Sugden Theatre to get bigger, better through $15 million project

Harriet Howard Heithaus
Naples Daily News

A $15 million renovation will bring Sugden Community Theatre a balcony, an education theater than can double for black-box use, a glass-walled atrium and a rooftop terrace.

And that's only part of a project that Bryce Alexander, CEO and artistic director of The Naples Players, calls transformative for the 23-year-old building, which still has its original seating and some of its carpeting from 1998. Sparkle is definitely on the punchlist, he said. 

The planned Tanya and Denny Glass Education Theatre, which looks out on Fourth Avenue South.

"There's not a single inch of this facility that won't get updated," he declared. 

The renovation/expansion is being announced this week in tandem with a "$2 million in Two Months" challenge grant from philanthropists Patty and Jay Baker. The Naples Players need to match it with community donations.

The hope: lower prices, room for kids

There's two primary goals for space refinishing, however. Naples Players wants both more seating for its popular mainstage season, and more space for educational theater programs. The latter have been part of their mission since the 1990s, and Naples Players serves at least 10,000 children and adults annually.

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The Players announcement also pointed out its partnerships with 22 local organizations, such as Collier County Public Schools, STARability, Grace Place, The Alzheimer's Association SW Florida Chapter and The Arlington. 

Blocks of space inside the Sugden will be reconfigured for three student classrooms and new adult rehearsal rooms that also can be used for workshops and readings.

Adding the balcony to Blackburn Hall, to be renamed the Kizzie Theater at the request of donors Patty and Jay Baker, will make it the second largest dedicated theater in Naples. (Artis—Naples is first, with seating for 1,477 in Hayes Hall.) 

The current 308-seat capacity will expand to 450 seats, nearly 150 of them in the mezzanine level, to be named for donors David Byron and Vicky C. Smith.

Even longtime patrons may not know that Blackburn Hall was actually designed for a balcony, Alexander said.

A rendering of the lobby with its mezzanine stairs and window wall

"Above the audience's current view is another 25 or 30 feet of unused space in the theater. So we were able to accommodate the balcony and all the additional support spaces without having to change the roofline of the building, which is pretty amazing," he said.

"That's a critical component of the project for us, because we've been sold out for years. While that's a good problem to have, it's also a bad problem when you have to talk about generating revenue," he said.

"The only other way to generate revenue is to raise prices. And as a community-based organization, we don't want to price people out of the market."

Sound and light systems will be replaced as well. One change the audience may not notice but musicians will: Installing air-conditioning in the orchestra pit. It's one of the few areas in the building without AC.

Another floor was potentially there

The Tobye Studio Theatre will be renamed The Price Studio Theater for benefactor Henry Price. (Ted Tobye, former Naples Players board president who was key in raising funds to build Sugden Community Theatre, will be honored in a different way, to be announced soon, Alexander said.)

The new educational theater, in an addition directly above it, will be The Tanya & Denny Glass Educational Theater, which is primarily for educational performances. Both will have a seating capacity of 104.

Both will also get a new system of tension grids to replace cat walks, the narrow suspended passageways crew use to redirect or repair lighting. Tension grids — reinforced mesh held by a supporting framework — will allow crew to move anywhere overhead in a theater without the danger of slips or equipment falls. It will even, Alexander pointed out, allow a person in a wheelchair to handle those functions.

The north facade of Sugden Community Theatre after improvements.

The Glass theater, an expansive cube of a space with a glass wall facing Fourth Avenue South, will also add to a second-front image for the theater. Alexander said Naples Players has received complaints from neighbors who see the Fourth Street frontage as looking "back alley." The architecture will be part of its beautification plan.

One thing will not change: The landmark facade of Sugden Community Theatre facing Fifth Avenue South. The theater hired local firm David Corban Architects to lead the project, and he chose to preserve that image while overhauling the facility’s interior. North Carolina-based Theatre Consultants Collaborative is overseeing the design of performance systems.

The Players have been quietly campaigning since January 2020 and have 60 percent, close to $9 million, of the funding already. The generosity of Naples will dictate how soon the building can begin, Alexander said. 

"We're hoping that the project will start in May of 2022, but that's going to take our whole community coming together to meet the $2 million Jay and Patty Baker match," Alexander said.

Those who are interesting in learning about giving opportunities may contact balexander@naplesplayers.org, 239-434-7340; information on the project is at naplesplayers.org/campaign

The view down to the lobby from the planned Smith Mezzanine at Sugden Community Theatre

He's hoping most of the theater can be open by the winter season of 2022.

In the news release announcing the project, Peggy Monson, chairperson of The Naples Players board of directors, said the major campaign was following the footsteps of those leaders who built the Sugden. "We hope to honor them today by taking the next step in the vision for The Naples Players."

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