. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

…and Artesia Community Theatre’s spotlight has been shining bright since 1978

The 25 people attending a June 1978 organizational meeting of the Artesia Community Theatre chose as their elected representation, from left, Gordon Edgmon, Kathy Hay, Mary Woodlee, Helen Mapes, Rev. David Marsh, Lila Stout and Alice Lorang. (Daily Press File Photo)

They had a “find out what everybody thinks” meeting at K-Bob’s, the Daily Press cutline read.

It was June 2, 1978, and 13 Artesians had made the decision to gather at the local steakhouse to gauge interest in establishing a “little theatre” in the community. The group agreed there was “sufficient interest” to keep things moving, and six days later, the Artesia Community Theatre (ACT) was born.

An expanded total of 25 individuals attended the organizational meeting, at which seven were elected to the board of directors: Gordon Edgmon, Kathy Hay, Mary Woodlee, Helen Mapes, Rev. David Marsh, Lila Stout and Alice Lorang.

In October of that year, the ACT had delivered its inaugural performance, “Dracula Returns,” in the garage of member Dave Barrett’s farm home. By 1981, they were staging the musical “Annie Get Your Gun” at the Artesia High School Auditorium with a sizable cast.

Over the 38 years since it formed over steaks and iced tea, the ACT has endured more than its share of highs and lows. But, in testament to the spirit of the theatre, it has survived.

And when the group presents its first production of 2017, “Drinking Habits,” Feb. 16-19 at Cottonwood Wine and Brewing, it will be carrying on a tradition of which Artesia theatre enthusiasts, past and present, can – and should – be proud.

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“Annie Get Your Gun,” a fictionalized tale of Wild West sharpshooter Annie Oakley and her romance with fellow marksman Frank Butler, seemed a good fit for Artesia’s first community theatre performance.

“That was our first really big production,” says Sandy Schuetz, who performed in both that production and “Dracula Returns.” “We had a huge cast and crew.”

The ACT members and volunteers surprised even themselves with the scope of what they were able to create in their first large-scale stage effort, and their audience was equally delighted. Beckie Mason and Martin Muncy, who remained involved with the ACT for several years, starred as Oakley and Butler amidst a backdrop of well-made sets and a strong supporting cast.

But their curtain call wouldn’t be all champagne and roses, as Daily Press staff writer Beth Morgan, a two-month transplant to the community, torched the performance in shocking fashion in a review published the following week.

“We were all pretty stunned when we opened that day’s paper,” laughs Laney Rountree, who made her ACT debut in the musical. “We thought that we’d done a pretty good job!”

Morgan’s sniping – which included statements such as Mason’s “overacting” was “necessary to compensate for others’ weaknesses” and “what we would hope was due to a faulty sound system or other technical difficulty may have simply been poor singing” – are comical today but were a jolt to the system of the newly-minted ACT in 1981.

If the cast and crew briefly doubted their abilities, however, they were vindicated in the days to come, as Morgan became the villain in a citywide melodrama.

Residents rushed to the defense of the production in a bevy of letters to the editor, lauding the performances and pointing out the ACT was not striving to replicate Broadway in their initial effort and did not deserve to be criticized as such – “If so,” wrote Dewana Gray, “Beth Morgan would most certainly be working for the New York Times instead of the Artesia Daily Press.”

Fortunately, the ACT didn’t allow their press clippings to deter them, and the community continued to rally around the troupe as they followed “Annie Get Your Gun” with two more major musical productions in 1982 and 1983 – “South Pacific” and “Oklahoma!”

For “South Pacific,” local artist Mapes painted a stunning backdrop used during “Bali Hai.”

“She painted over it four times because she was not happy with what she had done,” says
Schuetz.

Perfection came at a price, though – due to the multiple coats of paint, the drop became too heavy to raise and lower, and couldn’t be used again.

Schuetz (née Heckel) soon found herself pulled behind the scenes. An illustration of the lifetime bonds frequently formed by “theatre folk,” she met her husband, Jim, on the set of “Oklahoma!” and the two were married the following year in 1984.

“Unfortunately, they’d discovered I had directing experience,” says Schuetz. “So when ‘South Pacific’ came along, I was named Lila Stout’s assistant director.

