Perhaps counterintuitively for a largely left-alone child of government-worker parents who moved every year or two, Annette Trossbach (pictured left by Vandy Major) learned early on that success is predicated on other people—namely, on collaborating with them. As a middle schooler living in the Netherlands, the budding drama aficionado—now artistic director of the Laboratory Theater of Florida, which she founded in Fort Myers in 2006— worked the novel Peter Pan up into a script. But to actually stage it, “I had to force all the kids in my neighborhood to be in the show,” she says with a laugh.
Later team-dependent practices involved considerably less coercion. Trossbach sang in her church choir and served as an altar girl (she sees the pageantry of religion as akin to the drama of the theater). And once she hit high school, and her acting and directing bent became apparent to her teachers, “People began to give me tools,” she says. “I think I had natural [theatrical] ability, but opportunities helped everything happen.”
Trossbach moved to the U.S. in 1997 as part of a startup team for an international school company, and to Florida in 2003, in pursuit of another job. Once there, she tried to join some local theater companies as a director. Her efforts were futile, she says, since she was a complete unknown in the community. Undeterred, she thought back to some discouraging words from her parents about her chosen profession: “What are you going to do, wait for someone to discover you?” And decided that, no, she wasn’t. She seized on what she saw as an untapped niche in Fort Myers—a town filled with transplants from other locales rich in the arts, and who were eager to support them—and three years later, her theater was born.
The Lab, as the company is nicknamed, is a production house—that is, it produces its own plays in-house—that in its 11 years in business has gone from a rented space to a three-building facility on 1.3 acres; and from putting on two shows a year to nine, in addition to running a summer camp and partnering with playwrights and other theater companies to stage readings. Trossbach has also won the right to put on mainstream hits like Del Shores’ Sordid Lives, about gay conversion therapy; and the Broadway Bible sat- ire An Act of God. These have led the company, a nonprofit, to embrace a secondary mission of community outreach; shows often include panel discussions about relevant issues— what Trossbach calls a mandate to both “entertain and enlighten.” Sordid Lives, for example, featured a talk with a lawyer from the Southern Poverty Law Center, as well as conversion therapy survivors.
Collaboration, of course, has been critical to its success. The Lab employs five full-time people, but it relies on some 200 volunteers to make props and costumes and build sets, work the front of the house, sell tickets, stage manage, pour wine at intermission, clean. And to act. According to Trossbach, performers come in to audition from all over southwest Florida—everyone from high school art students to retired semi-pro thespians. “They just want to be involved in what we’re doing,” Trossbach says.
This makes her leadership critical to keeping the whole potentially chaotic, complicated operation running smoothly. Trossbach is quick to point out that she’s not a top-down, “boss- in-charge” type of leader. Rather, she relies on what she calls a sideways approach: “I try to set up our structure so that everybody is empowered to make their own decisions. For example, when Rosie [DeLeon, the theater’s lighting and sound designer] is in the booth and something’s wrong with the sound system, she can get down during the show and fiddle with the DMX cable—that’s how we roll,” she says. “When you’re trying to build a team, a traditional structure just gets in the way.”