The thespians of Southwest Florida have their work cut out for them.
Annette Trossbach, actor/director/artistic director and founder of the Laboratory Theater of Florida
Photography by Mila Bridger
The theater, in its many incarnations, is a mystery to most of us—a world that seems to be populated by people who operate on a different plane. They saw a production of Our Town in high school and never looked back.
But the truth is that the theater is filled with people just like you and me. True, they may be better at memorizing soliloquies and projecting toward the balcony, but other than that many are your neighborly accountants, Realtors and office managers—and they’re able to balance their passions quite nicely, thank you very much.
“It’s a unique job and it’s not for everybody,” says Annette Trossbach, actor/director/artistic director and founder of The Laboratory Theater of Florida in Fort Myers. “Whether you are working professionally or semi- professionally or in community theater, I think the job is precious. Some people will be able to make it, they have such skill, or they’ve worked so damn hard that they are able to be an actor full time and support themselves well in that profession.”
But that’s rare, locally speaking. Hence the fact that so many of the people we see on our stages at night are busy working beside us during the day.
“When you’re a kid you think ‘Aww, yeah! I want to be on TV’ or ‘I want to go to Hollywood and make it,’” says Trossbach, “but I think actors are some of the most sensitive and self-critical people that you’ll ever meet. They may start out with stars in their eyes, but I think as actors you learn very quickly to be realistic about the industry that you’re in, the market that you’re in, the look that you have and your ability. And maybe that means you’re not able to do that as a full-time gig.”
Even so, they bring a unique group of skills that are attractive to virtually every employer.
“They have the drive to understand how a different person might react within a situation. It’s like taking a test drive inside of somebody else’s reality,” says Trossbach. “You know, the greatest fear among adults in America is not alligators or snakes or car crashes or ISIS, it’s public speaking. Everyone is afraid of public speaking. So being able to speak publicly and enunciate and portray, if not own, confidence is fantastic. ... Actors are keen observers of human behavior. And I think that can only be helpful in business situations.”
So we thought it might be interesting to meet four local actors/actresses and find out why they do what they do.
Current home: Naples
Full-time career: Realtor with Premier Sotheby’s International Realty
Education: Wright State University (Theater); Julliard School (Acting)
Special skills: Fencing, phonetics, dialects…
It turns out that acting locally can in fact, be lucrative. Not necessarily onstage, but rather through the connections one makes treading the boards. Paul Graffy, though talented and with both undergraduate and graduate degrees in theater to his credit, found his most profitable role merely striking up a rapport with a fellow thespian while working on just his second local production.
“We had a ball,” says Graffy. “He was just a regular guy to me, with an interesting past—he was a pro football player—but we were just in the same show and became friends and maintained that friendship. I never thought about what [he and his wife] did ... they asked me to lunch one day and asked me if I was able to sell their home. It was a spectacularly beautiful home.”
That’s putting it mildly. The Gordon Drive address took up three acres on the beach— and it sold for a cool $43 million. It would take a fairly long run on Broadway to earn the amount Graffy generated from that one commission check and you get the sense he’s happy to be living life just as he is.
“I was a member of Actors’ Equity for 20 some-odd years,” says Graffy. “The business of acting is very competitive. ... I feel like I tried. I went down that path and found it to be a short road for me in terms of happiness. For me, I love being involved in my community and doing what I’m doing. I like playing great roles, but I have no desire for fame and fortune. I make as much money as I need.”
And real estate affords Graffy to be able to follow his passion at his own pace. “I was not a ham and wasn’t interested in showing off in front of people, but loved the idea of transforming in front of an audience. I just always was fascinated by it. I love it. I guess I have an overdeveloped sense of empathy. I love taking someone else’s life out for a test drive.”
His time in New York, from an acting point of view, was challenging. “It’s nearly impossible. You’re either a waiter or you work in retail. And so I worked in retail and did very well.” He had offers for advancement that he always turned down so that he could keep acting, until ultimately deciding that wasn’t the lifestyle for him. He found his way to Naples and was hired by what was then Premier Properties Sotheby’s and was immediately successful.
“If you are going to be a good actor you really need to listen and that’s with hundreds of eyes looking at you, but you still have to be private in person and listen to have an appropriate response. That translates into what I do with my customers. I have a very strong memory—about what they like, details, etc. And I’m able to connect the dots.”
It didn’t take long for him to find his place in local theater.
