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Hurricane Ian gives the performing arts community another blow after COVID

FL Rep.jpg
Florida Repertory Theatre via Facebook
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Florida Repertory Theatre's historic Arcade Theatre suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Ian, but the company plans to reopen by the end of October

As theaters in Southwest Florida enter a new season in the wake of Hurricane Ian, the performing arts community has more attendance challenges ahead after two years of struggling through the pandemic, local theaters say.

Florida Repertory Theatre

Florida Repertory Theatre in downtown Fort Myers suffered massive flood inundation from Hurricane Ian. The company’s historic Arcade Theatre, ArtStage Studio Theatre and all first-floor facilities flooded with nearly four feet of storm surge. Ian also left a hole in the roof. Administrative offices have been vacated due to water damage.

Florida Rep. Artistic Director Greg Longenhagen said that the theater was already in a tough spot after the pandemic and that the organization is going to need a lot of help. “It’s tough that this has happened now,” he said. “I feel like we’ve kind of earned our captain’s bars, at the very least, in how to get through tragedy of all kinds and weather that.”

“Sadly, our brand-new rehearsal hall, which we just opened last year, also received significant damage,” Longenhagen said. “We’ve cut out all of the drywall in virtually every storefront [and] every theater space in the Bradford block that was at street level because water got pretty much everywhere.”

Before the hurricane, Florida Rep was entering its 25th season with the play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill,” but the damage the theater sustained prevented that from happening. It is now remounting the show at the Alliance for the Arts’ Foulds Theatre.

Longenhagen said the theater plans to reopen at the end of October. “We will probably see some lower numbers coming to the theater for the fact that a lot of folks are not only in shock of what’s happened, but I know we have patrons who may not have a home to go to,” he said.

The building was built in 1915 and housed a vaudeville theater and a movie theater before it became home to Florida Repertory in 1998.

“My hope is that people will find it in their hearts and see how important it is and what a gem it is that we have this wonderful arts organization right here in the center of Fort Myers…and want to help,” he said. “It would be a real shame if this went away because of this terrible storm.”

The Florida Rep. lost one of its own to Hurricane Ian with the death of long-time Scene Stealers volunteer and Fort Myers Beach resident Martha Ann “Marti” Campbell. “Marti was a special one and we’re really all sending our love and prayers to her family right now. It’s just a sad, sad scenario for sure,” said Longenhagen. Campbell was also known for her volunteer work with the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall and at the Edison and Ford Winter Estates.

Alliance for the Arts

The Alliance for the Arts, located on McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers, has postponed everything that was scheduled up to Oct. 31, though it did have power after the storm passed. The organization had some damage to the roof and outdoor sculptures, as well as fallen trees.

Founding and Producing Artistic Director of Theatre Conspiracy at the Alliance, said performances for “The Piano Lesson” were set to begin Oct. 20, but have been rescheduled for April 2023.

“So much rehearsal was missed,” Taylor said. “People were still trying to deal with things with their homes and everything, that it was just better to postpone it and let it go for the time being for everybody’s mental health.”

The children’s production of “Aladdin” was also canceled. Taylor said he is trying to reschedule it. Opening night was scheduled for two days after the hurricane.

“It has not been a great couple of years for the performing arts, and we were just starting to get our footing again,” he said, referring to the pandemic. “When we did “Clown Bar” recently, we were selling out, so we were getting back there, but I don’t know what’s going to happen now.”

Though Alliance for the Arts had setbacks with its productions, the organization opened its doors to assist, not only the Florida Rep., but also Florida SouthWestern State College with its theater classes when they did not have on-campus access for students after the hurricane.

Taylor’s concern is the impact that the storm will have on tourism in the area, which directly affects local theater companies. “Nobody’s going to be on Fort Myers Beach…Sanibel, Pine Island, Matlacha,” Taylor said. “If we don’t have the beaches available, how many tourists are going to come?”

Alliance for the Arts will be hosting a free bluegrass concert on Nov. 6 “because there are so many people out there that are struggling,” Taylor said.

Cultural Park Theatre

Cultural Park Theatre in Cape Coral has yet to reopen. The organization is looking for a place to rent until the venue’s communications are restored.

Executive Director Mark Fleming, who was hired in March, said the theater was entering its 60th season and had just finished remodeling the interior and redesigning the parking lot before Hurricane Ian hit. Because of the storm, the theater had to postpone three shows. “School of Rock” was in the middle of performances when the hurricane hit. The last four were canceled.

Fleming said that a church has been camping out every weekend in the park behind the theater to provide aid in the community.

“We have an encampment that comes every weekend, Latter Day Saints, so there’s almost a thousand people pitching tents…out there,” Fleming said. “They’ve been coming around, helping clear up the debris.” He said a group from Georgia came one weekend.

Fleming said the ramifications for the performing arts community are broad and that there is no telling how the theater will be impacted because everyone is affected differently.

“You want to re-lift their spirits, and that was kind of what the original concept was going to be anyway after the whole two years of COVID,” Fleming said. “It’s just a matter of what is going to be the long-term effects for those people financially, and that’s what I don’t know.”

Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre

Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre in Fort Myers had little damage, despite being located less than a half-mile from the Caloosahatchee River. The building regained power within hours after the storm, but the organization may now have challenges with housing out-of-state actors.

General Manager and Director of Marketing Melissa Vogt, said that the company hires people from all over the country. “Normally we…put our actors, during rehearsals, in hotel rooms,” Vogt said. “It’s going to be extremely difficult to find hotel rooms anytime soon.” During performances the actors are typically moved to a company-owned apartment.

