Naples' future actors come to workshop with many, varied goals

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News
Fanta Asseo, as a character in "Broadway Bound," confronts her errant husband in a scene for the workshop.

Dov Almog is here because of his father's orders when he was a teenager: "Get off the stage!"

The dutiful Israeli-born son dropped his theater studies, went to dental school, and eventually spent a career in the same field as his father. But not long after he moved to Naples in retirement he signed up for Diane Davis' acting workshop at Sugden Community Theatre under the umbrella of The Naples Players.

"I warned my wife," he said of his determination to return to the stage.

Almog's story is one of many Davis hears in the first meeting of the classes she has conducted for years. Some of these students are here for their seventh class, hoping to hone a new style or reach new depth. Others have never set foot on a stage beyond  graduation ceremonies. Davis has had business professionals who simply want to make more persuasive presentations. 

Between Jan. 11 and February 25, the evening of a student showcase for both Davis' classes, they will have chosen and rehearsed a monologue, or a dialog with another student. Some students come with their own scenes. Others choose from a table on the third floor rehearsal room of Sugden Theatre loaded with dramatic material: humorous, emotional or thoughtful slices of imaginary lives. 

For an hour of the first day, they leaf through books, trying out plays, giving a first reading for the class. Already, the challenges have begun.

Terry Libby, standing in for her partner, works with Nancy Schechter on a Noel Coward scene from "The Vortex."

Tina Cedras selects one that requires an Irish household cook's accent for five hilarious minutes of the discovery that her new inherited bungalow has a dozen bottles of "Cham-PAG-nee water" in its cellar. 

"You're crazy. Why did you pick this? You're doing a great job!" Davis told her after a first reading that had the entire class laughing.

Terry Libby is a returning student who has already finished her first onstage roles: the whacked-out housekeeper in The Studio Players production of "Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike" and the long-suffering mayor, Joveeta Crumpler, in Marco Players' "A Double-Wide Texas Christmas."

She's looking for a serious role this time with the  A.L. Barry soliloquy "How Do You Have a Conversation with God?"

Kenneth Howard, at 21, dreams of a career in the theater. A returning student, he has already chosen his piece from Oliver Stone's "Platoon." It depicts the cracking restraint of a young man addressing his grandmother from the war zone in Vietnam.

But Ben Blay, a young newcomer to Naples who is in commercial real estate, says on the first day he's not even considering an onstage role:  "I'm looking for something to push me outside my comfort zone."

Having been steered to the tormented monologue from Salieri upon hearing Mozart  perform in "Amadeus," Blay is about to get a big shove.

Davis has a long resume of onstage work in Boston and New York and both acting and directing here — her latest work was the pivotal role in The Studio Players' "Clever Little Lies" and she has been associate director for a number of The Naples Players' productions. Davis will work with every disparate idea, gently guiding students to something that may work better for them when their monologue doesn't offer them development.

Kenneth Howard, as a U.S. soldier in Vietnam, contemplates his despair in a scene for the actors' workshop.

"We become family here," Davis told the group at its initial session. "Everyone gets a chance for input. My goal is to make you feel comfortable."

But not too comfortable. Beyond the $200 tuition (there is a scholarship available), this class would be fighting traffic nearly every Saturday. Downtown Naples during tourist season is a magnet for art festivals; at least one car show; and Empty Bowls, a major fundraiser for food pantry needs. By the second week of class, navigating the parking garage adjacent to Sugden Community Theatre would be a challenge.

It would not be an excuse, as Davis warned her Saturday actors-in-training:

"I'd like to say I'm lovable and nice. But heaven help you if you're not here on time."

Memorization is the beginning, but a big one

During the winter quarter Davis has two different classes: one each on Tuesday and Saturday. They will all get the same advice: "We can't act until you lose the book.

"When you don't fear it because you know it cold, that's when you can relax and start letting go," Davis told the group. Students are expected to have memorized their lines by the third of its seven meetings: 

Projection is another fine point: "Projection is throwing the words out of your mouth and letting them hit the back wall." That includes, of course, when the actor is whispering.  

"I've had accents before. I've had Scotch, Italian, Greek, French, Chinese.  I've had 'em all," Davis declared. She doesn't want her students to rinse out their accents — "I love them," she said. "But they have to be disciplined in terms of articulation."

Incorporating an accent is equally hard. Davis commented on the one required most in community theater:

"The southern accent is wonderful. But if you aren't clear, and you get carried away with that SUH-thurn ACHE-sent, they're going to tune out."

