Not even natural disaster can deflate the spirit of the Orpheus Players.
The small community theater troupe from Fort Myers Beach is making a comeback after Hurricane Charlie wiped out the place they used to call home.
It started in 2000 in the driveway of one of its founding members, Donna Prima, who ran a community theater group in British Columbia called the Attic Theatre Company for 15 years before she retired and moved to Fort Myers Beach. Other founders who have kept the group going by a thread are Mark List and Amanda Parks. The group stays afloat mostly through benefactors that like to support local arts.
“We started building a stage right in my driveway,” Prima said.
The group teamed up with the Orpheus Café Diner on the beach, putting on small original plays, as well as plays by playwrights like Tennessee Williams. With the hand-built stage and minimal lighting, the group eventually graduated to the Holmes House, a historical building on the island turned into a restaurant. The theater group had a spot in the back to put on their productions. The restaurant’s chef would put out a small spread of appetizers after each show.
“We had our own stage, our own room, our own lighting system. We did a couple years of non-stop shows, back to back,” Prima said.
But, in 2004 Hurricane Charlie ripped through and destroyed the Holmes House.
“The building had to be torn down. We lost our theatre space. That was kind of the end of it. We had a regular thing going there and we were building a name for ourselves. It took the wind out of our sails,” Prima said.
The group continued putting on the occasional show at the Orpheus Café, and they also worked out a deal to put on shows at other spots on the beach from time to time, but it took a toll on the group.
“We’re still together and still doing shows when we can,” Prima said.
The group now seems to be making a comeback with their newest original play, “Tea-A-Ria,” written by Fort Myers Beach resident Laurie Nienhaus. The comedic farce is about an Italian woman who wants to open a tearoom, but who runs into troubles because her family can’t understand the point of a tearoom.
“It has been magical,” Nienhaus said of watching her play come to life. “What these people have done with my words — to see it lift up off the page — to see these characters become their own. It’s just so exciting. I will never forget working with these people my entire life. It’s been fabulous.”
The troupe teamed up to put the production on at Fred’s Diner in Naples, and will bring the play back to Fort Myers Beach at the Orpheus Café June 25 and 26.
JoAnne Newton, of Fred’s Food, Fun & Spirits, said Nienhaus approached her family about putting on the play. “They are a very good group. Not only are they talented, they’re very nice, nice people,” she said. “We’ve had sold-out crowds for the last two Sundays.”
The group will put on two more Sunday shows in June at Fred’s Diner in North Naples, and will then bring it home to Fort Myers Beach where it all started at the Orpheus Café.
“It’s a fun piece. It’s a comedy. It makes people laugh. It makes them forget about their troubles. And people need that right now,” Prima said.
From there? The group says who knows.
Since the hurricane wiped out their home, the troupe fizzled out for a bit. But the new play has sparked the group.
“It seems it’s gotten people excited,” Nienhaus said. “There’s new people coming in and that’s exciting as well.”
When the group couldn’t find a male to play a particular part in “Tea-A-Ria,” newbie Marty Senegal volunteered. Nienhaus quickly changed some of the script to transform a male part to a female.
“They’re a lot of fun and very talented and I hope I can learn a lot with them,” Senegal said.
Though the group has had its ups and downs since inception, the small troupe is hoping Tea-A-Ria will jump start live theater again in their tight-knit community in Fort Myers Beach. For now, the group will continue operating out of restaurants until it can once again find a permanent place to call home.
“I hope to keep live theater happening on the beach,” Prima said. “It touches peoples’ lives in ways you don’t recognize. Live is right in front of your face. And it’s people like you and me, just up there telling a story. You’re story-telling.”