“That was a big production, too, and it just kept getting bigger. ‘Oklahoma!’ had a cast of 85, around 150 people counting the crew, more or less, and the nice thing about those days and those large productions we were able to do is David Huey, who was the high-school auditorium manager then, would give me my own key and we could spend six weeks in there building sets and rehearsing. And we had to pay the boys doing technical, but otherwise, there was no charge.”

That trend continued through 1985 with the ACT’s first non-musical play, “Barefoot in the Park,” 1986 with “The Music Man,” which featured the Park Junior High marching band, and 1987 with “Annie,” staged in conjunction with other divisions of the Artesia Arts Council.

All the while, new talent would come and go, but mainstays such as Lorang, Rountree and Schuetz remained, keeping the enthusiasm amongst the community at a high with quality productions.

“I was really proud of our theatre group, because the things that we began to put on were really top-notch,” says Lorang. “We started to recognize that we’ve got the talent here, we’ve got the will to make it as good as we possibly can. And I feel like there were so many plays that we did that were of that caliber. That’s what we tried to strive for.”

“And I think that’s really important,” says Rountree. “I think the audience picks up on that.”

As the 1990s approached, the ACT began expanding its repertoire and amount of annual offerings, beginning in 1988 with their first melodrama, “Her Fatal Beauty,” held at the AHS band park, which formerly housed an outdoor stage.

The moving about that would follow over the next two decades was a necessity for a variety of reasons, but it came with a disappointing side effect – the participation they’d seen in their larger stage shows began to decrease.

“Truthfully, it started dwindling when we stopped being able to use the auditorium for free and had to start paying for it,” says Schuetz.

The ACT had a limited budget that needed spending elsewhere, on sets, props, costumes and the like, and so they began to migrate around Artesia, to First Christian Church – which became a longtime source of both rehearsal and performance space for the ACT to the present day – the “510 Building” at 510 W. Main St., currently under repair, First Presbyterian Church, and the former Artesia Women’s Club building on Dallas Avenue near Fourth Street.

But the nomadic element in no way dampened the group’s spirits.

The year 1989 brought “Murder in the Magnolias,” “Dirty Work in High Places,” and the group’s popular “Medieval Feaste.” In the early 1990s, the ACT performed six short plays at Art in the Park during its brief foray at Roberts Park and staged a revue titled “In the Spotlight” in 1996. They competed, when possible, in Theatre New Mexico’s AACTFest, which has been held several times in Artesia.

And the memories began to accumulate as quickly as the playbills.

“I remember one of Christine Swafford’s young boys was supposed to raise this figure up from underneath a prop that would shoot a dart at Glenn Collier,” says Lorang. “But Glenn had to say the right word – and he never did. He was well known for ad-libbing. So we’d finally be off-stage just whispering for the boy to go ahead and shoot it before he suffocated!”

“Christine and Laura Holder were two of those people who, by the second week of rehearsal, would know their lines and everybody else’s,” says Rountree.

“And Laura could think quicker on her feet than anybody I ever saw,” says Lorang. “During one of the Brown Bags, somebody was wearing a wig that had a pigtail on it… someone grabbed her by it, and it just came off. Everybody froze, but Laura just said, ‘Wow, that must’ve hurt.”

“I remember when we did ‘Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical,’” says Schuetz. “Johnny Shuman played Sister Julia Child of God… he would teach them how to make fruitcake, and he kept ‘drinking’ the rum. And he’d get wilder every time he did it, throwing faux fruit at the audience and they’d be throwing it back.”

“Everybody was just like, ‘I can’t believe that’s Johnny Shuman,’ because he’s an accountant,” laughs Betty Skinner, the group’s trusted props master.

In between, and in addition to their traditional plays and musicals, they hosted “Brown Bag Theatre” performances in either the band park or Central Park, murder mystery dinners at the Artesia Country Club, and dessert theatres.

“The dessert theatres have always been my favorite,” says Rountree. “When we first started, no other theatre around here – not Roswell, Hobbs, Carlsbad – did dessert theatres, and it was a hit. The first time we did ‘Something’s Afoot,’ it was a dessert theatre at First Christian Church. We had high tea on a Sunday.

“Alice and I spent probably a year going to all the antique shops when we were out of town and buying cups and saucers. So we have cups, saucers, sugars, creamers, all packed away now. The last time we used them, we had to box them all up afterward and take them to Alice’s to wash them. It was a lot of work. But it was fun.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Part II of this piece will be published in next Sunday’s edition of the Daily Press.)