Haines City Community Theatre by Donna Kelly

Haines City Community Theatre
By Donna Kelly

Cast members from Haines City Community Theatre’s recent production of “Cliff Hanger” were all smiles before rehearsal one night as they sat on the edge of the stage chatting and counting blessings reaped from their near demise.

“I really do love this theater. It’s a true community theater,” says Lynda B. Allen, who has been a driving force behind HCCT for nearly 20 years. “It’s really a working theater.”

Haines City Community Theatre was founded in 1981, largely with the efforts of Nancy March and Jan Brungarde, who staged a production of “The Curious Savage” at Haines City High School. After staging shows at the armory, eventually it found a home at the Clay Cut Center, a building that started life as a school.

For decades, Haines City Community Theatre attracted dedicated volunteers, drew loyal crowds and enjoyed a positive reputation among theater patrons in the county.

This lasted until November 2012. The theater was forced out of the Clay Cut Center when structural damage was discovered in the auditorium where rehearsals and shows were held.

With a new home in the old library building, some fresh acting blood, and loyal patrons who returned for season tickets, everyone involved in the Haines City Community Theatre is excited about the future.

They move into this next phase of their 34-year history with one overriding certainty: The Haines City community supports its theater.

Keeping Momentum

Although the theater was forced to cancel the remainder of the 2012-2013 season along with the following season, board members and other volunteers took an active role and kept the organization intact as they searched for another facility.

They lost $6,000 in revenue in addition to refunding tickets purchased for the canceled shows.

“We got to the point where we didn’t have any money,” says Lynda B. Allen, “We worked so hard to get (the theater) back. We never missed a board meeting. We tried to find another place. It’s really amazing we survived.”

They didn’t sit around waiting for a venue to materialize. After considering various options, including moving to another town, HCCT board members looked to the city to help save a valuable community asset. A letter of request for the old library building at 303 Ledwith Ave. was sent to city commissioners and the city manager.

Then theater supporters addressed the commission personally.

“We asked people to attend the commission meeting in support and about 25 people showed up,” says Allen. “…that’s what kept the momentum going.”

Renee Palmer, a long-time HCCT volunteer and current vice-president, believes this public outpouring of support made a difference.

“I don’t think (city commissioners) realized how much the theater means to the community,” says Palmer.

They know now. Supporters attended a commission meeting to voice approval of the city dedicating space so the organization could resume providing quality stage productions.

Commissioner Don Mason spearheaded the issue with the city commission.

“The City has a nice big park area, nice swimming pools. They support a lot of athletics. I remember one of the commissioners saying we support all the athletes, but for some kids, theater is their outlet,” says Haines City Commissioner Don Mason, who was mayor at the time. “So we felt strongly that if we had the opportunity and the building there, it made sense to provide a facility.”

In February 2014, the commission voted unanimously to allow the theater to use space in the old library building, which it now shares with the city’s leisure services department. The following summer the theater moved into its new home. It held its first show, “Dearly Departed,” there in November 2014.

“Theater’s an outlet for all ages. It’s good quality entertainment for very little money. It’s a great value,” says Mason. “All cities should have some form of the arts. For a lot of people, that’s a lot of their passion.”

A New Home

Palmer remembers walking into the new space for the first time.

“There was a bathroom in the dressing room!” she says, explaining that in the Clay Cut Centre, performers had to go out of the building and downstairs to get to the restrooms.

Allen chuckles. “We were thrilled!”

According to Allen, approximately $13,000 in renovations has been made to the building with support from the city.

“When we moved in, it was an empty room,” she says, waving her hands in front of the empty seats, bank of lights, and sound equipment in the auditorium. “We did all this. We worked hours on this.”

The project was a group effort, with each thespian contributing skills and donations.

Because they couldn’t raise the ceiling, the stage had to be lowered. This was accomplished by using modular pieces that can be moved. Board member Frank Deslauriers offered his professional expertise with sound and lighting. And Vance Klosterman, a part of the group since 2008, donated chairs in memory of his mother.

