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With a fountain of dark hair knotted atop her head and a delighted smile, Kristen Coury posed for a photo in front of the gold sign proclaiming the building behind her as the “Norris Center, Home of Gulfshore Playhouse.”

It’s a spot she’s rarely stood in. Coury, founder and CEO of the Playhouse, has done much more standing inside the center at the makeshift shower-rod dressing rooms assembled in a meeting room, making sure the cast would be onstage on time.

She has stood in its lobby, greeting the crowds as they arrived for opening night after opening night.

And she has stood backstage, the bellwether ahead of a flock of actors crammed into the 2-foot-wide backstage left wing, waiting for her to welcome patrons and audiences for another Gulfshore Playhouse production.

Beginning with nothing

The Playhouse ends its years in the Norris Community Center April 21 with its current production of She Loves Me. Next season, Coury will be standing in a new 40,243-square-foot theater and education complex. But for 16 of the organization’s 20 years, the Norris stage has been, as the sign says, home.

It has been a home with comforts and restrictions.

The Norris was, Coury recalled, the ideal proportion for the fourth-floor walkup set of Barefoot in the Park. And during the pandemic, Gulfshore Playhouse was one of only 17 theaters in the nation to receive Actors Equity approval to do a pair of two-person plays—both starring married couples—on a set that allowed some intimacy without the work looking miniaturized.

But its intimacy could be stifling with nearly no backstage space. The stage itself was the smallest in the city. And the auditorium’s single- level seating was not ideal for patrons in the back.

One of Coury’s favorite stories about her Norris years comes from the staff’s attempt to build risers for the hall, using a contribution from the city.

“We built them outdoors in the park. We painted them. We moved them into the auditorium,” she recalled of the excitement.

And then they were served a “cease and desist” order from the same city that gave them the money. The fire department had declared the risers a hazard because of the wood.

Now, preparing for the final week of production, Coury said she will remember this building with gratitude.

“We would never have been able to move into a new theater if we hadn’t had productions here,” she said. The Norris Center gave Gulfshore Playhouse a chance to demonstrate its mission and values: “It’s a bittersweet farewell.”

Coury and her former husband moved to Naples as refugees from the angst Sept. 11, 2001, had struck into New Yorkers’ hearts, and she quickly felt marooned. There were no organizations with Equity productions, unless one counted touring productions that rolled through the Philharmonic Center for the Arts, now Artis— Naples. There were no venues, either. What is now the Wang Opera Center was The English Pub, and even the Norris Community Center had a theater tenant, the Pelican Players.

The alternative: Open an art gallery? No. “I cried for a full day at the thought of giving up theater,” Coury recalled. And then she decided she had built up a reputation directing for regional companies, as well as New York institutions. Could she start her own regional theater in Naples?

Learning the hard ways

For the first two years, Coury’s chief mission was persuasion. She brought Broadway stars to fundraisers who could speak to the quality Coury wanted: Carol Channing, Carol Lawrence, Anna Maria Alberghetti. And she reinforced that with productions that engaged theater lovers, such as David Mamet’s prickly Oleanna and Life X 3, an early play from Yasmina Reza ( Art, Gods of Carnage).

Gulfshore Playhouse productions appeared in every space possible: FGCU’s studio theater, the Daniels Pavilion at Artis—Naples, Cambier Park’s bandshell, where rain shorted the sound system and soaked the dance floor for Romeo and Juliet Redefined.

When the Pelican Players exited the Norris, Jennifer Fox, then manager of the center, offered Coury an opportunity to move in. It was an easy decision.

But it was not an easy adjustment, Coury recalled: “They had one bank of lights. One.”

So the Playhouse rented lights, and the only ones available for “follow” spots—those lights that follow the speaking character onstage— were stadium spotlights. They were huge, noisy and bright enough to light an entire rock band rather than the musical that season, Married Alive.

“The actors were mutinying,” Coury said, chuckling at the recollection. “We ended up having to put layers and layers of gray jell on the spots and they turned the actors yellow.”

To make matters worse, the wireless microphones the actors were using were occasionally picking up radio traffic from the Naples Fire and Rescue headquarters across the street.

“Every once in a while you’d hear this fwooosh, and ‘Fire alarm on,’ or whatever. I remember sitting on the base of this giant follow spot and thinking, ‘What am I doing?’” And to seal the ground floor for her misery, there were important people in the audience: Patty and Jay Baker had come for their first play there, and Erich Kunzel, music director for both the Cincinnati Pops and the Pops Series of the Naples Philharmonic, was also at the performance.

“He marched up into the stage manager’s booth and said, ‘You have no right to be doing theater in a building with sound that bad,’” she said, laughing again.

Classics with contemporary relevance

Yet, after the Playhouse began to acclimate to its auditorium, Coury felt it was able to bring what she calls game-changing works to Naples. She counts among them Hendrik Ibsen’s Enemy of the People and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons.

“I love classics. I love Arthur Miller. When we did All My Sons I really felt like that was such a relevant play,” she said. “I love doing classics because I feel the classics are very often the game-changers in terms of how relevant (they still are).”

Enemy of the People was the cautionary tale of a whistleblower who tries to stop a village from touting its polluted springs as a health spa. Coincidentally, as it was in production, facts began to emerge about the poisoned water in Flint, Michigan, and the attempts to keep it under wraps.

Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, based on a true story, details the guilt and blame that tear apart two families over defective airplane parts one of them had approved for installation, with tragic results. That theme is still relevant today, Coury added, referencing the current furor over parts inspections at The Boeing Company.

But for her, the real groundbreaker was a musical: My Fair Lady.

“People still talk about it—the fact that we were going to do a 10-person, two-piano version of My Fair Lady and we actually did it. And it was good! That was a huge groundbreaker for us.”

It has made them friskier. She Loves Me has a cast of 12 and a four-piece orchestra, the Playhouse’s biggest production to date.

Goodbye to a first home

Still, there are many plays, Coury declared, too large to work on the Norris Community Center stage—among them another Miller favorite, The Crucible. The flamboyant, mega-cast Cole Porter musical Anything Goes is on the schedule at the new theater next season, primarily “because we can,” she declared.

She will not miss a few of the Norris Center’s quirks. To reach the stage, cast members would have to dash outdoors to the backstage door from their dressing rooms in the center’s main wing. That meant a large load of golf umbrellas had to be ready for rainy nights.

What she will miss is the center’s welcoming attitude and staff.

“They are our biggest benefactors,” she emphasized. “In many ways it was thanks to Jen Fox and thanks to the city of Naples—we would not be moving into a new building if we hadn’t had the opportunity to produce here. Nobody would ever see what we could do and be moved by what we do.

“I just want to say thank you. This was our home for so long.”

This story was published in The Naples Press on April 12.

Copyright 2024 Gulfshore Life Media, LLC All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without prior written consent.

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