“I never thought I would work in an amateur venue, but I decide to give it a try because my mom asked me,” recalls Graffy. “She was absolutely right—and probably trying to get a return on her [college tuition] investment. I was touched by the dedication by the people who were there. These were people coming from eight or 10 hours of work to rehearse for three hours, five nights a week ... I have that kind of brain that both sides need some love. And I find it very liberating as an actor to have a means of income so that I can do the things that are going to feed my soul. ... I have found the blend that works best for me.”
Hometown: Muskegon, Michigan
Current home: Fort Myers
Full-time career (if not acting): Revenue manager at Royal Shell Vacations
Education: Grand Valley State University (Theater)
Special skills: Property design, special effects makeup (“I can basically make you bleed from anywhere”), extensive glue knowledge, dialects…
“I play with scripts at night and spreadsheets during the day,” says a wisecracking Rizley, who’s had the acting bug for as long as she can remember. “I can’t even tell you-since like 3 or 4 years old, playing an angel at church or something. Then all through middle school, high school and then I went to college for theater. So I wouldn’t call it a bug, it’s what I do.”
But while the energetic mother of two has always been a part of the theater, her dream never ran the traditional lines of movie or Broadway stardom. “I guess I was one of the odd ones,” says Rizley. “My dream was own, run or be part of a small community theater. To do the type of work I wanted to do: avant-garde theater that other people weren’t doing. I’m a lover of all types of theater, but I like the type that after you see it you can’t go to sleep because you can’t stop thinking about it. It wasn’t that I wanted to be incredibly famous, I just wanted to create the type of art that moves and touches me.”
And when Annette Trossbach hired Rizley to be her weapons master for a performance of Macbeth, the two hit it off. “We started the Lab Theater together years ago,” says Rizley. “I remember going home and saying, ‘I am finally doing what I always wanted: to create the type of theater that I can be a part of, doing the kind of art that will touch people and more people and be open to all types of people.’ … If anything I caught the vacation rental bug.”
In fact, it’s clear she really loves her job with Royal Shell. “It challenges me every day,” she says. “It’s not something I ever thought I would do. ... I work with the marketing and advertising for all of our [vacation rental] listings. And there’s a lot of analytics and spreadsheets and conversion reports. Both [jobs] are completely different and they both completely fascinate me. ... You know, to resign yourself to only one box, that is something I knew I would never be able to do.”
And though Rizley’s special effects skills “can make you bleed from anywhere,” she cites the theater’s need for adaptability that makes her ever better away from the theater. “The theater is fluid,” she says. “You not only go from one project to another, but to a new script, new actors, new directors, new designers, new tech people—and everyone learns lines at their own pace, designs sets at their own pace. All that helps incredibly when you are in the business world ... just to be able to work, get along with, and get the job done with different types of people. To be able to read people and how they work and adapt yourself in order to get the work done, I have learned that from the theater.”
Rizley’s tried to cut back on her theater commitments since becoming a new mother three years ago, with limited success. Then, when she gave birth to her second daughter 18 months ago, she tried again. “When you have two itty-bitty babies at home ... I guess I never really did go away,” she says, laughing. “I’m directing my first show, Twelfth Night, in April, and that will be my first directing since August of 2013’s House of Yes—a completely inappropriate play about a dysfunctional family obsessed with the Kennedys. It’s a comedy. It’s naughty and everything I love about the theater. And I was directing that with an 18-month-old on my hip.”
That’s multi-tasking and adaptability at its finest.
SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS
Rachel Burttram Powers
Age: (plays 23-50)
Hometown: Birmingham, Alabama
Current home: Fort Myers
Full-time career: Acting; production manager at ArtsFest Fort Myers
Education: University of Alabama, Birmingham; apprenticeship at Actors’ Theater of Louisville
Special skills: Licensed driver, yoga, fishing, kayaking, tap dancing, dialects…
She just wrapped up a terrific run as Ralphie’s mother in Florida Rep’s rendition of A Christmas Story (aka “You’ll Shoot Your Eye Out, Kid”) and is the only one of our group that’s a full-time actress with an IMDb profile featuring completed projects (for Emma’s Fine and Burn Notice). Yes, it’s safe to say that Rachel Burttram Powers is one of Southwest Florida’s most talented and prolific actresses. And the fact that she can prosper is not only a testament to her skills, but should be an inspiration to others who might want to take to the stage full time.
“My husband [Brendan Powers] is an actor, too, so in a household of two artists most people would believe you have to live in a metropolitan city—New York or Boston or Atlanta or LA—but the truth is you can make it work,” says Burttram Powers with a breeze of Alabama accent. As a longtime company member of Florida Rep, Burttram Powers is able to stay local and work regularly during its season (October through May), then pick up other theater options in the off-season, as well as some television commercials and TV shows that might be shooting close enough to make sense (Miami and Tampa have fairly regular shooting schedules). So it is, in fact, possible to thrive locally as an actor.
