Evidence of flooding from Hurricane Ian could still be seen in the Fort Myers Theatre months after the storm. The floors and walls of the south Fort Myers theater were damaged, but owner and Florida Gulf Coast University alum Michelle Kuntze’s attitude is as good as new.
Weaving her way through the clutter created by the repair process, she gives a brief tour before taking a seat in a back room of the building on San Carlos Boulevard. The stage is relatively small, and the house seats about 100 people, but the shelves piled high with costumes prove this community theater is no small endeavor.
Fort Myers Theatre is the product of a decades-long dream; one that came with its fair share of challenges. Two years after opening in the midst of a pandemic, Kuntze is doing what she has always wanted to do.
Just as most people with a love for theater, Kuntze was captivated by the art of live performance at a young age. What set her apart from her peers, though, was her interest in the behind-the-scenes aspect of stage work. She remembers her “aha” moment at age 12, when a director asked her to help with a children’s production of “Fanny the Frivolous Flapper.”
“I was that kid that just never wanted to leave,” she said. “I was like, ‘Oh, this behind-the-scenes stuff is fun.’”
Kuntze’s family relocated to Fort Myers from New Jersey when she was in eighth grade, giving her the opportunity to attend a performing-arts high school. After dedicating four years to Cypress Lake High School’s theater department, into the world of college she went.
While most Florida universities offer performing arts and theater programs, none were exactly what Kuntze was looking for. After briefly attending the University of Central Florida, she returned home and realized FGCU was the best fit.
“The professors cared, and they responded right away, and they listened to my thoughts,” Kuntze said. “You don’t feel like one of a million people.”
She chose FGCU specifically because she wanted to learn more about directing. While other theater programs mainly focus on performing, FGCU gives students the chance to work behind the scenes and get hands-on experience.
“Instead of just reading about things in a textbook, we actually did it,” she said.
Kuntze was especially drawn to the fact that class sizes are smaller and the experience is more personal.
One professor who had a special impact on her education was Diane Stewart, director of FGCU’s theatre program when Kuntze attended. Stewart has since retired, but she and Kuntze still keep in touch on social media.
“I still write to her when I have issues, like, ‘What would you do?’”
Sixteen years later, everything Kuntze learned at FGCU is being put to good use. She stays busy with the more than 20 productions Fort Myers Theatre puts on every year, including stage classics and youth theater, as well as summer camps and other education programs. The next production, “Beauty and the Beast” runs May 11-21.
Kuntze has had plenty to be proud of during the past two years — including her favorite productions, “The Addams Family” and “The Lion King” — but what she truly loves is creating a space for people who love theater as she does, and giving them an opportunity to pursue their passion.
From eager young students to adults with little stage experience, Kuntze is willing to work with anyone who might set foot in Fort Myers Theatre. She has helped shy kids come out of their shell, helped parents rediscover their passion for theater and even introduced some people to their new favorite hobby.
“Changing people’s lives… and bringing fun to people.” That, Kuntze said, is what it’s all about.
– Kaitlyn Snook is a senior journalism major.