Rachael Endrizzi, a traveling performer, said she and her boyfriend, Ken Quiricone, were staying in one of the theater’s apartments before the hurricane. They evacuated to Orlando, which made it difficult to get back to Fort Myers because of road closures. When they returned ten days later, Endrizzi said the out-of-state actors that were housed in hotels had lost power.

“A lot of the actors who ended up staying here in town through the hurricane ... ended up just pow-wowing and sleeping at the Broadway Palm for several days.” She said that there were about 20 people sleeping on the floor at the theater.

Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre owner and Executive Director Will Prather said just two days after the hurricane, they’d partnered with World Central Kitchen to serve as a distribution point for essentials such as bottled water and hot meals. “We’ve just been very fortunate to partner with them and we’ve opened up two segments of our parking lot and it’s just been nice to be able to support those efforts,” said Prather.

Entering its 29th season, Broadway Palm had to cancel 30 adult performances and their first children’s fall show since COVID. Vogt has concerns about the performing arts community recovering from the pandemic and now a hurricane.

“This is kind of the first season we’ve had after COVID that we’ve been able to even try to have a little normal,” she said. “And now here we are again. It’s just one more hurdle to bounce back from, and were we even bounced back from COVID? I don’t know.”

The Belle Theatre

The Belle Theatre in Cape Coral was closed for two weeks due to not having power after the storm. Established in January, the theater will have to promote ticket sales for its first full season after a major disaster.

Director of Theatre Education Dana Alvarez said the Belle was just getting off the ground and that there are a lot of people who don’t know it exists. She is concerned about attendance numbers.

“We just know that financially it might be tough for some people to prioritize entertainment and things like that,” she said. “It’s just not the first thing on people’s minds right now.”

Alvarez, who originally directed shows for Melody Lane Performing Arts Center, sees some similarities to the pandemic and said she is worried about how the hurricane will affect the new theater. “Everybody was just getting their footing back. This is a big setback,” she said.

The hurricane affected the children’s theater at The Belle. The storm interrupted a teen production of “Chicago,” scheduled to open Oct. 7, and put two other musicals on hold.

“One kid did have to drop [out of “Chicago”] because now things have moved. They’re no longer available,” Alvarez said. “Another student can’t do the second weekend [of performances].”

Before the hurricane, The Belle Theatre was just entering its fundraising season and putting together youth teams to go to the Junior Theater Festival, a weekend retreat of musical theater performances and competitions in January and February.

“We’re really worried for those families, that it is a big financial commitment,” she said. “There are 6,000 kids from all over the world who are going to be gathering at these events…but very few of them will have just gone through what Southwest Florida did.”

New Phoenix Theatre

The New Phoenix Theatre on McGregor Boulevard in Fort Myers sustained no structural damage and lost power for only two days. However, the organization, established in 2019, was still affected.

Director Scott Carpenter, who has been directing plays at New Phoenix for four years, said his cast lost nine rehearsals for the company’s production of “Jekyll & Hyde” and that two actors had to quit the show because of the storm.

“[They] just were so traumatized and their life was so altered in one way or another by the storm, that we lost them,” Carpenter said. “We had to do some repositioning and juggling to get those things filled.”

“Jekyll & Hyde” was scheduled to open on Oct. 13, but opening night was postponed to Oct. 20. “It’s yet to be seen how the storm impacts the attendance,” he said. “It’s already been rough coming back from COVID, and now we’ve got a disaster on top of that.” Carpenter said that the actors jumped right back into rehearsals when the theater reopened.

“Theater people are very resilient. They just reconnected again and just started getting to work to get the show back on track and to open it. That process is also healing to the trauma we went through,” said Carpenter.

Laboratory Theater of Florida

Laboratory Theater of Florida in downtown Fort Myers is located near the Caloosahatchee River, but was spared damage from flooding. The company’s nearly 100-year-old performance building weathered the hurricane, but the education and props buildings on their campus were destroyed by winds.

The Lab Theater extended their performances of “The Play that Goes Wrong,” for two additional weeks. Last weekend, Lab Theatre also provided two free performances of the show. Lab Theatre’s nearly 100-year-old building weathered the storm, but they have lost the education and props buildings on their campus.

“There were just sections of the roof that were just pulled off by the wind, and it was really tragic to go back after the storm and just see pieces of roof peeled off like Tupperware lids,” said Lab Theater Production Manager Margaret Cooley.

She said these buildings have been an essential part of preparation for any production Lab Theater takes on. “Every show that is in rehearsal goes through the education space. It serves children in the community through camps, through workshops. We have ballet and improv for adults. We have all of these things that we do in this education space that we can’t do anymore because it’s just not usable,” said Cooley.

Still, the Laboratory Theater of Florida extended performances of the comedy “The Play that Goes Wrong,” for two additional weeks and even provided two free performances the second weekend after Ian struck.

“It was really heartwarming to see…There were people who’ve never been in the building who filed in as soon as doors opened and took a seat and got to enjoy possibly one of the funniest shows I’ve seen at the Lab Theater,” said Cooley. “It was people seeking something normal.”

Venice Theatre

In Sarasota, Venice Theatre’s 1926 performance building suffered immense damage in the millions of dollars as Ian’s wrath collapsed the back wall. Winds tore open the roof and water flooded the building’s Jervey Theatre space. The building actually collapsed on top of the set of the play “The Revolutionists,” which was still in production at the time. However, that didn’t deter some 300 people from coming out for Venice Theatre’s annual volunteer appreciation party, as they work to rebuild.

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