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‘Oklahoma!’, 1983

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is Part II of a two-part feature on the Artesia Community Theatre. Part I was published in the Jan. 29 edition of the Daily Press.)

Despite the overall success of the Artesia Community Theatre’s efforts at various locations around Artesia, the group knew it needed a home.

Alice Lorang had long had her eye on the old Ocotillo Theatre on the northeast corner of Main Street and Roselawn Avenue, which had since been converted into the Townhouse Cafeteria.

“She called me one day and said, ‘Laney! There’s a for-sale sign at the cafeteria!’” says Laney Rountree.

The group knew it could not purchase the building on its own and contacted Estelle Yates, original founder of the Artesia Arts Council.

Over the course of the next few years, the ACT – which has operated since its inception as a self-supporting division of the arts council – worked to organize a variety of fundraisers necessary for the purchase of what is today the Ocotillo Performing Arts Center, from backyard barbecues to luaus to murder mysteries to spaghetti dinners.

The building was initially something of a mess, but the group worked diligently to make it functional in a bare-bones sense and was able to host a number of productions there.

“The Nunsense Christmas was, I think, the first thing we did in the Ocotillo,” says Sandy Schuetz.

Once the OPAC was remodeled, its control was placed in the hands of the AAC, and the ACT continues to stage occasional productions there. But as they strove to remain more active, they saw participation take another hit.

“We were at a really low spot,” says Lorang.

“I think one of the things that happened is, in that lull in between the dessert theatres and things like that, it was very important to some of the members and officers to have something going on three or four times a year, and we just didn’t have the manpower,” says Rountree. “So some of the things that got put on were not up to the standards of the larger productions we’d done in the past.

“One of the things about the ACT is that we were always tight. People knew their lines, the costumes, the sets, everything clicked off. So when these plays started happening that weren’t up to the quality people were used to seeing, they quit coming. And that’s when we said, ‘We’re doing too many.’”

The ACT scaled back on its output in order to prevent burnout. But while the number of productions may have diminished, the good times did not.

Family members – such as Lorang’s daughters, Shelley Ebarb and Christi Bever, Rountree’s daughter, Kandi Branch, Schuetz’s son, Rob, and assorted grandchildren – had been involved in various productions over the years, making the ACT not only time spent with friends but with loved ones, as well.

“I can remember my son and Jessica Swafford were the two little kids in one of our Brown Bag Theatres, and this older gentleman got so mad because he couldn’t remember his lines that he started cussing,” says Schuetz. “The kids just gasped and said, ‘You can’t cuss on stage!” and everybody in the audience cracked up.”

Wardrobe malfunctions, changes in casting from female to male that required well-placed balloons and a whole lot of moxie, and large, man-eating plants dominating First Presbyterian Church came and went, and new audiences began to appreciate the group’s efforts.

Stalwarts such as Lorang, Rountree, Schuetz and longtime treasurer/actress Reginia Garner remained, and new group members began slowly to come aboard, as well.

“We’re always trying to bring in new blood,” says Schuetz.

“I love the theatre and especially the community theatre because there are people that you know that are on stage doing things they didn’t know they could do, that you didn’t know they could do,” says Lorang. “It makes it so much fun, because you find out something new about your neighbors.

“So many of them have been extremely talented over the years. For a small town like this, there is so much talent here. It’s a great thing for a community to have people participating and new people coming in.”

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In the fall of 2016, the ACT found itself at possibly its lowest point to date.

Struggling not only with participation but with a willingness within its ranks to take charge, as the stalwarts found it more and more difficult to devote the time required for quality productions, the group held a re-organizational meeting of sorts to determine its future.

In attendance at that meeting was Glenna Brady, an off-again, on-again ACT member of six years who had relocated a few times over that period to pursue other opportunities but now found herself in Artesia to stay.

She volunteered to take on the role of president.

“I love the theatre,” says Brady of her motivation. “I was born here but had moved away, had been living in Las Vegas, Nev., and when I first moved back here in 2010, I was in the process of a divorce. The first thing I did was follow my passions. I showed up at an ACT meeting, and the next month, I was secretary.”

“You don’t walk in and out of here for free,” laughs Betty Skinner.

“I don’t have a whole lot of activities,” says Brady. “I have church and work and the theatre, so I can give the time that’s necessary to do the theatre, and it was important to me because it was dying.

“It was important to me to get some structure going again and to follow through on when we say we’re going to do something, we’re going to do something, even if it’s not what we originally planned. To show the community that we’re still here.”

Brady’s first order of business was to begin production of a play she’d wanted to stage since 2011: “Drinking Habits,” the comical tale of two nuns at the Sisters of Perpetual Sewing who begin secretly making wine in an effort to keep the convent afloat.