Two of her recent workshop students powered through scenes from "The Dixie Swim Club," a play set in the outer banks of North Carolina. (They apparently succeeded; they and another alumna won roles in the Marco Players' January production of the play.)

There are more serious pieces than humorous ones. Les Williams has chosen John Barrymore's fiery declamation on his role as Hamlet in "I Hate Shakespeare." Operatic contralto Helen Tintes is here for practice in musical theater monologue, and Fanta Asseo is here to both clarify her English and learn more about acting. Both chose monologues from women wronged by their spouses or lovers — emotionally hard pieces.

Diane Davis offers suggestions after a first showcase rehearsal.

The hardest, however, may be credible comedy.

"The essence of comedy is timing," Davis explained. "From a new person's point of view, I'm so nurturing because I understand that. I'll tell them: Take a beat there. Don't rush it." 

Almog has chosen a doubly tough one in the wry monologue from Baudelaire Jones' "Dialogues of the Dead." He plays the reluctant friend of an invalid who hatches larcenous ploys to fast-track his wealthy companion to the Pearly Gates.

Nancy Schechter and Janice Thompson are forging equally tough characters from the dry wit, both painful and funny, of Noel Coward's "The Vortex." 

On the fourth week of class they will take everything they've learned out of the airy, window-flanked, third-floor rehearsal room to the darkness of Tobye Studio Theatre. Or, as Davis calls it, "the sound-sucking monster." 

Articulation is even more important; volume is key; blocking has to be finalized here. And the only brightness is underneath the spotlights. 

The greatest fear is losing a line. Davis reminds them again and again to simply call for it — "Line" — without losing character. That may be the most monumental acting task of all.

To add to the pressure of the final showcase, visitors to their invitation-only event include Executive Artistic Director Bryce Alexander. There are artistic directors from other community theaters: Beverly Dahlstrom, from Marco Players, and Scott Lilly, from The Studio Players, as well several staff from The Naples Players and The Studio Players' Kevin Hendricks.

"I find a lot of actors there," said Lilly, who admires the work Davis does with them. He was so impressed with Patti Caroli's scene from "I'll Eat You Last" in her Davis showcase he bought the whole package. The Studio Players offered the acid-wit, one-woman show, with Caroli as Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, in 2018.

"But what I like best of all is that I may find someone who's never been onstage before who I can put in their first role," Lilly added. He has done that at least twice for difficult works: "August Osage County" and "Agnes of God."  

No one in the class is presenting a finished piece, Davis emphasizes in her program: "These presentations are a work in progress, and are not finished pieces, but rather represent time spent by the actors working on their material, making their choices, using feedback/coaching in class and evolving."

Dov Almog presents a scene from "Dialogues of the Dead," for his workshop performance.

After the workshop, what comes nest?

After the collective sigh of relief from its Tuesday, Feb. 25, showcase, there were beaming faces all around. Both Tuesday and Saturday classes met for a potluck dessert and celebration back in the rehearsal room.

Davis, ever the teacher, dispensed individual praise and suggestions for even further work that could generally apply to acting. She emphasized that this acting workshop is one where criticism comes as suggestions, not lectures.

"In acting, there is no right or wrong," Davis has told her group from the beginning. "When you're listening to another person, your reactions may be very different from another person's. Our goal is to find a way to deliver that makes sense for the audience."

For Blay, fresh from the persona of Salieri, the experience has been infectious. "When I was up there, living the monologue," he said, "it made me want to do even better."

Howard said his dramatic "Platoon" scene taught him to keep the drama in manageable bites for the audience: "Sometimes when I feel the energy inside me, I want to speed up like a train." 

Almog's wife, Carol, has seen her husband perform in three previous showcases. Watching him play the foiled villain "was totally different than anything he'd ever done before," she said, impressed. 

"Now I want to audition," her husband declared.

"You did it!" Davis announced to her happy class. "And you did it very well."

She may never see some of them again. But students have come back to Davis' workshops as many as seven times to polish their skills and work on different character models.

So she may see some of them again next week, when another acting workshop begins.

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

For more information

What: Adult education at The Naples Players; workshops for acting, improv, auditions, tap and jazz dance; directing; technical skills for audio engineering and scenic painting; playwriting and comedy writing

Where: Sugden Community Theatre,  701 5th Ave S, Naples

When: Classes begin on various dates

Admission: Rates vary according to the number of classes or 239-434-7340