An Amazing 50 Years of Players By The Sea in Jacksonville Beach

Event: Players by the Sea 50th Season Kickoff Gala at the Opening Night of La Cage Aux Folles
Venue: Players by the Sea, 106 6th St. N., Jacksonville Beach 32250
Date/Time: September 18, 7pm gala, 8pm curtain
Tickets: $85 for non-members and $50 for members
Contact: 904.249.0289 www.playersbythesea.org

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Before the first curtain at Players by the Sea in October 1966, beaches residents had to travel west on Atlantic Boulevard, then the only arterial road leading into downtown, to enjoy a live theatre experience. But the founders of Players wanted to do more than bring live productions to the stage. They wanted to start discussions within the community and elevate and enhance the definition of community theatre for local patrons.

“Theatre companies start for different reasons,” says Bradley Akers, who directed last season’s epic Aida. “For Players, the goal was to spark a discussion and that’s what we’ve been doing. It is really important to us as a company.” Now celebrating its golden anniversary, Players by the Sea celebrates with a French-themed event to set the stage for its 50th season opener, La Cage Aux Folles. Guests of the black tie-optional gala will enjoy overflowing champagne, a French menu catered by Carrabba’s, door prizes, live entertainment, and a large birdcage for photo opportunities prior to curtain.

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“This is going to be the biggest party in our 50-year history, so we’re really excited about that,” says Akers. “This celebrates our 50 years, but it’s also a benefit fundraiser for the theatre. All proceeds are going straight into the theatre so we can have a successful and financially sound 50th year. It ensures that we will still be able to bring the same excellent theatre that we’ve been bringing for all these years.”

The fledgling company blossomed from its determined grassroots beginnings to its current station as one of the community’s premiere cultural institutions with a reputation for artistic excellence and innovative outreach. During its first 30 years, Players by the Sea relied solely on box office receipts, performing in temporary, borrowed, or rented spaces. Through the loyalty of its audiences and the generous contributions of benefactors and volunteers, Players not only survived but continued to flourish. “With any producing theatre, you always set out at the beginning of each season that every show is going to be a big success and it’s not always that way and that’s okay,” Akers says. “While every show might not be a major success, every show sparked some sort of conversation and that is the reason we do this.”

burns03In 1972, the group was gifted with its first permanent address in a vacant movie theatre at First Street and Fourth Avenue, but the building was lost to an electrical fire just a few years later. Players moved into a rented space in a former five-and-dime store at First Street and Second Avenue in the summer of 1984, where they remained for the next 15 years, earning a reputation for imaginative repertory choices despite the challenge of a pole in the center of the room and live music reverberating through the walls of an adjacent nightspot. “You either had to embrace it and make [the pole] a part of the set or completely ignore it. But if you do good theatre, it’s going to take everyone in that room on a journey and make them forget any distractions for two hours,” says Akers, who came to Players after returning to Jacksonville.

“It’s that commitment to this innovative style of theatre, pushing the boundaries and saying ‘how can we do it differently?’ That’s what Players has been doing since the beginning.”

A spacious, industrial building at 106 Sixth Street North in Jacksonville Beach purchased in 1999 was a sign of the ambitious growth in the number and quality of productions to come. For the first time, the group had an artistic vision with no boundaries, converting the site into a thriving performance space with a 150-seat Main Stage, an 80-seat Studio Theatre, greatly expanded technical capabilities, a large classroom, set-building shop, dressing rooms and ample storage and office space. “This building was not meant to be a theatre. It was a laundromat and then an indoor skate park. That says a lot in and of itself,” he says. “We’ve been able to put on really big and important shows in a space that used to be a dry cleaner.”

Joe Schwarz_PBTS_GSAs Players continued to grow, the increased functions and responsibilities of running the theatre prompted the Board of Directors to hire the first Executive Director in 2001. Under the leadership of Joseph Schwarz, Players by the Sea continues to redefine its role in local theatre with a commitment to excellence, artistic risk-taking, financial prudence and a passion for service. “Players by the Sea, at the surface, would not be what it is today without Joe Schwarz. Joe took this theatre that was newly in its permanent home and he made it cutting edge and he increased the amount of shows that they were doing each season. Joe made us into an organization, a visible cultural organization in Northeast Florida with the partnerships he’s created and the sponsorships that he’s gotten, pushing our operating budget higher and higher as years go by so that we’re not relying solely on box office receipts any more. Joe has grown this theatre into one of the strongest theatres in Northeast Florida.”

This vision has resulted in far-reaching cultural partnerships, diverse educational outreach, record setting attendance, and outstanding artistic achievement. Originally the School of the Arts headed by Education Director Barbara Colaciello, the Performing Arts Studio at Players by the Sea provides innovative learning-based programs for students of all ages, with an emphasis on outreach to underserved and special needs groups. “Students are able to get an after-school theatre education that they may not have the resource to get at their school. It also gives these students valuable communication skills, teamwork, responsibility and presentation skills. We see our program not only as training the young artist but really using that time to get them out of their head and into their bodies and ready for life outside the classroom.”

Improvements to the building continue to add value to the theatre-going experience for audiences and volunteers. The Grune Family Gallery showcases local art in a professional gallery setting. Seating renovations in the Main Stage and Studio auditoriums provide comfort and accessibility for all patrons. The addition last year of a Grand Drape enhances the drama and function of the Main Stage.

Says Akers, “There is this stigma with community theatres that it is less than, and Joe and the Board at Players took that stigma and completely erased it. They took this theatre and turned it into a rival for any regional professional theatre in the country, but with that same heart that the community theatre starts with, and that is a really important thing.”

About Liza Mitchell