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Theater has jumped off the stage — into the workplace, the therapy office, even into sober duties of hospice —  and The Naples Players plans to follow.

Players on Monday restructured its education programming into two directions of theater:

  • Traditional: comprising acting, movement and dance, with classes that range from movement to playwriting, even stage fisticuffs
  • Therapeutic, titled Wellness: working with games, improvisation and role playing to help the Naples community unspool stress and renew confidence

To lead it all, Hester Kamin, former director of education for Gulfshore Playhouse, has joined the organization as education director. Craig Price has moved from that job into a newly created position: director of community education and wellness. 

An education stage management component that Bryce Alexander, executive artistic director of The Naples Players, calls its "boots on the ground" will be under Kenzie Currie. 

This isn't a new direction for The Naples Players, Alexander emphasized. But it gives the city's powerhouse community theater flexibility to expand each segment. The Players already serve some 1,200 students in the KidzAct component and another 350 adults. 

"Those are the onsite classes," Alexander added. "We have programs that go into a couple of the high schools, Gulf Coast High School most notably." Those classes probably add another 200, he said. 

Price already has had to split his "Improv for Parkinsons" classes into two sessions. It works to quell the fear of being involved or the panic that comes when a sufferer "freezes" mid-movement from complications with the disease.

 "We give them techniques to help them unfreeze. Margo Escott who is a licensed therapist who teaches that class does a lot of mindfulness, breathing and relaxation," he said.  

He's also immersed in new efforts such as using theater to help ease anxiety for children in grief.

As an outreach of Avow Hospice, children who have lost a parent — through death, custody determination or divorce — had a chance to attend a summer camp that included theater games to help them socialize again. The Naples Players was part of that effort, and it wants to be an even bigger part.

There is a new segment for the camp this year, Price noted. Some children were suffering from what was termed "deportation loss" after their parents, immigrants who had no papers, had to leave them here with caregivers.

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The wellness direction "all started when Bryce and I got together after I was first hired, and we started talking about this community who is completely under served — kids with autism, adults with disabilities," Price recalled. "We saw a real need for classes for that community and saw a great opportunity to serve it, Bryce coming from that background in Colorado."

Alexander is former director for the Phamaly Theatre, a Denver theater company founded by and for people with disabilities.

Under Alexander, The Naples Players has already added several "sensory-friendly" performances to most productions that eliminate loud noise and sudden light flashes. Both can be disconcerting or even painful to some people on the autism spectrum.

With Price, The Players have also facilitated the therapist-led classes on Parkinson's disease and a similar class for people with Alzheimers. Last week, Price was in the midst of teaching "life transition," a class guiding real-world readiness for special-needs students.

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Its teens, a group from Golden Gate High School, alternately shuffled, strutted and cheered their way through a door prop. The rest of the class had to identify their emotions and suggest how they might recognize those, in themselves as well as in other people, and deal with them.

It was one of a number of exercises in emotional awareness.

"It's a lot of fun, but there's an overriding lesson they can take away," Price said. He's most excited about a class that has both teen and adult components, titled "Improv for Wellness." He had had feedback from parents who find their teens, feeling outcast and afraid to initiate friendships, saying their children have come out of their shells.

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The Players have partnered with David Lawrence Center, The Naples Women’s Shelter, StarAbility, Collier County Public Schools, AVOW Hospice and Florida Gulf Coast University, which conducted a joint study at the PACE Center for Girls on their use of improv techniques. It determined that improv sessions reduced the daily reported anxiety of participants by more than 25%.

At the same time, Kamin inherits a traditional theater education department that by any standards is exploding. It has grown 35% in the last three years, according to  Alexander. She has credentials in both wellness and traditional theater that include a playwright mentoring group at the Barrington Stage Company in Vermont, and a play created about teen pregnancy for Crossroads Theatre for Youth in American Samoa, "A Walk in Our Shoes."

"I feel lucky to have landed in a community with a deep love for the performing arts and for creating positive social change through arts experiences," Kamin said, answering questions via email. "I'm honored to join Naples Players' long history of artistic excellence and inclusivity and to be part of its vision of building a closer community and a brighter world through theater."

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The Players have recently cemented a relationship with Interlochen School for the Arts, which Alexander calls "a natural fit. We've got a bunch of students who got recruited to go there, and they love the talent that comes out of The Naples Players."

But even more so, he said, Interlochen had been impressed with the growth of technical training Naples Players offer in the student programs, a success that the Michigan-based school envies.

"So they're looking at our program as a model to help encourage growth within their own organization," he said. One of its instructors will come to Naples for a sort of master class with Naples students.

The restructuring isn't without some pain. The organization eliminated its position of community relations director this month. Alexander also noted that classes have consumed the building — "We're even holding one class in the lobby" — and that it would have to hunt for venues with dependable time slots for any substantial class additions. 

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It is also always open to new funding. Alexander said its current community outreach has come from generous donors, including Patty and Jay Baker, who contributed $1 million this year, and the Corson Family Foundation. Claire Corson Skinner, a former president of The Naples Players board of directors, has annually offered a scholarship from it to send one Naples student to the Interlochen summer workshop.

But he's happy with the decision to make education a double emphasis.

“The Naples Players is committed to our community, and I think that resonates with people. Whether you are coming to see a great show, or coming to learn about the arts, you want to be part of something important and impactful, and that’s what we’re doing here,” Alexander said in a statement accompanying its announcement.

“We’re assembling a passionate team of community members, and this is just another step in building our community into the best place possible.”

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.

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