Bright lights shine on The Naples Players as the troupe marks its 70th anniversary with a $20 million theater expansion/facelift in the heart of Fifth Avenue South.
Yet, a look behind the curtain shows how TNP is helping break even more new ground in the theater locally and beyond.
With no fanfare or publicity, TNP is showcasing “applied theater” by deploying professional entertainment skills used in improvisational comedy, for example, as therapeutic tools for people of all ages with autism, Alzheimer’s and other neurological and sensory conditions.
The coaching enables students to relax, communicate and build relationships. The fast-paced improv format is slowed down so students can learn to be patient, listen closely and follow others’ social cues — facial expressions and body English — before responding with their own views and emotions.
The program also helps younger students build job skills such as interviewing, handling stressful situations or solving conflicts.
“We are changing lives,” says TNP board president Peggy Monson.
Students in job training, Monson says, “aren’t afraid to talk to anybody.”
Craig Price, TNP director of education and wellness – who trained and performed with the Second City improv team in Chicago — beams about attending a congratulatory luncheon for one graduate who is going to work at Royal Poinciana Country Club.
Price, who was hired to launch the programs seven years ago, brings experience from observing therapists work with his own two teenagers who have sensory processing disorders.
TNP works with hundreds of Collier County Public Schools students who come by the busload every week, Price says.
CCPS’ Joy Bonnaig, exceptional education coordinator, and Kim Dewey, career experience teacher, offer applause.“
CCPS instructors have seen increased confidence and communication skills as a result of Craig’s sessions,” they say. “ He creates an inviting environment that makes our young adults feel safe enough to express themselves in a setting away from home and school.
“He is an amazing instructor and meets each individual at his/her level … as they prepare for life outside of the classroom.”
An older clientele, at The Arlington retirement center in East Naples, shares the enthusiasm.
“The Ta-Da! Improv group has provided an expressive outlet for a core group of our residents,” says Michelle Thieme, lifestyle coordinator for independent living. “But more, the group, led by Craig Price, has been a high point of positivity and good humored fun.”
“It’s an opportunity to step out of one’s shell, be a bit silly, and most importantly, lift one’s spirits,” she says. “For the senior adult, finding opportunities to focus on the positive and have fun, is especially important to overall quality of life.”
TNP’s outreach also includes the Alzheimer’s Support Network of Naples, Avow Kids, Boys & Girls Clubs of Collier County, Cypress Cove Senior Care, David Lawrence Center, Golisano Children’s Hospital, Grace Place for Children and Families, Naples Senior Center, Naples Therapeutic Riding Center, Parkinson’s Association of SWFL, STARability Foundation, United Arts Council and Youth Haven.
Summer Pliskow, with credentials in the arts and health, earned a Master of Arts degree in applied theater in London, and sought out TNP because of its track record and commitment.
“The Naples Players place a priority on community,” says Pliskow, whose job title is education programs coordinator and wellness specialist. “It is an inclusive and forward thinking organization that not only creates top-tier theatre but understands the impact the process of engaging in theatrical arts can have on an individual and the greater community.”
While working earlier with the University of Florida Arts in Medicine program, she learned how artistic expression is directly linked to healing. “A patient who started the session in immense pain and discomfort, after an hour of listening to music or dancing … began to laugh and express feelings of joy,” she recalls. “The deep appreciation for the impact the arts have on an individual and community isthe inspiration behind my work.”
With TNP, Pliskow has worked with adults and youth with developmental disabilities. Programs have ranged from musical theater classes to storytelling with music, pictures and engaging the memory. Some students have written their own scripts and put on their own productions, she says.
She and Price do an exercise at senior centers drawing outlines of elders’ hands and writing about what those fingers have done. The stories have been assembled as a video, “These Hands Have,” available on YouTube.
The glue for all of the applied theater programs is Bryce Alexander, who embraces leadership roles that other arts organizations assign to two people – CEO and executive artistic director.
Board chair Peggy Monson credits him with making TNP “the incubator for a new model for theater.”
Alexander embraces the “model” theme and is not shy about saying TNP aims to be out front. A prime example is the “relaxed performance” format once during the run of each show, with small crowds and lower music volumes and stage lights to help patrons relax.
“We can change the rules for how our communities access the arts,” he says, while adding a challenge for others to follow suit: “It’s a call to the community to pay attention.”