Lake Wales Little Theatre: A Theatre of Opportunity
By Donna Kelly

“I remember when we didn’t have these walls,” says Terry Loyd, glancing at the one separating the lobby from the auditorium inside Lake Wales Little Theatre. “I’ve probably painted a lot of it.”

With no paid staff and a budget funded through ticket sales and donations, the volunteers – largely those who comprise the cast and crew of stage productions — also contribute sweat equity when the building requires maintenance.

And they have from the very beginning. The theatre is now entering its 40th season and has a full line up of productions, including Stories Under the Big Top; Law & Disorder; The Dixie Swim Club; Over the Tavern; and Beautiful, Crazy.

Founded in 1978, Lake Wales Little Theatre held performances in a variety of local venues until Oct. 2, 1992, when it held the opening performance in its permanent home: the former band room of the old Lake Wales High School, 411 N. Third St. The theater leases the building from the City of Lake Wales, which took ownership after receiving the deed from the Polk County School Board in the mid-1980s.

“When we moved into this building it didn’t have a sprinkler system or air conditioning,” says Loyd, a retired stock broker who joined the theater in 1986. “We needed $23,000 for the new system.”

According to Loyd, to pay for these necessities, theater volunteers took shows on the road to surrounding areas including Indian Lake Estates, Mountain Lake, and Saddlebag Lake.

“We’d set up, do the show, and tear down. We’d make $1,000.” Loyd smiles at the memory. “In three years we raised $21,000. It happened.”

By 1992, approximately $60,000 in renovations had been funded by donations, grants, and efforts by theater volunteers.

The theater is in the process of installing new lighting with the capability of special effects.

“Things are going to be fantastic,” says Loyd.

Lake Wales Little Theatre offers theater experiences for all ages with programs tailored for children, teenagers, and adults. More than a few thespians caught the acting bug in the youth programs and continue to volunteer at the theater today. The children’s program runs through August with performances in September.

Leslie Grondin, the theater’s president, discovered her passion for theater at 6 years old. She participated in the children’s, teen productions, and a few adult productions until she was 18. Grondin, a 37-year-old bookkeeper, returned to the theater six years ago.

“I learned a lot about myself and was able to build my self confidence,” says Grondin, who devotes approximately 100 hours to LWLT monthly. “Kids can channel their imagination, learn to find their confidence and most of all enjoy just being a part of a great group of other kids that are accepting and enjoy what you enjoy.”

The teen program, she explains, has evolved since she was a teenager. These days teens learn about from lights, sound, stage managing, directing, script perusal, costume, acting, set construction, and painting.

“We strive to have each teen learn something new to gain a better appreciation of what it takes to put on a great production,” Grondin says.

Robby Hartley, a professional dog groomer, began working backstage when he was 16 and stepped onstage three or four years later. While he continues to participate in adult productions, these days his heart is in running the teen program.

His goal is for teens to understand what it means to be a theater professional.

Hartley rattles skills they develop through the program: Confidence, responsibility, team work, the ability to turn a mistake a “meant to be,” and the art of knowing when to say things — and when not to say them.

“We’re the theater of opportunity,” says Hartley.

And that goes for adults, too.

“We do two auditions each time, so you have an opportunity to go back to audition. I’m an awful auditioner,” he grins. “It’s an opportunity to be backstage, be onstage. We do a lot of no-name shows, so you can be ‘that guy’ instead of one of 20 who have played that part.”

Tom McCance, an 83-year-old retired professional fundraiser with public speaking experience, learned that truth first hand. He saw a theater sign on the street in 2012, walked in to audition, and landed a bit part in the comedy, “Red Velvet Cake Wars,” before leaving for a trip to Cairo, Egypt. “The director said, ‘You don’t have to practice until you come back from Cairo.’” McCance says, chuckling. “I’d never been on a stage before.”

Neither had Dorinda Morrison-Garrand when she auditioned for — and was cast in — the same show. She’s been a staple in the theater ever since.

“I love comedy,” she says. “I love people’s reaction. I love to make people laugh.”

She also enjoys theater camaraderie. “The best thing is when you get up there and everything meshes.”

Morrison-Garrand offers this advice for those who dream of giving theater a try. “They can come; it’s all volunteer. People are very helpful. Don’t be afraid to audition.”

McCance agrees. He describes the theater group as helpful, fun, and totally committed. “The degree of enthusiasm and desire to achieve are better than any other not-for-profit group I’ve worked with.”

Loyd, who at age 70 focuses mainly on manning the lights, attributes the theater’s success to small groups of people who “have a vision.”

“You find people who love theater and they get involved. Over the years we’ve built up a group of actors, directors, and technical people. When we need somebody, someone shows up.”

“Divine providence,” Morrison-Garrand quips. “It feels like home.”

For more info on the theatre and its upcoming 40th season, visit LWLT.org.