titled, The Best of Enemies, a true story that took place in Durham, North Carolina, during the desegregation of schools in 1971; it’s about the real-life relationship between a desegregation activist and a member of the KKK. Adding to the theatrical discourse on racial injustice, he also presented the play, To Kill a Mockingbird, for the same reason: to bring race relations to the forefront. The first time he directed this show was in 1997, when the News-Press ran a headline, that said, according to Cacioppo: ‘Fort Myers: The Most Segregated City in the South.’

The second time Cacioppo presented To Kill a Mockingbird was around the poignant time when Obama was giving his farewell address. Obama quoted Atticus Finch by saying, “If our democracy is to work in this increasingly diverse nation, each of us must try to heed the advice: You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Cacioppo knew this to be the right time to put on such a classic play that teaches people to learn to walk in another person’s shoes. Cacioppo insists, “Theatre, going back to the Greeks, also made people think. We have found that our biggest supporters and donors and the people who really love Florida Rep loves that we do plays that have substance and makes people think.”

Cacioppo feels a responsibility to serve the community as a first-rate arts organization. He notes, “We are the only theatre in Fort Myers that creates work with professional actors — meaning actors from Actors Equity Association — which is the union that works on Broadway.” He also works with set designers and directors from other professional organizations. “Every show that Florida Rep does, we spend over a quarter of a million dollars on each show or more,” he continues. “We audition the actors, bring them from New York, house them, pay their union dues, and build the kind of sets we have.”

Cacioppo adds, “We hold a very unique place in Fort Myers. Now Florida Rep is the largest not-for-profit arts organization in the history of Lee County.” Cacioppo, along with 55 staff members, are building a national reputation with a budget of four million dollars and plays that reach over eighty-thousand people, so that the community gets the big city theatre experience in Fort Myers.

The new season opens with a couple of comedies, two of which includes a beautiful romance, incredible acting, and moments of big belly laughs, needed after a stressful time post-Irma. Outside Mullingar kicked off the season, and Sylvia, a fun fantasy where a dog, played by a human actress, takes up residency with a couple who just moved to New York City after their kids went off to college, runs thru November 15.

For someone who has produced 160 plays in 19 years, Cacioppo loves to bring joy to the audience, but again he intends to address social issues that pervade our culture. Disgraced opens November 7 and runs thru December 10. He says, “This is about a Muslim man who feels prejudiced against. It is the most produced play in theatres like ours.” With the new administration’s specific travel bans from those in predominately Muslim countries, this is an important reflection of our culture’s anxieties today. He continues, “Here’s a chance theatre not only makes people escape and forget about their problems, but also makes them think; that’s a play that when it’s over will stay with you and you’ll think about it a lot, and think about America.”

The Last Night of Ballyhoo (November 11-December 17), is about a Jewish family living in Atlanta during World War II. Coalescing on stage are subsets of Southern elitism and anti-Semitism, yet the play also includes a tender love story. These are the kinds of plays Cacioppo is most proud of when it comes to bringing important issues to the stage.

On the lighter side this season, he is bringing us a musical he wrote, Night and Day. He says, “We have been doing a salute to the great American composers. Three years ago we did a salute to George & Ira Gershwin, and two years ago we did a salute to Johnny Mercer. This year we are doing a salute to Cole Porter.” Cacioppo loves celebrating American composers. “No one does musical theatre like the Americans.” The play will be like an opera, involving two couples, with the story told via 36 Cole Porter songs.

The rest of the season is filled with comedy (How the Other Half Lives), classic drama (The Miracle Worker), classic musical (Cabaret), and a new comedic production (George Washington’s Teeth).

Theatre education has been a passion for the organization. Through Florida Rep’s theatre’s education program, the Conservatory, and under the direction of Kody Jones, students in the region, especially those from ages 4-18 years old, can participate in education classes on acting, musical theatre, improvisation, directing, private lessons, and intensive theatre camps. An impressive 31,000 kids are served in the area. The Conservatory is designed for young actors to gain ‘a real-life regional theatre experience.’

One of the Conservatory’s musicals this year is called School of Rock and recently my family was able to enjoy this energetic, intelligent, and hilarious musical. The choreography, acting, and songs provide a top-notch production from local youth in the area. One of the student characters, who showcases her spunky acting and dancing chops on stage and adds to the excitement of the show, is Ella Stroud, a 13 year old Sanibel Island resident who has been involved with Florida Repertory Theatre since she was ten. She says, “I’ve been doing Florida Rep’s Conservatory since I was in fifth grade and my most recent show was School of Rock and it’s the best theatre I’ve ever worked with. It’s really fun, a lot of close friendships are built, and it makes me sad when a show is over because the set is incredible, the people are amazing, and the talent is phenomenal.”

Through her involvement with Florida Rep, Ella has learned confidence skills she brings into her daily life. She adds, “Before I did theatre, I was kind of shy, and doing so many shows with Florida Rep has brought me get out of my shell.” Ella’s involvement with Florida Rep demonstrates how the organization touches the lives of many beyond the audience.

Florida Rep helps provide opportunities for students of all backgrounds to participate in its classes and camps. That is why corporate and individual support from donors are important to not only help bring high-level productions to the area, but also to help support youth scholarships. •

Florida Repertory Theatre performs in the historic Arcade Theatre, located at 2268 Bay St. in downtown Fort Myers River District. For information, call 332-4488.

November-December 2017