Theatre Winter Haven

You may have heard it before: “All the world’s a stage.” And, indeed it is. But not all the world can enhance our knowledge of society, increase our empathy, all the while entertain us within a few hours quite like the theatre.

photography by DAN AUSTIN

What is it about this form of entertainment that keeps it going through centuries of tidal changes in entertainment? One of the most oft quoted lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king,” poignantly captures the power of theatre.

With so many other forms of diversion available to the public, theatre thrives. As Tyrone Guthrie states in his work A Life in the Theatre, “I believe that a theatre, where live actors perform to an audience which is there in the flesh before them, will survive all threats.” Regardless of the fluctuation of attendance in the theatre, while evolving forms of entertainment become more accessible with the touch of a button, few can surpass the riveting impact of attending a live theatrical performance. It is an art form that has stood the ages, the fast-paced evolution of media, and thrives to carry provocative and creative performances still today. And it doesn’t just thrive far away in London, New York or Toronto. No. The theatre thrives right here, in Polk County, Florida, bringing light to unknown stories, mirroring our thoughts and feelings, and illustrating spectacles of imagination to rival our childhood dreams.

The charming city of Winter Haven, incorporated in 1911, has long been thought of as pleasant and desirable. With its picturesque Chain of Lakes and agricultural background of sweet fruits, the city quickly became known as a quality destination. Indeed, the name “Winter Haven” was inspired because of its temperate climate and pleasant atmosphere. The addition of Cypress Gardens in 1936 launched a history of tourism and live entertainment in Winter Haven that has continued to this day with the emergence of Legoland and the mainstay theatrical venue of Theatre Winter Haven.

Founded in 1970, nearly half the age of the city itself, Theatre Winter Haven enters its 48th season, touted as the “one of the best community theatres in America.” It’s easy to see when witnessing their production quality, selection of works, artist participation, and professionalism, winning awards for artists, launching them into careers with some even landing on Broadway. Many notable and successful career actors have graced the stage of Theatre Winter Haven, such as Tony award-winning actress Karen Olivo (currently starring in the Pulitzer award-winning play Hamilton in Chicago, and Wayne Brady, also starring in Chicago’s Hamilton. Quentin Darrington, Yurel Echezarreta, and Derek Seay are among the many professional and touring actors that have dedicated their time, efforts, and talents to Theatre Winter Haven community. Throughout its time, the theatre has also won many awards regionally, nationally, and internationally. Season and season again, Theatre Winter Haven, possessing a remarkable culture, attracts incredible artistic and technical talent from the Tampa Bay area, the Orlando area, and beyond raising the bar for the quality and expectations of the audience members and artists alike.

Not much can be said of this winning production community without mentioning its previous producing director for 45 out of its 48 seasons, Norman Small. Small came to Winter Haven in 1967 and quickly thereafter began his leadership role at Theatre Winter Haven. In partnership with countless volunteers and support from the City of Winter Haven, he propelled the theatre to a prominence most community theaters dream of. In 1987, Theatre Winter Haven received international high marks and applause when it took its production of Orphans to the Dundalk Amateur Drama International Festival. In 2014, Small retired from his position as producing director after winning national and international acclaim for Theatre Winter Haven. The theatre then hired Dan Chesnicka as the new producing director in 2015. Chesnicka had long been privy to Theatre Winter Haven, having been an actor on the stage before and supportive to family and friends in their performances and productions as a volunteer and dedicated patron. Chesnicka is already proving he is up to the task in following after the example Small set.

Once again, Theater Winter Haven has recently received national recognition and awards with their production of The Amish Project by new playwright Jessica Dickey. The play itself is a compelling piece of recent literature dealing with the somber themes of grief and forgiveness, topics ripe for discussion in our present age. Ambiguously set, it is inspired by the true-life killings of five girls in rural Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in an Amish school in 2006. Since Theatre Winter has won Outstanding Play (along with Best Ensemble, Best Supporting Actress: Sara Catherine Barnes and Eva Martin, Best Scenic Design, Best Technical Achievement, and All Star Cast Award: Cerriah Delgado) at the Florida Theatre Conference in 2016, Theatre Winter Haven took their production to the regional level at the Southeastern Theatre Conference. There, they again swept the award categories winning Best Play, Best Actress: Sara Catherine Barnes, and several Outstanding Achievement awards (in Directing: Katrina Ploof, Original Music Composition: Philip King, Set Design, Lighting, Ensemble, Acting: Cerriah Delgado) earning their way to the 2017 American Association of Community Theatre National Festival in Minnesota. There they were nominated for Outstanding Play and several Outstanding Achievement Awards. At the national level, Theatre Winter Haven won the Backstage Special Award and Outstanding Achievement in a Featured Role: Eva Martin for her portrayal as Velda.

