A Community Citadel

Cody Nickell HeadshotCody Nickell is Gulfshore Playhouse’s Artistic Associate. He will be blogging every Tuesday throughout the 2014-2015 Season.

One of my favorite parts of my job, but one I rarely talk about in this blog, is the work I do with our Synergy Series. When I started here two seasons ago, Kristen was hoping to expand the Gulfshore Playhouse audience’s interaction with the work we do on our stages. She had some wonderful ideas about how to do this, and I brought some ideas to the table as well and she named these efforts the Synergy Series. Every season since then we have been expanding our Synergy offerings, and we now have a Synergy team that is dedicated to making sure that our audiences have access to many different thought provoking discussions, displays, panels, book clubs and online content like this blog.

I remember sitting down with Kristen outside Starbucks on 5th Avenue South here in Naples when I was working as a freelance actor in Blithe Spirit. We were talking about the possibility of my joining the Playhouse in some full time capacity. She was asking what my interests in joining an institutional regional theatre were, and among the myriad answers I gave, the one that was a true departure from the freelance lifestyle I had been successfully living up to that point was “community.” I spoke about how when I had first discovered theatre in high school what had drawn me in so quickly and what has kept me doing it over the years was community. When one works on a play, the creative team can develop a very fast, very deep bond during the making of that play. I love that feeling, and I have been chasing and finding it over the course of my career. What I hadn’t had the chance to do was expand that idea of community to include a long term investment in an audience and their community for one particular theatre. In some ways, that idea of getting to know and serve a community was at the heart of why I wanted to join the Gulfshore Playhouse team.

So here I am, in my third season as a Playhouse employee and I have to say that the Synergy Series is the thing that is helping me get to know and serve that community in the most direct way. Obviously acting in a show, or directing a show is a spectacular way for me to put myself, or at least a piece of myself out there. But what is so special to me about the Synergy Series is that is where I am able to receive back information about the audience. And actually not just the audience. Community is being created on a number of levels, macro and micro.

When the Synergy team meets, the very nature of what we are doing means that we are getting to know each other better, forming a deeper community. We are tasked with convening panels, curating book clubs, and creating lobby display, all of which means we are discussing the plays in a deeper way. We are not just talking about the dialogue and the plot, we are talking about themes, content, and artistic intent. This means we are personally interacting with these plays, using them as a platform for discussion.

We then try to recreate that experience in a larger setting, by offering our Synergy programming to our audience, allowing them deeper access into productions and therefore creating a safe place for them to speak openly about their personal interaction with the play. And this is where I begin to form deeper bonds with the community at large. At talkbacks after shows and during our new play festival, I begin to see familiar faces, and hear stories about their lives and how the play reflects or challenges them. During panel discussions, I learn about the issues our audience finds important. Reading the responses to our interactive lobby display, “Tell Us Your Story,” I get snapshots of our patrons and how they relate to each other given a specific question regarding the play.

The Mountaintop Panel Discussion The Mountaintop Panel Discussion One final piece of this community puzzle, and then I will leave you and log off my computer and go participate in the world around me. Yesterday we had our panel discussion for The Mountaintop. I shared the stage with three exceptional members of our community, all new to Gulfshore Playhouse. They had just watched the show, and then they spoke freely and openly about that experience. They were Dr. Bradshaw, president of Florida Gulf Coast University, Dr. Winsboro, tenured professor of African American History at FGCU, and Thanise Marc, a senior high school student. They each spoke passionately and eloquently about Martin Luther King, his work and legacy, where we are now on the road to the mountaintop, and what we can do to help get there. I listened as Thanise, a 17 year old woman, said that fear, fear of trying something new, fear of seeing things in a new way, was the greatest obstacle on the road to equality. I heard Dr. Winsboro speak of the importance of learning our history so that it can give context to the events happening around us now. And when Dr. Bradshaw spoke, I understood exactly what he meant when he said that it was higher education’s duty to create a citadel for the free and open exchange of ideas, all ideas, even of opposing views that we might not agree with, that this was the best way we could help to continue to have a healthy and free democratic society.

And I sat there and nodded, thanking the theatre gods that had brought me to Gulfshore Playhouse, that had brought me to this community.

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