Power of suggestion: Local theaters find patrons’ suggestions — or a close substitution — serve them well

Zolan Henderson, Sarah Baskin and Lori Wilner act out a scene in “Beau Jest” last season at the Gulfshore Playhouse.

Jamie Carmichael/Special to the Daily News

Zolan Henderson, Sarah Baskin and Lori Wilner act out a scene in “Beau Jest” last season at the Gulfshore Playhouse.

The TheatreZone cast of “Hair” surrounds Olli Haaskivi (Woof) during a musical number during rehearsal.

Photo by File

The TheatreZone cast of “Hair” surrounds Olli Haaskivi (Woof) during a musical number during rehearsal.

Mark Danni directs TheatreZone’s “Man of La Mancha”  in 2009.

Photo by TRISTAN SPINSKI // Buy this photo

Mark Danni directs TheatreZone’s “Man of La Mancha” in 2009.

Naples Players

701 5th Ave S, Naples, FL

TheatreZone / G & L Theatre

13275 Livingston Road, Naples, FL

Gulfshore Playhouse at Norris Community Center

755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples, FL

If they suggest it, they will come.

That’s the lesson Gulfshore Playhouse founder and artistic director Kristen Coury learned when her company staged “Beau Jest” last season.

“Beau Jest,” a James Sherman comedy about a woman who invents and then hires a boyfriend who will please her family, was the best selling show of the 2009–10 season and in the company’s four-year history, Coury said.

Coury selected the show after a patron suggested it to her. Until then, she says, she had not heard of it.

Keeping the audience in mind is fundamental to how theater companies pick their seasons. While some theater companies formally survey their supporters, the informal flow of feedback works just as well for others.

“Being a community theater, we get a lot of communication and response in what we do,” said Dallas Dunnagan, artistic director of the Naples Players. “I’ll get two or three programs a month for shows that are recommended.”

Dunnagan said she annually pulls together a committee to read 35 to 40 scripts and recommend their favorites. The committee’s selections are made for up to two years in the future. Dunnagan selects the season based on those recommendations.

At TheatreZone, artistic director Mark Danni surveyed patrons at the end of the last season. The survey listed eight potential shows and a write-in option. “Fantasticks,” a musical by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones about what happens when two fathers plot to have their children fall in love, received the most votes and opens Danni’s upcoming season.

The last time Danni surveyed his audience, he said “Jersey Boys,” a musical about 1960s rock group, The Four Seasons, was a popular write-in. That told him two things: He needed to educate his audience on the availability of rights, and he needed to find another piece about the same era.

When shows are on Broadway or major national tours, regional theaters cannot acquire the rights to perform them. “Jersey Boys” started its Broadway run in 2005 and is still playing there. There is a touring company production as well.

So instead, TheatreZone performed “Leader of the Pack” and “Hair,” two shows set in the 1960s.

“That seemed to be hitting a nerve with people, that whole era,” Danni said. He’s brought back the 1960s for the upcoming season with “Beehive.”

There are also the recurring requests that aren’t possible because they require more space, such as “The Lion King” and “The Phantom of the Opera,” Danni said. TheatreZone performs in the G&L Theater Building, an intimate 250-seat space.

How recently a show has been performed in the area and the last time the company performed a show are also important considerations.

Whether it’s a 10-, five- or two-year embargo, the hope is to bring theatrical diversity to the public.

“I love for all of us to provide different products for our audience,” Dunnagan said.

Occasionally, seasons overlap. The Naples Players and The Florida Repertory Theatre in Fort Myers are both staging “Sylvia,” a comedy by A.R. Gurney about the antics of a dog and the couple who adopt it. In fact, they’re both staging them in January.

The love of theater doesn’t change it from being a business, either. The economic downturn has affected the considerations of theater companies.

The selection of “Tuesdays with Morrie” was a response to the economy, Coury said.

The play has a cast of two and requires a small production staff, making it easier on the company’s budget. It’s also familiar; it’s based on Mitch Albom’s best-selling memoir about his relationship with one of his college professors.

“People know it, they’ve heard of it,” Coury said. The familiarity, she hopes, will help to attract the audience.

At The Naples Players, Dunnagan also chose the season with the economy in mind. Her response, she said, was an emotional one.

“I think we chose a much lighter season this season and next season because we want to lighten everybody’s load a little,” she said.

The upcoming season includes Paul Rudnick’s comedy about marriage, “Regrets Only”’; Neil Simon’s comedy about a party gone wrong, “Rumors”; and Jeffrey Lane and David Yazbek’s musical comedy about two con men fighting for turf in the French Riviera, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”

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