“Norm, let’s start from the beginning,” I said.
Norman Small, Founding Producing Director for Theatre Winter Haven pulled out a black and white photograph and slid it across the table. Beneath the group of shaggy-haired ’70s youngsters read, “First Play Reading Committee 1970.”
“There’s a guy there with a lot more weight and a lot more hair at the time,” he laughed pointing to his 25-year-old self.
Theatre Winter Haven got its start by two of the people in that photo. “They were a couple of clowns in town,” said Small. “And I mean literally clowns, they made a living out of that.” The couple had gotten together with the Department of Recreation to found a community theatre. They asked Norman if he would join. A professor at then Polk Junior College at the time, he obliged. The clowns left town–money and all, after the first show, “Don’t Drink the Water” by Woody Allen.
“As a professor of theatre at the college and a local little theatre beginning, let’s do it or die,” Small remembered thinking. “So, I did it.” Making a whopping $6K a year teaching, Small was able to volunteer his time to continue the theatre. Season One would show only two productions, the second, “Barefoot in the Park” by Neil Simon. But Small persisted.
Asked if he had any funny stories to share about the first season, Small quipped, “Why don’t I say that the first season was the funny story.” Funny or not, they climbed to 150 subscriptions in their first year.
For the first five or so years, the performances were held at the Tourist Club Auditorium on Lake Silver. The small, flat stage auditorium could seat 150 and had a 15-foot-wide stage. Sandwiched between the shuffleboard courts and bingo and bridge hall, Norm joked, “We never knew when we performed whether it was going to be B-16 or I-41.”
Between 1947 and 1955, there was another community theatre (that had since dissolved) in Winter Haven according to Small. They would use the Women’s Club auditorium to perform. Small asked the Women’s Club if they could use the space and they agreed. They were at the Women’s Club from 1975 to 1976 while their current theatre was in construction. Asked to leave the Women’s Club auditorium, TWH went back to the small tourist auditorium until 1977 when the current theatre was completed. Small remembered their time at the Women’s Club, “We had to bring all of our lights in. We put one down backstage, forgetting that it was still on. It started to smoke,” he burst with laughter. “That’s one of the reasons they asked us to leave!”
The theatre’s infancy was held together by a shoestring budget. For years, everyone, including Norman worked as a volunteer. There were a few vital volunteers that particularly stood out to the founding producing director. First, box office chairman, Virginia Myers who volunteered for thirteen years until her passing.
Two other instrumental players were actors from Lakeland, Barbara Smith and Mike O’Steen. The two performed for Lakeland Little Theatre and would go on to play many leads for Theatre Winter Haven. “Barbara and Mike were really our stalwarts in surviving,” said Small crediting the actors.
A year for the record books for Theatre Winter Haven was 1977. That year, the theatre hired its first employee, technical director, David Seavey. In 1980, Norman Small became the second employee, finally drawing a paycheck following ten years of volunteering.
“When you are in the arts, you have a passion,” said Small. This passion is inflamed by both the process and the product. “If the product turns out and you adore what you’ve done and hopefully the audience does too – you want it to continue.”
“I went to a national conference in 1979 in New York City. One of the showcases of the American Community Theatre Association was the last time’s national winner – it was called “The Good Doctor” from Topeka Kansas,” recalled Small.
He watched it and thought, “We can do that.”
He decided to enter the theatre in the competition which started at the state level, moving up to regional and national. Busy at the theatre, Norm was unable to attend the competition. “I remember getting the phone call backstage,” he said. It was a Friday night, the production they had entered was “The Shadow Box.”
His excitement still almost as palpable as the day it happened, Small said, “We won!”
“Went to nationals, didn’t win. Who cares? We were [among] the ten best in the country,” he said. The win energized him artistically. “It validated what we were doing by those who are in the same world as we are.”
Between 1980 and 2017, Theatre Winter Haven has been nominated for and won numerous awards regionally, nationally, and internationally – donning the crown of most honored community theatre.
“How does it impact the community? The community knows they’ve got something here,” said Small, speaking to the cultural draw of the theatre. Current Producing Director, Dan Chesnicka added, “The economic impact right now for Theatre Winter Haven is about 8.5 million dollars to this community.” That is 8.5 million dollars in food, lodging, gas, amenities, etc. that have been measured to directly result from the work of Theatre Winter Haven.
“We bill ourselves as Florida’s most honored community theatre because of the number of awards that have been bestowed upon us in a number of arenas,” said Chesnicka. Widely regarded as one of the best community theatres in the nation, the shows they produce impact the culture and economy of the surrounding areas. “Our county measures the success of an organization by how many visitors we bring from outside our local area. Our audience represents 35% from outside of Polk County that travel here to see these shows which is a fantastic measure of our success,” said Chesnicka.
More important still is the safe place the theatre provides. This is true especially of kids that participate in their academy. Chesnicka said, “They always have a safe place to come. We have classes that go throughout the year, we have two academy shows that we do each year. These kids are in a safe environment where they are valued and they are trusted and they are given all the tools that will give them accumulated advantages that they will take on through life.”
For Chesnicka, it’s the “off the balance sheets” effects that theatre has on people which impact him most. “It’s the kid who comes in whose struggling in their life in one way or another and finds a home and finds a friend and is able to finally find that one place where they feel like they belong,” he said. The volunteers get something from the theatre as well. There must be a reason they sacrifice their time and talent for the theatre’s sake. “They do it because it feeds them in a way that is meaningful and it’s admirable that we have the institution in our community,” said Chesnicka. “I’m so proud to be affiliated with it and with the people who donate their time and their energy and their talent for the only purpose of creating happiness for others.”
