What’s next for live theater on Marco Island

Director Hyla Crane in the new

Marco Island Center for the Arts has become a two-venue visual/performing arts center, adding the Marco Town Center Theatre as a second venue. 

Tempering that good news is the quiet disappearance of Marco Island’s longtime theater company, The Marco Players. The company’s website has been taken down and two phone calls to Executive Director Beverly Dahlstrom have not received a response. (See accompanying story.)

Marco Island will not lose live theater, however. A news release from the center for the arts said it will christen the venue at 1089 N. Collier Blvd. with a new name, Arts Center Theatre (ACT), and with a season of six productions.

The season reveal will be at a public reception in the visual arts center Monday, July 11 (for details see the information box). While no titles will be announced until then, Executive Director Hyla Crane offered one detail: There’s a musical among them.

“It just felt like a natural extension of our mission,” she said of the decision. “We have actually changed our mission statement now to include visual and performing arts.”

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The Marco Island Center for the Arts has been in lease discussions since before May when it was told Marco Players was leaving the theater. 

“I did not immediately embrace it, knowing how much work we already have running the art center as it is,” Crane conceded.

But Crane had worked in theaters for around a dozen years, cofounding the Elm Shakespeare Company in New Haven, Connecticut, and working at Long Wharf Theatre, a New Haven organization that moved out of its venue this year. Crane watched that process from afar. 

“I think there’s something very different about a theater that has a home, a venue, in terms of how it establishes itself,” she said. “When it became clear to me Marco Players were not going to renew that lease, I did a lot of research, did a lot of number-crunching, talked to a lot of people.

“And I really felt that Marco would be less if it lost such an important arts asset, and that there are people here who love theater and live entertainment.”

The plays will generally skew to comedy: “We want to celebrate this year and we want people to celebrate with us in this new venture,” she said.

The Marco Players' summer series July 18, 2021, in the theater that will now be Arts Center Theatre. (Photo courtesy of the Marco Players)

But they may not all start on the island, Crane said. The Arts Center Theatre will be a presenter as well as a producer.

“We are actively speaking with other community groups to find ways to collaborate,” she said. “We are in conversation, and not just here in Collier, but we are actually talking with some theaters in Lee County.”

Still, among those conversations will be talks with Bryce Alexander of the Naples Players, whose work she admires, she said. She’s even hoping the Marco Island Academy’s drama department can train with them. 

“I would love to be a place where we can be a resource for students, to do internships, or to come and learn about what they’re interested in.”

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She has another model to learn from in the Centers for the Arts Bonita Springs, which has separate venues for performance and visual arts. Crane is hoping to glean some wisdom from its executive director, Susan Bridges, another arts leader whose work she watches.

This will be a year of hard work, Crane said, but she is confident about the two people who chair the committees for each center. For visual arts, that is artist and exhibition curator Barbara Parisi; for performing arts, Charlie Blum, former president/CEO and talent buyer for the Star Plaza Theater, the 3,400-seat concert palace on the outskirts of Chicago. 

“We want to try things we haven’t done before. Some of it will work. Some of it will not,” Crane declared. “But as with everything, we won’t know until we try. And if we don’t try, we’ll never know.”

Raiford Starke, right, plays with J. Robert on Monday, June 5, 2017 at the Marco Players on Marco Island during the Florida Songwriters Showcase. The showcase will be a summer-long concert series.

The Arts Center Theatre will not be the only theater on the island. The city is building a 32-foot, star-shaped bandshell at Veterans’ Community Park that has the capability for live performances. Marco Island also has a second theater organization, Island Theater Company, founded in 2011, that handles youth productions and one to two comedies annually. 

Harriet Howard Heithaus covers arts and entertainment for the Naples Daily News/naplesnews.com. Reach her at 239-213-6091.

What: Announcement of the inaugural season of the Art Center Theatre, the performance venue of the Marco Island Center for the Arts

When: 6 p.m. Monday, July 11

Where: Marco Island Center for the Arts, 1010 Winterberry Drive, Marco Island

Admission: Free

Marco Players ribbed, romanced for 48 years

 The Marco Players, founded in 1974 as a children’s theater, came to symbolize the most bon homme of the Collier County’s theaters and a welcoming testing ground for new works.

The company, a tenant of the Marco Town Center Theatre for 22 years, has possibly lowered its final curtain on more than 48 years of productions after not renewing its lease on the theater. Phone calls to Beverly Dahlstrom, president of the group, have not been returned, and its website can no longer be accessed.

Known for its generous helpings of comedy and romance, The Marco Players was especially supportive of new plays. Last season was typical, with two world premieres: “Silver Alert,” in which a senior fools her children into a wild goose chase to Las Vegas to commandeer her car keys, and “The Bona Dea Challenge,” the tale of an exotic cooking school that turns out to be a human petri dish.

But the theater took on serious topics, too. Among them were “The Interview” (January 2015), in which a prying tax collector learns a bit too much about his subject, a Holocaust survivor, and “Art” (December 2017), in which a trio of friends finds their relationship upended by a dubious “masterpiece.”

It sometimes showed itself prescient, with the first offering, in 2017, of “Becky’s New Car,” which has since been produced at two other Southwest Florida theaters as well as around the country. It knew its audience’s favorites, playwrights like Joe Simonelli and the late A.R. Gurney.

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It also presented concerts by Florida folk musicians and composers like J Robert Houghtaling. During the tourist season, it offered a popular mid-day, single-character play in its Lunch Box Series. 

The community theater organization had already seen the wolf at the door in November 2020. At that time it first moved to close after a $75,000 loss over its previous season due to COVID.

Further hamstringing it was the financial impossibility of a new season with patrons sitting at required socially distances in an 83-seat theater. That would have allowed it to sell about 25 tickets per performance.

The Players received stopgap funds from two Small Business Association programs: Paycheck Protection Program funds for its four contract employees and an Economic Injury Disaster Loan.

A Community Foundation grant helped. And donors rallied to bring the group’s last-ditch “Staying Alive” fund up to $67,000. The group staged a full season of mainstage plays in 2021-22. 

Apparently that was not enough. 

Avi Adkins

Avi Adkins is a seasoned journalist with a passion for storytelling and a keen eye for detail. With years of experience in the field, Adkins has established himself as a respected figure in journalism.

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