Feature Article
The producing artistic director of Florida Repertory Theatre explains how he chooses the theater's productions

by Robert Cacioppo

As producing artistic director of Florida Repertory Theatre, it is my sole duty, responsibility, and pleasure to select the season lineup each year for our theater. I feel a “duty” to my art and the artists who belong to our company to choose “fine works of art,” and a “responsibility” to the donors who contribute their hard-earned dollars in these difficult times, so that we can keep this art institution thriving.

It is a “pleasure” just as, I suppose, it might be to give a chef an opportunity to create a perfect menu, where each taste is unique, yet balanced and completes the other flavors. It’s also like giving a baseball manager the chance to assemble a group of players he admires and respects as he puts together a new team. And I say “our” because the theater belongs to all of us: artist and patron, box-office personnel and subscribers, board of trustees and the public.

To begin with, every good arts organization has a mission statement. That statement sets up rules that should govern the artistic director’s play selections. Some mission statements mandate that a theater only do Shakespeare, or that the theater only performs new plays. The Shaw Festival in Canada, for example, only does plays by George Bernard Shaw or plays written in his lifetime.

In 1998, when conceiving of Florida Rep, I was considering a theater that only did great American plays. I have always loved plays by the likes of George Kaufman, Moss Hart, Tennessee Williams, A.R. Gurney, and Neil Simon. I had never heard of a theater with such a mission, and for a short while, I was considering naming us Florida American Repertory Theatre. Unfortunately, the acronym FART was not very flattering, and the idea was quickly disbanded for our current name and mission.

Which is “to give Southwest Florida a first-rate professional theater.” That means our theater hires professional theater artists, from the actors, directors, and scenic artists unions (Actors Equity Association, Society of Stage Directors and Choreographers, and United Scenic Artists, respectively), and we create the work.

The fact that Florida Rep uses union members to create our works separates us from other fine local companies like the Broadway Palm Dinner Theater, Schoolhouse Theater, and Theatre Conspiracy, which do not use union members. The fact that we create our own work separates us from touring houses like the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples and Barbara B. Mann Performing Arts Hall in Fort Myers, both of which use union members but don’t create productions, instead simply booking tours.

Our mission further states Florida Rep’s commitment to “creating, nurturing, and developing an ensemble of theater professionals who will develop long-term relationships working on a wide variety of plays.” In my opinion, theaters that are ensemble based create the best work. In 1992, when running Sanibel’s New Pirate Playhouse (which I did between 1991 and 1998), I worked with an actor named Ted Schultz who had just been on Broadway in Grapes of Wrath, presented by Chicago’s famed Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Teddy raved about how great that Chicago ensemble was, how they shared so many years of common experiences and trusted each other so much that the product was superior to other theaters’.

Impressed by this, seventeen years ago, I started consciously building the ensemble now known as Florida Rep. When I found an actor who was talented, well-trained, unselfish, and, most importantly, nice, I started to offer him roles year after year. We formed a team with a common language.

For example, in 1994, I hired an older character actor named Niels Miller to do a production of A.R. Gurney’s Cocktail Hour at the Pirate Playhouse. Niels, a Broadway veteran (including Crime and Punishment with John Gielgud and Lillian Gish) and brilliant actor, went on to do about fifty productions with me until his death in 2006. He became an audience favorite and was a big part of our success during that period.

My wife and partner in life, actress Carrie Lund, has done about as many plays and has had a similar effect. During our 2008–2009 season, when I had fifty-two roles to cast, forty-nine of those roles were filled by actors who had previously worked here. The remaining three roles were cast by going to New York City and checking out literally hundreds of actors for those parts.

Our January 2009 production of Dancing at Lughnasa received a rave review from the Wall Street Journal. The review told all of America that our production was “…profoundly satisfying.” I am convinced that the high quality of Dancing at Lughnasa was due to the fact that all eight members of the company worked previously at Florida Rep.

This did not go unnoticed by Wall Street Journal critic Terry Teachout, who said, “Much of the quiet beauty of this production arises from the fact that it is performed by what amounts to a near-permanent ensemble…They fit together like an oft-assembled jigsaw puzzle, and the unanimity with which they enact Mr. Friel’s tragicomedy is profoundly satisfying…[T]hey act just like a real-life family: Each one creates a wholly individual character, yet all give the impression of being cut from the same branch.”

So in choosing a season, I not only look to find eight plays each year, but plays that will serve my ensemble. For example, I chose Dancing at Lughnasa because I was specifically looking to show off the dynamic female actors in our company. That decision paid off with sold-out houses and that national review.

Variety is the final, and arguably, most important thing I look for in choosing a season. A comedy, drama, world classic, mystery, musical, farce, romance, and perhaps a biography would be a perfect eight-show season for us. Old and new plays intermingled are a must. To me, this is the classic “regional theater season” that famed companies like the Cleveland Play House, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park would do in their respective communities.