And various people contributed to building sets to use with the new stage. “The audience doesn’t know the work you’ve put into the set,” says Donna McOnie, a resident of Swansea, Wales who returns to HCCT when wintering in Florida each year.

Next on the list is to purchase risers for the audience chairs.

“It’s a work in progress,” says Palmer.

The thespians not only like the new facility, they believe the location is more favorable than their previous home.

“I think it will help (draw people to shows) now that we’re in this location,” says Klosterman. “We’re not isolated at the end of the street anymore.”

Volunteers: Lifeblood of the Theatre

Although the theater doesn’t have an annual budget, Allen said approximately $1,500 to $2,000 are spent on each show, with the majority of cost going to secure the rights for each play. It takes four to six weeks to stage a show from auditions to opening night. Productions run over three weekends on Saturday and Sunday.

“We’re very conservative in our spending,” says Allen

All community theaters need folks who volunteer their time and expertise. For those without a paid staff, the need is even greater. Haines City Community Theatre consists of 10 to 12 core volunteers with the occasional newcomer joining the ranks. There are no professionals among the regular actors, nor is there a paid staff.

No theater experience is required.

“The people who are involved with our theater wear a lot of hats. They are willing to do what they have to do,” says Maggie Harris, who has been wearing those hats for years.

They build sets, paint scenery, raid their closets for costumes, take a piece of furniture from home to dress the set, man the sound board and lighting, stage manage, print tickets and act.

This results in a close-knit group that takes ownership of each step of a production.

“We all have a hand in the process. You build a sense of pride,” said Richard Duffy, a concierge from New York City who joined HCCT just before the fall season began. “You’re working on a set you helped build.”

While new to Haines City – he moved there from NYC in 2012 – Duffy has been in off-Broadway plays and belonged to a theatre troupe in the city. He found his niche in Haines City when he read a newspaper story announcing the return of HCCT and emailed the theater. At 33, he’s one of the youngest volunteers and a valued addition to the group.

New volunteers are always welcome, whether they have theater experience or not, and young thespians are on the group’s wish list.

“We really treasure new people. We try to not run them off,” Allen jokes.

Allen says newcomers are asked what they like to do and are given opportunities to work in areas that interest them. “A lot of times we have to (cast) people who have never been on stage and they blossom.” She’s used inexperienced actors in a number of plays. “Very few can’t act.”

Mike Land, a relative newcomer, immediately found a new home when he discovered HCCT.

“Everyone welcomed me. They were warm,” he says. “It’s definitely a group for top-notch people, both actor-wise and people-wise.”

This warm acceptance seems to be what keeps volunteers returning.

“I’ve made many good friends. They always welcome me back as part of their family. We have a lot of fun whilst being a dedicated team,” McOnie says. “Once they’ve welcomed you here, they won’t let you go.”

Harris returns each season for the sheer enjoyment of it. “If you’re not having fun, then there’s no point in doing it,” she says. “It’s a labor of love – love of people, love of performing, and love of giving something to the community.”

For Palmer, much of the enjoyment in the theater comes from giving folks a chuckle or two.

“I love doing comedy,” the retired hairdresser explains. “If I can walk on stage and make people laugh, that’s the greatest natural high in the world.”

Regardless of the dedication of volunteers, the largest challenge for the theater continues to be publicity, says Allen. “The one thing we’ve not been able to do is get local people in here,” she says. “We’d really like to get more local people to come and see us.”

Duffy sees the theater as a valued social outlet for residents, and says folks in Haines City are happy to see it return. He foresees success if productions are kept family-friendly and ticket prices remain affordable.

Klosterman believes the new location will draw new patrons to the theater.

“People will be pleasantly surprised to see what kind of acting is onstage and what goes on here,” he says. “If they’d just give it a chance, they’d walk away pleased.”

To contact the theater about volunteering or purchasing tickets for upcoming shows, visit the theatre’s Facebook page.