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Sugden Theatre plans $15 million upgrade in Naples

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Sugden Theatre plans $15 million upgrade in Naples

A $15 million renovation will bring Sugden Community Theatre a balcony, an education theater than can double for black-box use, a glass-walled atrium and a rooftop terrace.

And that’s only part of a project that Bryce Alexander, CEO and artistic director of The Naples Players, calls transformative for the 23-year-old building, which still has its original seating and some of its carpeting from 1998. Sparkle is definitely on the list, he stated. 

The planned Tanya and Denny Glass Education Theatre, which looks out on Fourth Avenue South.

He declared that there is not a single area of the facility that will not be renovated. 

Jay Baker and Patty Baker, philanthropists, announced the renovation/expansion this week. The Naples Players need to match it with community donations.

The hope: lower prices, room for kids

There’s two primary goals for space refinishing, however. Naples Players needs more seating for its mainstage season and more space to host educational theater programs. The latter have been part of their mission since the 1990s, and Naples Players serves at least 10,000 children and adults annually.

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The Players announcement also pointed out its partnerships with 22 local organizations, such as Collier County Public Schools, STARability, Grace Place, The Alzheimer’s Association SW Florida Chapter and The Arlington. 

Blocks of space inside the Sugden will be reconfigured for three student classrooms and new adult rehearsal rooms that also can be used for workshops and readings.

Adding the balcony to Blackburn Hall, to be renamed the Kizzie Theater at the request of donors Patty and Jay Baker, will make it the second largest dedicated theater in Naples. (Artis—Naples is first, with seating for 1,477 in Hayes Hall.) 

The current 308-seat capacity will expand to 450 seats, nearly 150 of them in the mezzanine level, to be named for donors David Byron and Vicky C. Smith.

Alexander explained that Blackburn Hall was originally designed to be a balcony.

A rendering of the lobby with its mezzanine stairs and window wall

“Above the audience is another 25-30 feet of unutilized space in the theater. It was possible to fit the balcony and all additional support spaces without changing the roofline of our building. This is pretty remarkable,” he stated.

“We consider that a crucial component of this project because we have been sold out for many years. He said that while it is a problem, it can also be a problem when talking about revenue generation.

The only way to generate revenue is by raising prices. We are a community-based organisation and don’t want people priced out of the market.

The sound and lighting systems will also be replaced. The orchestra pit will be air-conditioned. This is a change that the audience might not notice, but the musicians will. It’s the only area in the building that doesn’t have air conditioning.

Another floor was potentially there

The Tobye Studio Theatre will be renamed The Price Studio Theater for benefactor Henry Price. (Ted Tobye, former Naples Players board president who was key in raising funds to build Sugden Community Theatre, will be honored in a different way, to be announced soon, Alexander said.)

The new educational theater, in an addition directly above it, will be The Tanya & Denny Glass Educational Theater, which is primarily for educational performances. Both theaters will be able to seat 104.

Both will be equipped with new tension grids. These grids will replace catwalks, narrow passageways used by crew to repair or redirect lighting. Tension grids — reinforced mesh held by a supporting framework — will allow crew to move anywhere overhead in a theater without the danger of slips or equipment falls. Alexander said that it will allow someone in a wheelchair to perform these functions.

The north facade of Sugden Community Theatre after improvements.

Glass theater, a large cube-shaped space that faces Fourth Avenue South and has a glass wall, will be an additional front image for the theater. Alexander said Naples Players has received complaints from neighbors who see the Fourth Street frontage as looking “back alley.” The architecture will be part of its beautification plan.

One thing is certain: The iconic facade of Sugden Community Theatre, facing Fifth Avenue South, will not be altered. The theater hired local firm David Corban Architects to lead the project, and he chose to preserve that image while overhauling the facility’s interior. North Carolina-based Theatre Consultants Collaborative is overseeing the design of performance systems.

Since January 2020, the Players have quietly been campaigning for funding and currently have 60%, or close to $9million, of that funding. Alexander explained that the timing of construction will be determined by Naples’ generosity. 

“We’re hoping that the project will start in May of 2022, but that’s going to take our whole community coming together to meet the $2 million Jay and Patty Baker match,” Alexander said.

Those who are interesting in learning about giving opportunities may contact balexander@naplesplayers.org, 239-434-7340; information on the project is at naplesplayers.org/campaign

The view down to the lobby from the planned Smith Mezzanine at Sugden Community Theatre

He’s hoping most of the theater can be open by the winter season of 2022.

In the news release announcing the project, Peggy Monson, chairperson of The Naples Players board of directors, said the major campaign was following the footsteps of those leaders who built the Sugden. “We want to pay tribute today to them by taking the next step towards the vision for the Naples Players.”

Harriet Howard Heithaus is a reporter for Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. She covers entertainment and arts. Call her at 239-213-6091.

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