“This is a passion project for me,” she says.

“Drinking Habits,” which will include light refreshments of cheese, grapes and sparkling cider, will mark the ACT’s first effort under Brady’s leadership, and she says she’s been impressed already with the members’ dedication to making it work and work well.

During their “ugly sweater party” murder mystery in December at the OPAC, the ACT was able to sign on 17 new members, and those who have been cast in “Drinking Habits” have been working hard on the project.

“A lot of the cast has been getting together every night and running lines,” says Brady. “I think we’re in a good place right now, and I think we’re only going to get stronger. We have a corporate sponsor for the first time in a long time for this play. HollyFrontier has paid for our performance space, and I hope we can get more sponsors interested in the future.”

Schuetz, Skinner and Garner are all still firmly on board, alternating between directing and acting. Garner keeps things well organized, obtaining publisher permission for new projects, ordering scripts and paying royalties, designing posters, tickets and programs, and compiling the ACT’s newsletter.

That’s all welcome news to Lorang and Rountree.

“I feel like the community theatre is almost a service organization in a way, because we are entertaining a community. And when people come and participate, it becomes like a family,” says Rountree. “You have that camaraderie you don’t get just going to work or some other place. You’re always kind of looking forward to that final night, but you’re not, because it’s bittersweet. You’re tired, but in a way, you want it to go on.

“We ask people to become involved – membership is just $5 – but you don’t have to be a member to participate. The main thing is to give people the opportunity to participate in something that’s a lot of fun. You just don’t know what hidden talents you’ve got. When you get on stage, you become somebody else, and you forget the world. You forget what’s going on in your life, and you have something to accomplish.”

“And there’s no charge to be in these plays,” says Lorang. “It may cost people a costume sometimes, because we can’t afford it or they don’t like what we come up with, but otherwise, no one has to pay anything. It’s a free way to have a lot of fun.”

The continued involvement by original and early members of the ACT has served as its heartbeat, steady and passionate through even the most anemic of times.

“It takes dedicated individuals such as Reginia, Betty, Laney, Alice, Sandy… I could go on and on… to keep an organization alive,” says Brady, “and the Artesia Community Theatre has been very blessed.”

“Alice and Laney have been such a backbone,” says Schuetz.

“Alice was my home-ec teacher, and she and Betty Huxtable were two people I specifically made a point of seeing whenever I’d come back to Artesia,” says Skinner. “Alice has been such a sweetheart, and she puts her heart into it. She believes everybody has a left and a right foot, even though we don’t think we do, and she’s been such an instrumental person of this theatre for so many years.”

Schuetz and Skinner are pleased with the recent uptick in interest from new members, as well, stressing the importance for younger people to become involved in the ACT’s mission.

“I would love to see the program keep going because I know there’s going to be a point in time where I’m not able to do anything, and I would hate, hate so much, to see it die because we’ve done so many awesome things,” says Skinner.

“It just got stagnant, due to no fault of anyone,” says Brady. “There was just a lack of interest, especially over the last few years because of some of the struggles with getting performance spaces, but we want to be able to put on multiple plays a year and provide entertainment so our people aren’t having to go out of town and so they know that we’re a viable option.

“We’re going to keep our ticket prices affordable. We’re not going to overdo it and inundate people with plays, but it seems like, for a while, people forgot we were here.”

Brady thinks of the ACT as a home away from home. She credits the group with helping her through her divorce. Other members echo the sentiment that the friends they’ve made through the community theatre have seen them through difficult times in their own lives and encourage people looking for that type of kinship combined with an outlet for their creativity to give the ACT a try.

Brady says her plans include a regular schedule of romantic comedies in both February and the fall, a family-friendly comedy between Mother’s and Father’s Day, and traditional Brown Bag Theatres in June. She hopes to work in a melodrama when possible, and Schuetz says she plans to stage “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” near Christmas.

“Please come and support us,” says Brady. “Come out and see ‘Drinking Habits.’ Beyond that, my vision for the future is just to continue to grow.”

And while Rountree and Lorang are not as involved in the ACT as they once were, when not actively participating, they’re keeping a proud eye on that long-ago “little theatre” effort that has grown into something so much bigger.

“Hopefully people who aren’t interested in maybe being in these plays will continue to come and see them, because everything that’s going on in the world at this time is bad, it seems like,” says Rountree. “And there is good out there. We know there’s good out there. So we’ve always wanted people to be able to come, enjoy an evening, see a good play, and mainly forget what’s going on in their lives for a while and just be entertained.”