“You can do it, you just need an entrepreneurial spirit,” says Burttram Powers. “There are a lot of actors in New York, in a union just like us, who are doing maybe one show a year and waiting tables or whatever else the rest of the year. ... Not only are we company members here, but we have relationships with other theaters around the country, so it’s not like we’re just hanging loose wondering what will happen next.”
In fact, Florida Rep’s ensemble cast structure is what made Southwest Florida so attractive to Burttram Powers and her husband.
It’s hard to imagine that as a child she was petrified by the idea of speaking on stage. And it wasn’t until her family moved from Alabama to North Carolina that a teacher at her new school suggested she try the school’s theater program in an effort to meet new friends. “I did it and the first play I was in I was nominated for an award—it was a competition piece. So I stuck with it,” says the 5-foot-4 brunette. “And pretty quickly it consumed my life and I haven’t looked back.”
From Hair to Walmart commercials to reading at the Actors Studio in New York, she keeps busy.
“For me its about the process. It is a beautiful, wonderful thing when you share a human experience and are able to create something,” says Burttram Powers. “It’s all about the tinkering. I love to solve the puzzle of a script. It’s the exploration of human behavior and relationships. Performances are great, but I love being in a rehearsal room with other actors and the director and stage manager.”
Ultimately, if she were to ever leave the stage, Burttram Powers seems confident that she’d have the right stuff to make it in whatever field she choose, thanks to the skills she’s developed acting.
“It makes you a better listener. It makes you more empathetic. If you can listen to what someone wants or needs and you can read between the lines—I think it makes you wildly successful in that way,” says Burttram Powers. “You’re trained to be a chameleon. I think actors could be successful at a whole lot of things.”
Even so, she’ll stick to acting.
AT THE END OF THE DAY
Hometown: Annapolis, Maryland
Current home: Naples
Full-time career: Corporate travel agent for Chico’s
Education: University of Maryland, Engineering
Special skills: Musical skills, singing (tenor), comedy, drama, Shakespeare…
Jack Weld has his priorities straight. He knows which side of his bread is buttered and isn’t worried about what anyone else thinks of it.
“I did have one person who thought it was absolutely awful that I didn’t get paid for it,” says an affable Weld of his acting. “She thought it was crazy. That’s an example of someone not getting it. I like doing it because it’s a passion—it’s not about money. But you do have to realize how much you’re giving of yourself. You can’t give it so much time that it interferes with your day job. There is no choice between what pays your bills and what doesn’t. If that means not doing shows, then so be it. ... But it’s difficult because I get bored. And being in a show takes my mind off of things.”
For Weld, acting is unlike anything else he’s ever experienced. It’s a type of escapism. “You can get onstage and get away from your life,” he says. “It’s nice to step out of your daily life for however long that you’re onstage. And it’s also the collaborative process. From reading a script for the first time to memorizing your lines to your first performance in front of an audience; there is something about that collaborative process.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by many who’ve found a home under the stage lights. But Weld didn’t discover his passion until later than most.
“I didn’t get started until I was 31,” says Weld, who was living in Alexandria, Virginia, at the time. “I saw an ad for acting classes at a local community theater in The Washington Post and was curious. ... I have always been a shy person and could never have imagined doing theater. It was hard at first. Then I was offered a small part in a show. But as I did more I got less and less nervous.”
Two years later he moved to Naples and discovered The Naples Players. In the next 10 years he did 21 different shows, 19 of those being musicals. “I kind of got that out of my system,” says Weld. “I was in the chorus for most of those shows and wrapped up my musical run with Les Miserables, my favorite show of all time, so I feel like I don’t need to keep doing musicals after having done that.”
Plus, we’re pretty sure he died on the barricades night after night in that show, and that takes a lot out of you. His current genre of interest is Shakespeare. He’s already been an abusive Capulet, so that tends to cleanse the palate of musical theater as well.
“You know, I’m comfortable with medium-sized roles or just being in the chorus,” says Weld. “To me it’s about enjoying it and having fun. I know people making a living in the theater, but you really go from job to job to job. For me, earning a paycheck—I like keeping it mundane. I’ve been doing the same thing (corporate travel) for almost 24 years... I don’t even think I’d like to work in the theater. That would be, like, too much.”
Yep, priorities. GB