Chesnicka is also making his own mark in the Central Florida theatre community by supporting the pursuit of new artistic endeavors. This spring, two of Theatre Winter Haven’s staple artists, Thom Mesrobian and Karissa Barber, struck out on their own theatrical pursuits, writing and producing and performing in their original works at the inaugural season of the Tampa International Fringe Festival. Theatre Winter Haven provided rehearsal space and an extra performance venue to the productions of Masterwork (by Karissa Barber) and Callbacks (by Thom Mesrobian). In partnership with Theatre Winter Haven, these two productions performed to a sold-out house for their opening night.

Theatre Winter Haven offers many ways for the public to engage in the arts either as a spectator or as a participant. It produces a MainStage Series, which performs five big-budget shows a season like Mama Mia! and On Golden Pond for  the 2017-2018 season. In 2016, Theatre Winter Haven won several awards from BroadwayWorld for their MainStage productions of Singin’ in the Rain and Beauty and the Beast competing against other community theatres and semi-professional theatres in the greater Orlando area. Currently, Theatre Winter Haven is in performance for its MainStage show Big Fish, a heartfelt and fantastical tale illustrating love of the imagination and the unique relationships between fathers and sons. Theatre Winter Haven also produces one large-scale musical production over the summer called its Summer Mummers, surprising its patrons and new attendees with a new and exciting title. With its Theatre Academy, it produces two children’s shows casting 25 to 40 young people and instilling the magic of the arts into the hearts of children and empowering onstage confidence for growing performers. The Troupe-in-a-Truck tours seniors’ centers where theatre is performed to an audience that would otherwise be unable to witness this artistic form. Theatre Winter Haven also offers classes for students, public schooled and homeschooled alike, including the Fundamentals of Drama and the Fundamentals of Musical Theatre for ages four to 17 along with other workshops and classes.

Theatre Winter Haven also offers an Awareness Month Series wherein actors perform with scripts in hand on a minimal set and in supportive lighting. This lesser-known but evocative series produces works that present the audience with subject matter reflecting the month’s awareness. For instance in February of 2017, Theatre Winter Haven produced August Wilson’s piece, Fences, which has recently been adapted for film (starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis). Theatre Winter Haven supports the arts to all ages in hosting a senior troupe of players called the Act IV Players who perform over 30 times a season to local audiences.

Above that, there are always opportunities for folks to volunteer on the technical side of theatre. Technical volunteers operate spotlights, handle rigging, move set pieces, and help manage costumes. And Theatre Winter Haven doesn’t let lack of experience stand in the way of a willing volunteer. A culture of collaboration and discovery is part of their core beliefs which consistently wins over newcomers to the brilliant world of theatre.

There have been many studies about the relationship between community benefits and the artistic endeavors within that community. How much do the arts actually do for its community? How do we measure the impact of the arts? George Santayana states in his work The Sense of Beauty that, “Art is the response to the demand for entertainment, for the stimulation of our senses and imagination…” Theatre Winter Haven is here to meet that demand. With over 10,000 volunteer hours donated every year, Theatre Winter Haven receives deep support from its city. With over a five-million-dollar economic impact and over 200 performances a year, Theatre Winter Haven’s high-quality work never ceases to bring exceptional productions to all who approach the box office. The community proves the demand with over 4,700 ticket subscribers and approximately 41,000 ticket sales a year. After 50 years, this theatre continues to commit new wonder to its patrons, and delivers time and again staying current with the latest technology and rising artists all with a full-time staff of only eight people.

Producing Director Chesnicka states, “Central Florida should be incredibly proud to have an organization like this in its midst. Theatre Winter Haven is among the best community theaters in the country, making us well worth the patronage.” Theatre Winter Haven has, indeed, garnered the respect of the nation in the world of the arts.

Theatre exists because we as people demand stories and spectacles to rivet and enchant us. At approximately $25 a ticket, how could one pass up an opportunity to be entirely captivated with the life-giving force of story and live performance? With all it has to offer, Theatre Winter Haven seems the unquestionable entertainment option.