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All Texas is a stage for small-town theaters

It is easy enough to find a live performance stage theater in Texas. Think big: Go to a city, search for a marquee, a crowd, spotlights, maybe some glitz.
It’s unlikely you’d think small, at least at first. But if you don’t consider the small places you’ll miss some special—even magical—experiences. Because far from the big crowds and glitziness—not Off-Off Broadway but Way-Way Out There—you may discover what you were looking for all along: a community coming together for raw yet compelling live performances.
By thinking small, you can find the most intimate of playhouses, where it seems every member of an entire town has a role—on stage, behind the scenes or in the audience.
You’ll discover people putting on shows in the most unlikely of venues—previously vacant storefronts, warehouses, empty metal buildings, rented church halls and community centers. It seems there isn’t a space a theater-loving Texan hasn’t retrofitted with a stage, lights and seats. One theater in Weslaco holds performances in an abandoned water tower.
At last count, theatergoers can choose from among 331 community theaters across Texas, said Linda Lee, executive director of Texas Nonprofit Theatres, an organization that represents theaters statewide. To be sure, many are in big cities, but just as many are in smaller places, such as Azle, Bonham and Cleburne.
Some stage elaborate productions, musicals requiring a cast of scores. And they do it with miniscule budgets, with most counting on all-volunteer casts and crew. The larger ones may employ small staffs and provide stipends to a director and some technicians. But the actors? They are paid nothing—except, one can hope—in applause.
When you think about it, small-town theaters simply cannot succeed unless the community comes alive for the shows. Townsfolk must join together to select a play, buy rights to a script (or write one), audition, rehearse, learn music, make (or buy or borrow) costumes, props and sets, sell tickets, apply makeup, usher, shine spotlights, and lift the curtain (if there is one).
“There is an inherent need to be involved with other people. It creates almost a family when you are working with people like that,” Lee said.

The more you look, the more you’ll find that—just as no two live performances are ever the same—no two theaters are alike. Here are snapshots of just a few community theaters in small-town Texas.

Ingram: A 50-year run

Only a few minutes before the lights go on, Walter Workman prepared for the biggest role of his life.
The retired Houston trial lawyer sat alone backstage at the Hill Country Arts Foundation’s Point Theatre, going over his lines one last time. At age 77, Workman fretted whether his “fading memory” was up to the challenge of his role in “Leading Ladies,” a contemporary comedy set in the 1950s about down-on-their-luck English Shakespearean actors.

Workman needn’t have worried. During the nearly two-hour performance, he seemed to nail his lines. “I didn’t flub too many of them,” he joked afterward.
Workman was bitten by the theater bug only recently. He made his first entrance onto a community stage after his church choir leader coaxed him to audition for “Guys and Dolls” a few years earlier. She was directing the musical at the The Cailloux Theater in nearby Kerrville. “It was a large cast and she needed warm bodies, and I qualified,” Workman recalled.
He has since discovered that the theater helps sharpen his mind and is a good time to boot. “I don’t think I’m in line for leading-man roles, but any time they have a need for an old geezer, I’ll fit right in,” he said.
Founded in 1959 in what had once been skating rink, the Point Theatre remains one of the longest-running live community playhouses in Texas.
In addition to its cozy 120-seat indoor venue, it has an adjacent 720-seat outdoor theater along the banks of the Guadalupe River, the setting for its most-popular summer musical productions. Last summer, the theater staged a musical adaption of “Beauty and the Beast” (requiring royalties paid to Disney) with a cast and crew of about 75, said David Cockerell, executive director of the arts foundation.

With a 2010 season schedule of seven shows, plus other fine arts educational activities, Cockerell and his small staff face a typically busy year, working not only to lure audiences but volunteers, grants and corporate donors.

Dan Groat, amateur actor and real-life owner of a Kerville window-washing service aspired to be a professional actor as a youth in Michigan. That dream never became reality, but three days after moving to the Hill Country in 1996, he successfully auditioned for a role in the musical “1776” at The Point. Over these past 14 years, Groat has played dozens of parts on local stages. (He has performed his one-man show of “A Christmas Carol” so many times that he thinks he’ll retire it. “If you haven’t seen it by now you aren’t going to see it,” he said.)
“I clean windows to support my habit,” Groat said of acting. “Community theater has offered me more creative satisfaction than I probably would have found on a professional stage. How many guys on Broadway get to do Tevye from ‘Fiddler [on the Roof]?’ How many guys get to do the Modern Major-General in ‘Pirates of Penzance?’ I’ve done it here. It’s incredibly rewarding.”

Gonzales: New act for historic theater

The Crystal Theatre has had many lives since it opened in 1913, first drawing customers with vaudeville shows, then silent movies and talkies. It morphed into a coffee house and had a 20-year run as a dinner theater, where local performers staged classics such as “Arsenic and Old Lace,” “Oklahoma” and “Grease.”

Then, in 2002, the theater went dark for an extended intermission. No one knew if it had another act.

Stirrings began in 2006 when a group of residents, encouraged by the chamber of commerce’s downtown revitalization efforts, decided to reopen the theater. In 2007, the nonprofit group flung open the 150-seat Crystal with a production of “Greater Tuna,” a satirical comedy with exaggerated rural characters that seemed to resonate with the small-town audience.
“When the Crystal reopened after five years, the community realized what it lost,” said Barbara Priesmeyer Crozier, 57, who directed  “Tuna” and plans to direct the comedy “Blithe Spirit” this fall. The pencil slim and persuasive Gonzales native helped lead the revival of live theater along with her old Gonzales High drama teacher, Perri Bell. Silver-haired and cherubic, Bell, now 90, played four roles in “Greater Tuna.”  