Florida Rep has gained a reputation for pulling off serious works like Sideman (drugs and jazz), Rabbit Hole (the death of a child), and Doubt (crisis in the Catholic Church). But we also do plays that are just fun. I try, in my selections, to never forget that sometimes it’s perfectly okay to just go to the theater to laugh.

At the Rep, we look to juxtapose different plays. This really shows off our ensemble and its talent for acting in different genres. Seven years ago we produced Wit, a very serious drama about the poetry of John Donne and a professor who specialized in that poetry doomed to die of ovarian cancer. The play had full-frontal nudity, adult language, and a difficult subject matter. It was also a Pulitzer Prize winner. It was not a commercial hit for us, but it resounded with our audiences for years after.

I think what made Wit palatable to our audiences (besides a first-rate production) was that I framed that serious show with two outrageous comedies. The play before it was the zany 1930s farce You Can’t Take It With You, and I followed Wit with the hilarious musical revue I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. While those comedies made far more money than Wit, the latter put us on the map in Southwest Florida as a serious theater. It also attracted new donors who loved serious theater, donors who continue to be involved to this day.

Some audiences like our escapist shows best, others prefer serious dramas like Wit and Dancing at Lughnasa, while still others like the newest shows from New York Our variety of work gives our audiences a wide selection from which to choose, and it makes our audiences really appreciate the talents of our core ensemble company. When it sees an actor go from playing a butler in a screwball farce to a doctor in a serious drama to singing in a musical, an audience realizes that it’s in the presence of an artist who can change like a chameleon from show to show. A fan base develops for the theater and our actors, and audience members look forward to individual performers’ next appearances. Ensemble member Niels Miller was so popular that he often got applause as he made his first entrance in a new play.

Our twelfth season will once again offer Southwest Florida audiences an extreme variety of plays with familiar actors from past shows. I plan on opening with a big Broadway comedy and Tony Award winner, Boeing-Boeing, which is pure fun. Its plot centers on an American architect juggling three stewardess girlfriends—one German, one Italian, and one American—who know nothing of each other. The architect’s French housekeeper plays air-traffic controller for her boss, and, of course, as the play opens, things start to unravel in the most delicious and hilarious ways. This play falls under my rule that it’s fine to go the theater just to laugh.

We then take a 180-degree turn with one of the all-time great mysteries/thrillers, Dial M for Murder, an English play more than fifty years old that still works. Then we do another about-face with a very American comic play with serious overtones, Talley’s Folly. This play by Lanford Wilson is yet another Pulitzer Prize winner presented by the Rep.

I decided to revive the aforementioned You Can’t Take It With You in February of 2010. This is will be our “World Classic Initiative,” a program in which we give deeply discounted tickets to area students. You Can’t Take It With You is also a comic play from Depression-era America that will be comforting in today’s recession-era America.

Then it’s another 180-degree turn, with the brilliant drama Collected Stories, about a great writer who mentors a young writer only to be overshadowed. It’s a very serious play with an ending that has haunted me since reading it. We follow that drama with another about-face, a very comic Relatively Speaking by the brilliant playwright Alan Ayckbourn, yet another British import. One rule I have for choosing a comedy is that I must laugh out loud when I read it. When I recently reread Relatively Speaking, twenty-one years after first seeing it, I truly did laugh out loud, many times.

Closing our twelfth season will be one of the hottest and most interesting new plays in America today, Shipwrecked! by Donald Margulies, who is the Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Dinner with Friends (done at Florida Rep in 2002) and of Collected Stories. By performing two Margulies plays in one season, we show the versatility of not only our ensemble but also of a great American author. Unlike the very serious Collected Stories, Shipwrecked! is a wild comic adventure of a young man in the late nineteenth century who sets off on a journey around the world, gets shipwrecked, washes up in Australia, and lives with Aborigines for thirty years. It is based on a biography that Margulies found called The Amazing Adventures of Louis de Rougemont (As Told by Himself). Unlike any play we have ever presented at Florida Rep, it is the perfect ending to a wonderful new season.

While I can never promise my audiences that they will love all our productions (after all, we’ve produced more than 110 over the last eleven years!), I can promise that all will be well done with actors the audiences have grown to love. Proudly, I have never produced a play at Florida Rep after which someone didn’t come up to me and say it was his or her favorite. And with each diverse season we produce, Florida Rep truly proves that variety is the spice of life.

The Florida Repertory Theatre performs in the historic Arcade Theatre in downtown Fort Myers. For more information, call 239-332-4488 or visit www.floridarep.org.

Robert Cacioppo has been a professional director for thirty years. He lives in Fort Myers with his wife, actress Carrie Lund, their children, Matthew and Julia, and a rotund golden retriever named Annie.