Naples' Studio Players grew spontaneously; at 10, they're not done

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News

The Studio Players will celebrate its 10th anniversary with no master plan, no theater of its own, no full-time staff.

It works. In fact, it works amazingly.

The theater company's constant tenant status limits it to a rustic environment. When the Yasmina Reza Tony winner, "Art," Friday, opens July 22 (see information box for details), it's in an auditorium with no air conditioning or bathrooms backstage. Actors have to slip out a side door and scurry around to the audience restroom.

"Don’t even think for a minute that an actor hasn’t been locked out," added Scott Lilly, its artistic director, CEO and cofounder.

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Yet their flexibility has brought them Pulitzer winner  "August: Osage County" within a year of the time Lilly saw it. It brought them A.R. Gurney's urbanely acid "The Cocktail Hour," after guest director Paula Keenan told Lilly, "You really should do this one."

"When you're dealing with me, it's not that deep," Lilly declared. "I see us one year in the Golden Gate Community Center. That’s about as far as I can go into the future."

"Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" was a play The Studio Players thought they never could do at one time. They did it.

The Studio Players' one commitment has been to do plays that fascinate them and that they think will, in turn, fascinate Southwest Florida audiences. What happens in the rest of the area's thicket of theaters doesn't faze them.

Has Naples Players offered "You Can't Take It With You"? One more production can't hurt. Has Gulfshore Playhouse already done "Venus in Fur"? Tra la. 

"Art" falls into The Studio Players' schematic: tough plays alternating with zany comedy.  Its depiction of three friends whose relationship disintegrates over a $200,000 white canvas "masterpiece" puts 97 percent of the burden on the actors. What makes the play is their ability to convey both their characters' philosophies and their visceral reactions to a work they a. treasure. b. loathe c. are not sure about. 

From passerby to fully involved

A different tough play lured in Kevin Hendricks, who's now vice president and executive director for the group, in early 2016. Hendricks was a curious passerby who accidentally walked into a play rehearsal.

"I was there for a plant club. I didn't even know there was a theater there," he recalled.  Lilly invited him to read for a role in "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" Edward Albee's slash-and-burn on marital relationships.

They had just lost the actor playing the younger male character, Nick. Hendricks lied and said he had acting experience. He got the part.

"That was a big play to get into, but it’s better to start that way. You don't really have a preconceived notion of how hard it's going to be," he said. Hendricks liked it so much, he auditioned for, and won, one of the two roles for the next work, "Things Being What They Are." Hooked? He even built the set's kitchen cabinets.

Just as Hendricks joined, the theater group that was born as Let's Put On a Show productions changed its name. Lilly and Kevin Moriarty, who had worked together on productions for Marco Players and Island Theater, founded the company in 2012, and just pulled the name from their initial drive to produce their own play. 

"Honestly, it was a 'Little Rascals' sort of thing," conceded Lilly. The two invested $1,000 each, with hopes to break even but iffy exepctations it would go far beyond its first production, "Pageant Play," in February 2013.

The work's wacky look at stagestruck families attracted the attention of local writer Laura Lorusso, who offered them a chance at her new comedy, "Afterlife of the Rich and Famous."

From there, the demand, if not the money, kept rolling in. Lilly kept handling administration and Moriarty, who moved on in 2018, designed its sets.

The Studio Players' first play, under the name Let's Put On a Show Productions, was "The Pageant Play." The cofounders, Kevin Moriarty and Scott Lilly, are on the right.

The permanence of their venture struck in May 2015 with the resounding success of  "August: Osage County." The grim Pulitzer-winning comedy was a lengthy stretch: It needed a cast of 13 and a three-story set. They found a cast, and volunteer Jim Swanker designed a three-story house to fit the Golden Gate Community Center's Joan Jenks Auditorium.

The response was so overwhelming the theater reprised it the following November. 

"It really opened the door for us. Nothing was impossible in my mind — there was nothing that we could not put on after that," Lilly said.

The Studio Players began digging deeper and deeper for serious material — "Agnes of God," "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," "Nuts" — and sophisticated comedies — "Bakersfield Mist," "Vany and Sonia and Masha and Spike." It even premiered Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song" locally.

There's usually a barn-burner for seasonal insurance: "On Golden Pond," "Over the River and Through the Woods." But small gems like the one-woman Sue Metzger show, "I'll Eat You Last," are staples, too.

As they bear down on their 10th year, Lilly has found a firm definition for The Studio Players: "We’re a people’s theater. We’re a community theater. We love jumping into that deep water and then doing these goofy comedies to balance it out a bit."

It isn't a definition he'd change a word of for the future, either. There are other things he would certainly change: Backstage accommodations with bathrooms and AC. A season that doesn't have to navigate around blackout dates for elections while its auditorium becomes a precinct poll. More volunteers: "I live, eat, breathe" The Studio Players, Lilly said. "More help would be unbelievable."

Having just a little more in the bank account is another wish — being a people's theater means it operates on a shoestring.

"I don't think we've ever gotten a check for more than $2,000," Lilly said. "If there's something we need people will step up, but not so much for day-to-day operations."

Working some theater magic

This year, the group scraped enough together to offer classes, three for adults and a free theater arts program at the community center's summer camp for kids. 

Watching education director Anna Segreto work magic — even writing a play, "The Secret of the Clowns," for a performance Aug. 3 (see the information box for details) — and seeing the kids' dedication has delighted both Lilly and Hendricks.

The Studio Players rehearse “Art” by Yasmina Reza, directed by John Kirman, Tuesday, July 12, 2022, at Joan Jenks Auditorium in Golden Gate Community Center in Naples, Fla.

The Studio Players open their 10th anniversary with “Art” playing from July 22, 2022, through Aug. 7, 2022.

"My heart grew three times its size," Lilly said of watching them at work. "They are just like a sponge and so enthusiastic."

"That was huge," Hendricks declared. "I don’t even know how to put it in words, but that’s heartwarming to see."

He's a native of the Golden Gate area, and grew up playing basketball at the center, on the opposite end from the Joan Jenks Auditorium where The Studio Players perform. 

"I never knew there was another side," he admitted.

"Now, I'm always on the other side."

The Studio Players program is giving local children a chance to appreciate arts as well as the sports, he said.

"It's my community and I love what we do here," he said. 

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/ Reach her at 239-253-8936

If you go


What: Comedy from The Studio Players

When: July 22-Aug. 7; 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays

Where: Joan Jenks Auditorium, Golden Gate Community Center, 4701 Golden Gate Parkway, Naples

Tickets: $32.50 

To buy:

Information: 239-398-9192

'The Secret of the Clowns'

What: Production of  The Studio PlayersTheater Arts Summer Camp

When: 6 p.m. Aug. 3

Where: Joan Jenks Auditorium, Golden Gate Community Center, 4701 Golden Gate Parkway, Naples

Tickets: Free admission