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Jessica Walck leaving The Naples Players for freelance opportunities

The Naples Players
Special to WGCU
Jessica Walck in Blithe Spirit in 2022

After a decade of distinguished service as associate artistic director for The Naples Players, Jessica Walck announced in December that she was leaving to pursue collaborative opportunities as a freelance director, performer and acting coach.

While her decision leaves big shoes to fill at The Naples Players, Walck’s departure bodes well for the Southwest Florida theater community.

“I love challenging myself and I love collaborative relationships and people challenging me to be better, to be a better artist. And right now, I want that. I want to be a better artist and actress and director,” Walck said.

Recent directing credits include The Complete Works of Shakespeare (Abridged), Making God Laugh, Escanaba in da Moonlight, Don’t Dress for Dinner and the world premiere production of June & Jason’s Survival Guide to Divorce. So it says a lot about the state of theater in Southwest Florida that Walck feels there are actors, directors and producers locally who can make her even better.

“There’s a ton of talent in Naples and Fort Myers and I just look forward to meeting new people who love this as much as I do, ‘cause that always the prerequisite for me to get along with," she said. "If you love it as much as I do, we’re going to get along very well.”

In making her calculation that this is the right time to branch out as a freelance actor, director and coach, Walck takes note of the steady proliferation of new theaters, compared to the contraction other regions of country have experienced in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are currently more than two dozen theater companies producing shows locally, from the Arts Center Theatre on Marco Island to the Charlotte Performing Arts Center in Punta Gorda, where Walck will be directing A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters in February for Gold Theatricals.

“There’s so many theaters around here that do great, and a variety of different work. I love the Laboratory Theater for the activist work that Annette Trossbach does and the different kinds of productions that she brings to our area. I think it’s so important. And she cultivates a different pool of actors, which is great," Walck said. "You have Gulfshore Playhouse doing professional theater that’s great. You’ve got TheatreZone that’s doing these like long-lost Broadway classics. Everybody’s got their own little niche.”

And then, of course, there’s Florida Rep.

“I really love the quality of theater that the Florida Rep produces and the programming that Greg does over there is absolutely amazing …. If I got cast in a role at Florida Rep I would be very excited because it would be a professional paying gig and, you know, there’s a certain degree as an actor who’s, like, I’ve made it.”

Her interest in these and other area theater companies goes far beyond mere reputation. Each is taking extraordinary strides in making theater accessible to new and varied audiences.

“Theater is changing. And one of the things I’m proud of is to be and have been a part of The Naples Players because I think that is a model to follow ... making theater accessible and bringing people in to what we do, and peeling back the curtain of what it takes to make something like this, make this experience happen, making them part of an experience.”

Rush tickets, half-price previews, pay-what-you-can performances, performances for the visually impaired, talk-backs, pre-performance tours and involving volunteers in all aspects of a production, not just as ushers, are all being embraced by companies as a means of making their shows appeal to people of all ages and demographics. But Walck observes that Millennials and GenX and GenZ patrons don’t want to just be passively entertained. Instead, they demand happenings and experiences in the tradition of productions like Rocky Horror.

“When you get them here, the experience had better be good … I do think it’s about making people feel like they’re part of the family … It’s not just about entertainment any more. It’s about community … So I think bringing them in to an experience and letting them feel I just like being … This is a cool place to be or be seen or meet people. I think that’s important, the experience, concentrating on that.”

So what can audiences expect when Jessica occupies the director’s chair for upcoming shows? She’s already expert at directing farce and comedies, but look for her to cut her teeth on edgier offerings, like psychodramas and cultural pieces.

“I really want to direct a musical. I think that would be a good challenge for me," she said. "I’ve done that on the junior level for youth theater, but I really would love to challenge myself in that way.”

Whatever she directs will feature meaningful and heartfelt exchanges between the characters on stage and the audience. That’s because Walck excels as a communicator in service of the story that they playwright is telling.

Ultimately, as the director, you have to tell the story. You have to serve the story. It’s not about you. It’s not about your name and all that. It’s about how every note, everything you’re doing is how am I telling the story? How is it being perceived by the audience, and what message am I sending? Am I doing that at every second of this piece? You’re just mining it all the time.
Jessica Walck

And when she’s on the other side of the boards, it’s not about acting. It’s about doing. It’s about being.

“[Audiences] feel that they’re getting communication from me, not a performance. I’m actually dealing with a problem, and because I believe it and because I’m believing in those imaginary circumstances, so does the audience, and that means that the story is being told. It’s not about me. It’s about the story and about that other person,.” she said.

In this vein, Walck provides insight into what theater critics like Nancy Stetson, Charles Runnels and Harriet Heithaus look for in a performance.

“What I love about acting is when an actor gives me something like when we’re in our sixth, seventh, eighth performance and they give me something just slightly different and I’m able to [slap] respond to it. It gets me excited because it’s never replay, replay, replay. It’s what’s the little thing you’re giving me to make me react with my next line. It’s living ... It’s about you’re truly alive when you’re on stage.”

Walck has hit the ground running as a freelance theater professional. Besides Love Letters for Gold Theatricals, she’s directing two other shows and performing in another – all in the first quarter of 2023. And she’s accepting students who are looking for a theater coach.

Out one thing’s for sure. Not only will the caliber of talent in Southwest Florida elevate Jessica’s game. Her education, experience and skills are sure to elevate the productions we enjoy throughout Southwest Florida theater community.

For more on Walck’s theatrical credits, please read: