AMERICAN THEATER | Blow, Winds: Florida Theaters After Hurricane Ian

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Seats at Florida Rep’s Arcade Theater after Ian stepped down.

Last weekend in September Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill Opened in a black box space at the 100-year-old home of the Florida Repertory Theater in Fort Myers, despite hurricane warnings heading further up the West Coast toward Tampa.

Ninety-six hours, a sudden right turn in Ian’s path, 115 mph winds and 6- to 28-foot storm surges later, the show didn’t go on.

Part of the roof collapsed on the main auditorium of Rep’s historic Arcade Theater with a capacity of 393 seats. The orchestra pit was under six feet of water, almost reaching to the edge of the seats. Three inches of thick black sludge covered administrative offices, rehearsal rooms, and storage areas.

Water flowing in from the adjacent Caloosahatchee River destroyed countless lighting fixtures, costumes, props and documents, even a private library of play scripts. A few days later, brownish water stains were found on the walls. Although performances at the theater resumed last week, the damage caused by Ian’s onslaught is still being accounted for.

“I joke with people when I do curtain calls before our shows,” said production artistic director Greg Longenhagen. “I say it’s almost biblical. First we had plague, now we have floods. If the locusts appear, I will leave town.”

The venerable theater wasn’t the only one to feel Ian’s wrath, one of the most destructive storms to hit Florida: 60 miles to the north, the walls surrounding the stage of the Venetian Theater collapsed and a skyscraper was torn apart. home of a 72-year-old community theater. Thirty-five miles south in Naples, the opulent new $40 million Gulfshore Playhouse, still under construction, has lost one weakened concrete wall and may lose another.

The impact on the Rep was immediate and devastating. “It’s coming, it’s going to hit hard and fast, it’s going to leave everybody speechless,” Longenhagen said of the storm during a break in applications for FEMA loans and other emergency grants.

On the other side of the balance sheet: resilient Rep staff and committed artists who refused to wait longer than to catch their artistic breath (after inspecting the damage to their own houses) to help with repairs and restoration. They helped cut out several yards of ruined drywall and baseboard throughout the building; they washed the floors; they piled destroyed furniture, sewing machines and debris on the pavement.

After 16 losing shows, earning about $60,000 to $80,000, it was salvageable Annunciation it was moved to the nearby Alliance for the Arts’ Foulds Theatre, and the performance continued there, even though the Rep staff was in the midst of a massive clean-up of the previously unseen space.

Debris in front of Florida Rep’s Arcade Theater.

Last week, after making the main auditorium livable enough for spectators, the company opened – in time – the ironically named The incident at Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Rehearsals for coming And then There Were None and Freud’s last session.

“They didn’t let any dust grow under their feet,” quipped Michele Hylton-Terry, executive director of the Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency, a major champion of the site.

The cleanup will take months. Insurance won’t begin to cover the loss, which Longenhangen estimates will land in the $1-1.7 million range.

When the audience returns to the main auditorium, they can notice all the wood carved under the apron. Part of the ceiling was repaired and barricaded. The carpets were freshly dried and shampooed. The remediation company dehumidified and freshened the area with a disinfectant to stop the mold and reduce the odor.

The loss is a deep blow to the professional company, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary with two active theater spaces as well as a long list of educational programs serving some 45,000 young people, from Shakespeare in schools to summer camps. Its reputation for quality is solid, and not just in the community. Late The Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout has given rave reviews year after year on annual visits, claiming that the Rep’s 2017 production House of Blue Leaves was “as good as it gets”.

Besides the fiscal losses, what draws people back to the theater is an overwhelming concern, Longenhagen said. “We haven’t sold many tickets since the storm, which is understandable,” he said. “A lot of people are homeless here. People still live in shelters. We lost our lives. Unfortunately, we lost one of our volunteers.” Marti Campbell, 74, was an usher there for 16 years.

The potential effect on the return of a demoralized and engaged audience is why the Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall, 5 miles away, postponed a planned visit to the National Theater in December. Hamilton visitation. The building sustained some damage to the roof, but one-day events have now resumed. Attracting 1,500 visitors for one night seemed much more likely than trying to attract 30,000 people over 16 shows.

The blow comes at a difficult time for the representative, which, like hundreds of other theaters across the country, has already been dealing with the effects of the pandemic, including dark houses and layoffs. Like many mid-sized companies, Rep operates on a very thin margin, with little or no reserves in past capital projects. With a pre-pandemic annual operating budget of $4.3 million, Longenhagen said, “We feel like if we can be in the black just a little bit, then we’re jumping for joy. But arts organizations are very delicate institutions.”

The theater’s wealth also affects the community, which saw the company as part of a major redevelopment. “It’s been a vital part of the fabric of our downtown, bringing many visitors to the theater, to dinner, to shop,” Hylton-Terry said. At the height of the tourist season, his shows bring in 500 patrons for each of the eight performances. The public agency, which paid rent to the theater until the company bought the building, considers the venue “integral to the success of our downtown,” she said.

Venetian Theatre.

Still, Rep’s home fared much better than the Venice Theater 60 miles to the north, originally built in 1926. Rehearsals began Kinky shoes, which was scheduled for November. However, the theater’s north wall buckled under the 115 mph gusts, allowing water to enter and cover the stage, backstage, ropeway and front of house. The walls around the stage were torn down and only the skeleton of the steel structure remained. Initial estimates put the damage at $4 million to $5 million. While Kinky shoes was officially postponed for a year, the Venice company is looking for other places to hold it Christmas carol the first week of December.

Gulfshore Playhouse, housed in the Civic Building in Naples for many years, has canceled its first production of the season, 26 millionin part due to infrastructure problems and damage throughout the city. The apartment complex where most of the actors were was flooded with seawater.

Hurricanes are a normal part of life for Florida theaters. The Rep was in a bit of trouble when Hurricane Charley swept nearby in 2004. When Hurricane Irma threatened in 2017, rehearsals and demonstrations were postponed. Some of the worst damage on record for a theater in Florida occurred in 1992 when Hurricane Andrew hit Dade County. On 300-seat actors Playhouse in Kendall, the roof of the former movie theater caved in, the box office was destroyed and the lobby was damaged. But two years later, the company bought another former movie house on upscale Miracle Mile in downtown Coral Gables.

Hurricanes are such a staple of Florida that they have appeared in such locally written pieces as Nilo Cruz Hurricane and Christopher Demos-Brown Captive. But maybe the games that come to mind given the recent devastation were similar Storm and King Lear.

It’s a reminder, Longenhagen said, “of how small we are in the world, how tiny we really are when we encounter Mother Nature. I don’t care what you build, I don’t care what steel doors or hurricane shutters you have. At the end of the day, we’re all vulnerable.”

There was some second-guessing, although the staff put the sandbags away before the storm. “Some people can point the finger and say, ‘Well, you didn’t do this or you didn’t do that.’ But it wouldn’t really matter, because when Mother Nature comes roaring to your door with a four-foot storm surge, she’ll have her way.”

Contributions to Florida Rep can be made at Donations to the Venice Theater can be made at

Bill Hirschman (he/him) is editor and chief critic for Florida Theater On Stage. [email protected]

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