LINDALE – Nebraska native Helen Strotman, 24, stepped out of college a couple of years ago with a degree in theater and a desire to carve out a career in arts entertainment.
Some might think it was a gutsy choice of majors in this day and time, but she threw caution to the wind and decided to go for it anyway, landing a post-graduate job as education program director with Tyler's Young Audiences Arts for Learning Northeast Texas.
The newcomer arrived to find a supportive arts community in East Texas and today, is heading up the final weekend performances of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," presented by Lindale Community Theater, 109 W. Hubbard St.
"Community theater is important because it's a place to come together," she said. "It's a place to celebrate the arts … for a small community to have this kind of space is just amazing."
A THEATER IS BORN
Lindale's move to roll out the red carpet for Ms. Strotman and others with a passion for live theater is no accident.
Just a few years ago, community theater was alive and well in Tyler and Mineola, but there was not a solely dedicated space in Lindale to enjoy the craft.
And that got arts enthusiast Tim Mitchiner, who handles technical direction for Mineola's Lake Country Playhouse, to thinking.
"I had a crazy idea to start my own theater," he said. "We scouted around for space in about 2008 or 2009, and stumbled across a building owned by Holy Family Catholic Church."
The church graciously allowed use of its space, he said, prompting a small group of theater buffs to combine efforts and build a small stage and lighting system.
As enthusiasm and participation for a community theater grew, so did the desire to land a permanent home.
A couple of historic buildings for sale across the way seemed the perfect fit, sort of.
The space served a variety of purposes over the years, from grocery store to auto parts dealer, so it seemed reasonable to reinvent the space as a stage.
A deal was struck and hammers started swinging.
Mitchiner, who has a career in construction, was right in the thick of things, sometimes working 12 to 14 hours a day to overhaul and then reconfigure the space into his dream venue.
He credits Luis Ramirez, Ben Patrick, Beth and Terry Walker, Dwain Hare and Gary Martin with expending their own share of blood, sweat and tears.
"I had a lot of support at the time," he said. "Once we got started, it was difficult to stop. There was no heat. It was 40 degrees in the building … people would just show up with coffee and donuts. It was incredible."
It took five miles of wiring, hundreds of feet in steel beams and countless late nights to pull it all together, but a devoted band of visionary volunteers pressed on.
As construction began to wind down a bit, chilly practices for the first production – "Crimes of the Heart" – started under a single fluorescent light and an imagined stage outlined in blue painter's tape.
The curtains parted publicly for the first time in January 2014 to thunderous applause from a packed house, complete with Lindale's mayor and city council members.
Coincidently, the city today is a chief supporter of the project. Mitchiner still gets emotional when he recalls opening night, describing it as one of the most memorable of his life.
"It was overwhelming," he said. "When I gave the director's speech at the end, I choked up. I don't remember what I said, but I remember the tears rolling down my face. Our whole goal was to bring the arts to a very underserved community … it was extremely satisfying."
HOLIDAY SPIRIT ON STAGE
The current holiday show features a handful of experienced artists, some of whom play multiple roles.
"This production called for a very flexible cast," Ms. Strotman, the director, said. "It's very short, very upbeat, very family friendly."
It's hoped that people will pause from the hustle bustle and take their children to see the show, a whimsical spin on the holiday classic.
Tickets are $12 for adults; $6 for patrons 16 and under with performances slated for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Visit www.lindalecommunitytheater.org for details and times.
Nick Buntin, 27, an English major at The University of Texas at Tyler, plays three roles.
"This theater reminds me a lot of the Jean Browne at TJC (Tyler Junior College theater)," he said of the three-sided thrust stage design. "It's very intimate. For me, it's so much more fun to see the looks on people's faces when you do something that makes them laugh."
Mineola businesswoman and cast member Lanette Garza, 37, who is joined by theater veteran Jeff Bullock and Sarah Pharr in the production, said building the venue brought people closer.
"This place has my heart," she said. "The church was nice enough to let us start there, and that was really nice. This community really support the arts and this theater gives people a place to come together as a family."
"Twas the Night Before Christmas" is the second play for Kristina Dearing, 11, who portrays Emily.
"Theater is someplace where I can be fun on stage," she said. "I like to joke around, it's something I enjoy. It makes me feel better … it's like when a teacher gives you an A-plus."
Mitchiner said getting young people involved in theater builds self-confidence that's critical for success, citing his young director as an example.
"Anybody involved in theater is very happy to see young people involved," he said.
"We need people like Helen (Strotman). We need people her age and her age group to come see a show, and stop looking at their phones for a while. She gives me a lot of hope."