Support from the City
Without the relationship between Theatre Winter Haven and The City of Winter Haven which Small noted as “important and significant,” the theatre would never have happened at all. “We had to have a place, they provided that at a very low cost. This theatre that was built was specifically built for us, with input by me,” he said. “Their continued relationship with us is a symbiotic relationship that without them, what we have provided since, wouldn’t have continued.”
That tradition of local government support continues according to Chesnicka. Motioning to the construction on the Field House, Chesnicka acknowledged what it will do for the athletic community, adding, “It should be noted that there’s also going to be a second theatre that is built here so that we can double up on the amount of entertainment we provide for the people of this community.”
More rehearsal and multi-use space will allow the theatre to expand their children’s programs from simply theatre to that of a broader visual and performing arts center – including dance and voice programs, chamber music and instruments.
“If the mainstage is the beating heart of our theatre, our academy is its soul,” said Chesnicka. “We’re wildly proud of everything that we do on our mainstage, but rarely do I feel more connected to our mission than when we’re doing our academy shows.”
Theatre Winter Haven has been home and host to many successful actors, actresses, and technicians. Actress Karen Olivo who came through the academy won a Tony Award for her role as Anita in West Side Story, the same role she played here. TV host, personality and Hamilton star, Wayne Brady has even graced the Winter Haven stage. If the theatre ever put together a wall of fame, Chesnicka said it would be wildly impressive – a nod to their reputation as the best community theatre around.
A tinge of pride in his voice, Small smiled, “How many theatres can say their little theatre produced a Tony winner?”
Of the city’s investment in Theatre Winter Haven, Chesnicka said, “I would say from Mayor Dantzler to the commissioners, to City Commissioner Herr, to Assistant City Commissioner T. Michael Stavres – there is a unanimous sense of commitment to having arts be if not the central part of our community, certainly a central part of our community.”
Looking Back, Moving Forward
For 45 seasons, Norman Small was at Theatre Winter Haven’s helm. It isn’t just the building that holds memories for him, it’s the people and the art they made together. Small thought for a moment before listing out monumental times in his theatre career.
First, was moving into the building in ’77. “Before that point, I never really considered that what I was doing was show business, I was just doing shows,” he said. “When the very first rehearsal happened under lights, when they went on for the first time – I’ve never had an experience like that except when my first child was born. When they came out and showed me the baby, something happened. And that happened whenever the lights went on and the curtain came up for the first rehearsal here in this building.”
Next was when they were finally able to afford to hire their technical director David Seavey as a paid employee. Seavey left his job at what was then Circus World, taking a pay cut to do so. Norm asked him why. Small’s eyes began to water, “He said, ‘I was a Vietnam war vet. I’ve never seen people work harder to create a product and make it all happen since I was in the military than in the theatre.’” He went on to say that the coalescence of people working together to create something meaningful and significant was why he joined TWH. Small paused, “What an incredible, holy thing to say.”
This powerful sentiment was followed up by the memory of entering and winning the first competition, hiring production manager, Thom Altman who Norm one time gifted a gallon of white glue because he held them all together. Volunteers Virginia Myers and Dave Burger were given high praise, and Small mentioned his first paycheck from the theatre and reaching 4,000 members during their 45th season.
These spotlights were brief for the sake of the interview, but Small could have gone on telling side-splitting stories and thanking the people who have made Theatre Winter Haven successful.
Season 50 – Shows and Celebration
The Season 50 lineup of shows is promising. To kick off this milestone season is, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” a production that too is turning 50 this year.
Following that production will be “Coming Back Like a Song,” “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change,” and “Kinky Boots.” The latter is significant as Theatre Winter Haven will be the first community theatre in Florida to debut “Kinky Boots.” “We’re going to be doing that before you’ll be able to see it anywhere. That happens quite regularly based on our reputation and our number of years of service,” said Chesnicka. Rounding out the season will be “Calendar Girls” and “The Wedding Singer.”
To celebrate the big 5-0, the theatre is planning a gala to take place in March. We don’t yet have many details to offer, other than, “It’s going to be big,” according to the Producing Director.
A nationally recognized community theatre, the most honored in Florida – Theatre Winter Haven has grown that initial 150 subscriber base to nearly 5,000. Here from day one, Norm still catches every show he can when he’s in town. He’ll tell you that his favorite production throughout the years will always be, “The next one.”
The torch has been passed to Chesnicka and the next fifty or so years will be his to nurture. “My goal is to honor our city commissioners’ and our city manager’s wish to make Winter Haven a great place to live, work, and play,” he said. “I found this place as a volunteer. My kids grew up in this place. The reason I’m in this job is because I want to preserve what Norm has created and if possible cast a wider net – to continue the growth that Norm talks about that has happened through the first 50 years. And, to make sure that 50 years from now, there’s someone from Haven Magazine sitting down with whoever the next director is, to talk about what a milestone it is that Theatre Winter Haven is turning 100.”
“Norm, any final thoughts on the theatre’s 50th season?” I asked.
The Theatre Winter Haven luminary answered, “I never expected this to happen when I was 25 years old, but I’m so glad it has.”