Gonzales Elementary Principal Randy Meyer also played four roles in “Tuna,” including “Thurston,” a radio announcer, and the usually buxom “Bertha,” the head of the textbook censoring subcommittee. (During a quick costume change Meyer nearly went on stage without inflating the two beach balls in Bertha’s 50-inch bra. A fellow actor noticed the faux pas, and Meyer began calling his lines off stage before Bertha made her entrance.)
“Where else can an average person like me, with no theater experience, be an actor except in a small-town community theater like the Crystal?” asked Meyer, who since “Tuna” moved to Sweet Home, east of Austin, to become its school superintendent. But he continues with the theater, now serving as president of the Crystal Theatre board.
Fundraising and recruiting new members are continual challenges. During rehearsal for ”Tuna,” members of the all-volunteer cast saw their breath in the cold because they kept the heat turned off to save money. After the theater’s reopening, the board and community donors, including Guadalupe Valley Electric Cooperative, helped breathe life into the old building by funding upgrades to its near-defunct lighting and electrical systems.

The theater purposely limits its schedule to one spring fundraising gala, two summer education workshops (one for amateur directors and one for children’s theater) and a fall show, said Crozier, who earned a theater degree from Southwestern University in Georgetown and studied acting in London. The nonprofit group decided “we would focus on quality and less on quantity,” she said. They want to avoid burnout among volunteers.

Quitman: A jailer’s hobby

When Bob Hibbard retired from his job as a warden for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice he moved with his wife to a lake house on the outskirts of town. But instead of spending their time traveling or golfing, they decided to get busy.

The Hibbards started the Quitman Community Theatre. Since 2005, the theater company has put on 16 shows on a rented stage at the civic center. Hibbard usually directs and manages the productions, while his wife, Becky, serves as production coordinator and frequently performs.

Bob’s love affair with the stage started in 1970 when he served as an Army officer at Fort Hood and he began acting in shows at a community theater in Killeen. Later, working as a police officer in Arlington, he landed an agent and took a chance on becoming a full-time professional actor in the Dallas Fort-Worth area. But he eventually tired of the unpredictability of an actor’s life. He returned to police work and then landed jobs in the Texas corrections system, but all along continued performing on the side.

Since opening the Quitman stage, he has coaxed bank executives, a dentist, teachers and the local newspaper editor to perform.

Musicals and comedies are the biggest draws. “What doesn’t do well is serious drama,” Hibbard said. “People stay away in droves. They think ‘I have my own problems, I don’t want to see someone else’s problems.’ ”

Hibbard works closely with other nearby live theaters, the Lake Country Playhouse in Mineola and the Lindale Community Theater in Lindale. They may share props, scripts and coordinate schedules to make sure they don’t compete directly whenever possible, since all three theaters share the local pool of actors, crew and theatergoers.

Financial support has come from local businesses, banks and Wood County Electric Cooperative. Each spring, the theater jointly stages a musical dinner show with the local Rotary Club, which has proved a popular fundraiser for both groups.

“It’s so important to our small communities to have local entertainment that you don’t have to drive very far for,” said Debbie Robinson, general manager of Wood County Electric Co-op, who tries to attend most of the shows. “It’s just amazing the talent we have.”

Bulverde: Building theater

The little theater in Bulverde faced a problem that sooner or later confronts many theatrical groups: Homelessness.

Founded in 1979, Spotlight Theatre & Arts Group, Etc. (or STAGE), held performances in a variety of places and leased a bowling alley for rehearsals and prop storage.

Zada Jahnsen decided to do something about it. She persuaded her husband, Earl, to build a theater on their property in southern Comal County, between San Antonio and New Braunfels. In 1985, they opened the 171-seat Krause House, named in honor of Zada’s ancestor George Krause, who settled here in the 1840s.

“I saw what good work they were doing and they were always having to set up in community centers and schools,” explained Jahnsen, a longtime community theater supporter and herself an actor. (Her first acting role: A German-speaking part at age 5.)

Jahnsen, 74, has since given up the stage to serve as a volunteer business manager for the theater. She also is the head cook, meaning she prepares the home-cooked meals for all the patrons. Yep, you guessed it. Over the years, the venue has become a dinner theater. 
“It brings in people,” she said. “A lot of ladies love to go to the theater, but you give hubby a good meal and he’s willing to come again.”

The nonprofit organization is run by a 15-member board, which includes Earl, who also separately operates a towing and wrecker service. The group pays a nominal fee to lease the theater for its shows, enough to pay the property taxes, Zada said.

The Jahnsens want to keep the shows going after they are gone. They have created a family foundation to ensure STAGE can always count on performing shows on the Bulverde stage.

Not that the Jahnsens are slowing down. Zada has begun training a replacement, but the final handoff won’t be for a few years. And, make no mistake, Zada said, paying the bills, managing production schedules and making good choices in theatrical selections are keys to the success of any community theater.

“It is a business. It’s hard work,” Jahnsen said. “There are a lot of talented people who can act, but very few who can manage and run it.”

Mary Lance is a frequent contributor to Texas Co-op Power. Charles Boisseau is the magazine’s associate editor.