WINTER HAVEN — With the exception of the two rows farthest from the stage, the seats were filling up quickly at Theatre Winter Haven, but the producer and director, Norman Small, was actually ready to declare it a slow afternoon.
It was the first Sunday matinee for the theater’s production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Evita,” and as Small noted, in a historic theater built decades ago that’s stood the test of time and seats 332, “We’ve got about 280 here,” he said.
Good — but the theater has done better.
Since Theatre Winter Haven first opened its doors in 1970, before Walt Disney World welcomed in the public, this historic community theater has managed to survive — and thrive — even during tough economic times that haven’t spared Polk County.
“We’re keeping our head above water,” Small said, moments before the matinee started. “Or, in our case, keeping our heads above greasepaint.”
For one thing, ticket sales are up.
“This has been the best year for us in the past three,” Small said.
So what is this community theater in downtown Winter Haven doing right? “It’s the choice of plays and the productions,” he said. “One could do a less than stellar production of ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘Evita’ and people might attend, but our audiences expect a great deal more. In fact, over 6,400 patrons saw our ‘Sound of Music.’ ”
Part of their mission, Small said, is selecting top-notch plays that audiences will want to see, including a popular choice like “Evita,” for example, a musical with a large cast — in this case, 46 actors, singers and dancers — that Theatre Winter Haven hasn’t performed for 15 years. It’s an ambitious production, but Small said that never came into consideration.
“It’s interesting you ask that,” he said. “We don’t ever think of the scope of a show. It doesn’t keep us from doing this. What we do think about is what we haven’t done in a while.”
At a time when community theaters have to compete with theme parks that are constantly introducing new thrill rides and large screen cinemas, Theatre Winter Haven has some definite advantages, Small said. One is the strong support of, and cooperation from, the city of Winter Haven, which has agreed to pay the theater’s utilities and groundskeeping expenses, leaving them covering only the rent on the building and the phone account — a huge savings for a theater that uses lighting and sound effects for productions like “Evita,” not to mention high air conditioning bills in the summer months.
“What’s changed for me is the support of the city of Winter Haven for what we do,” Small said. “Without that support, we wouldn’t succeed.”
it also helps, he said, that Central Florida has become a kind of southern New York City, attracting tons of acting talent that move here to perform at not just community theaters, but theme parks like Disney and Universal Studios that routinely hire actors for live shows. That means a lot of talent to recruit for an ambitious show like “Evita.”
“We’re fortunate in that regard,” Small said. “We do attract Orlando-area actors, no question about that. It’s an interesting comparison with New York City. In New York, actors can travel an hour by subway to get to a theater, which is akin to driving an hour from Orlando to down here.”
But even as “Evita” employs a number of Orlando-based actors, the two leads in the show — Elizabeth Burton as Eva and Mark Hartfield as Peron — hail from Polk County.
Theater Winter Haven first opened in 1970, and still looks the same as it did forty years ago, Small said. But he added, “What’s never changed is the drive for excellent productions. And what has changed is the word of mouth. We have close to 3,000 season subscribers.”
Of course, Theatre Winter Haven is always looking for more. Small introduced the show right at 2:30 p.m., and, looking out at the crowd of nearly 300 patrons, noted “Many of you out there are season ticket holders and we love you a lot, but some of you are not, so please pick up our brochures in the hallway,” he said, as he welcomed the audience to sit back, relax, and enjoy “Evita.”
“It’s a superb show today, and we’re really proud of it,” Small said.
Freeline Media contributor Paul Castaneda, the executive director of the Greater Orlando Actors Theatre, said community theaters often develop very loyal audiences — assuming those theaters understand who their audiences is — and what they want to see.
“It’s different for every theater,” Castaneda said. “I know of Theater Winter Haven, and also I would think the Bay Street Players in Eustis and the Garden Theatre in Winter Garden are good examples. Theaters like that have a community base where those folks aren’t necessarily going to travel into Orlando all the time to see shows, so they have a base of people within easy distance of them, and it’s just a matter of picking shows that appeal to your core audience, whatever the makeup of your community is. That does create what you’re known for.”
Theatre Winter Haven is at 210 Cypress Gardens Boulevard — not far from where Merlin Entertainments is building the new Legoland Florida theme park, slated to open in October. Small said it’s not clear yet what impact this new theme park will have on his theater. Noting that many of his regular patrons are seniors, he said Legoland definitely appeals to a different audience.
“Legoland attracts ages two to 12,” he said. “That’s their mission. The question is will the parents — who might stay overnight in Winter Haven — want to come see a performance with a six year old?”
Theatre Winter Haven has been thinking about this, he added — which is why they have a new mission: to start a children’s theater.
Small said their ambitions are to build a new theater for shows that appeal to children. They already have a Theatre Winter Haven Academy with performance classes like Drama Tots, Look at Me Players, Ham & Funny Bones and Monster Mash Workshop for ages that range from 3 years old to 17.
“We’re in the throngs of a new building idea,” Small said. “To have an additional stage is a dream of ours.”
He also believes that Theatre Winter Haven continues to play a vital role in Polk County’s cultural scene.
“The quality of life,” he said, “is measured by the arts.”
To learn more about Theatre Winter Haven or to reserve tickets for “Evita,” call 863-294-7469.
Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.