When Ellen Green Ensley and her husband, Ed Green, moved to Amelia Island from Columbus, Ohio, they were surprised that there was no theater in town. The couple soon began talking to their friends and neighbors about whether the community would support a local theater, and they were met with a sustained round of applause. Not only did they find 81 people ready to give $10 each toward their first production, they also had support from the City of Fernandina Beach and a number of local businesses, which purchased ads in their program.
Amelia Community Theatre (ACT) presented their first performance in May 1981 with the play Butterflies are Free
, written by Leonard Gershe. Loosely based on the life of attorney Harold Krents, the plot revolves around a Manhattan blind man, whose controlling mother disapproves of his relationship with a free-spirited hippie. Ellen directed that first production. ACT hosted the play at the Woman’s Club of Fernandina Beach as a dinner theater performance, with club members catering the meal.
The play was an immediate hit. Tickets sold out very quickly, and ACT became the island’s newest topic of conversation. Linda McClane, one of ACT’s charter members and the current managing director, remembers that successful play quite well.
“Everyone was talking about Amelia Community Theatre,” says Linda. “We received lots of press in the local paper, and the audience loved the play. That was a pinnacle moment for us. Everything moved forward quickly from there.”
Linda remembers fondly the strong support ACT received from the community. “Not only did local businesses buy ads in our programs, they also lent us things we needed for our productions, and they loaned us space to store our equipment. But it was tough at first, not having our own building.” By the mid 1980s, ACT was able to rent a storefront on North 3rd Street, where they could keep their equipment, hold rehearsals, and have meetings.
“We held our performances at the middle school, which then was actually the high school,” recalls Linda. “But it was still a struggle to coordinate our schedule with the school, and we still had to haul all of our equipment over there.” In 1988, ACT purchased the Nassau County School Board building on Cedar Street and renovated it. That building became the Studio Theatre. By 1991, ACT was hosting performances in their own space.
“The building was small, so we held more performances,” said Linda. “That was an exciting time for us, having our own theater. It allowed our volunteers to work their own hours, and there was a huge pride of ownership in our group. The small space actually made us more creative, and we put on some amazing shows!”
was the first play ACT produced at their Studio Theatre. The group created flats that moved, allowing for easier set changes. They even had dressing rooms for their actors. “Other memorable plays included Rumors
by Neil Simon. It was a two-story set, and it was elegant and beautiful,” says Linda. “In another play, The Foreigner
, we had special effects, including a trap door. It was very convincing!”
Inasmuch as the Studio Theatre was flourishing, members of ACT knew that they would need a bigger building. In 2005, they began a capital campaign to raise money to build a theater to their liking that would hold a large audience and allow them to put on more extravagant performances. When the construction phase was finished in 2010, ACT opened its new theater with The Pirates of Penzance
, a comic operetta by Gilbert and Sullivan. “This play had a ‘wow’ factor,” recalls Linda. “We built a huge pirate ship! Everyone loved it.”
The new Main Stage theater seats 170, and the larger space has allowed ACT to create two-story sets and include larger objects. It’s more than double the size of the Studio Theatre, which seats 80. In a recent musical, Mary Poppins
, ACT was able to hire a professional flying company to provide special harnesses and train the actors how to use them properly. This was only made possible because of the size of the Main Stage, along with a grant to cover the cost.
In celebration of its 35th year, Amelia Community Theatre hosted two events during the month of May. The first was a special open house with games, prizes, theater trivia, entertainment, plus cake and ice cream. The second event was a concert called “Encore: 35 Years of Musical Memories,” which held on May 20.
Directed by Kristin Sakamoto, the ACT Song Connection singers delighted theater-goers with a fun evening of favorite songs from ACT musicals during the past 35 seasons. ACT is also holding a fundraising campaign called “35 for 35,” encouraging people to donate $35 to support the theatre. The money raised will be used to update the lighting and sound equipment for both spaces.
Besides their well-known performances, ACT offers numerous activities and programs that are open to the public. Song Connection is a group of people who love to sing, directed by Kristin Sakamoto. They meet on Sunday nights for songs and friendship. ACTeen, hosted by Toni D’Amico, provides theater-loving teens with an outlet for their creativity. ACTeen meets and rehearses Sunday afternoons from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m., and there is no cost to attend. On August 26, ACTeen will be holding an event called “Lock In,” an overnight theater experience with various workshops all evening, along with a pizza party. Lock In begins at 7:30 p.m. and pick-up time is August 27 at 7 a.m. In addition, on August 28, auditions will be held for ACTeen at 2 p.m.
Toni D’Amico has been involved in theater since she was 15 years old. She started ACTeen when she saw a need for high school students to express themselves through the performing arts. “There are many students who are not interested in activities like sports,” says Toni. “When I work with the students, I see my passion for theater through their eyes. They are eager to learn, and the theater teaches them all sorts of things, like responsibility, self confidence, and communication skills.
“We offer so many learning opportunities for them. We’ve done a musical, and an anti-bullying film that the teens wrote, directed, and produced themselves. We also performed a special play this year called Love, Death, and The Prom, which dealt with real teen issues. ACT’s mission statement is about theater education for all ages, and that’s what we provide at ACTeen.”
ACT also offers theater summer camps for children. A one-week camp for children between 7 and 12 years of age provides instruction in theater basics, with a performance for family and friends at the end of the week. A two-week camp for children between 8 and 12 years of age, and teens between 13 and 17, offers instruction in acting, singing, and movement.
Since 1981, twelve of ACT’s 81 charter members still remain. “We are so fortunate to have these long-term volunteers,” says Linda. “What makes volunteering at ACT so special is that it gives people the opportunity to try new things. A person might be an actor in one play, then a crew member in another. We encourage everyone to take part in all aspects
Peggy and Charles Horton are charter members of ACT who have done anything and everything needed to make the theatre a success. When they moved to Fernandina Beach in the late 1970s, they became friends with Ellen and Ed Green, and others who wanted to start up a theater.
“In those days before we had our own theater, we performed wherever we could,” remembers Charles. “The high school, various church halls, other locations. It was hard work!” Charles has worked as an actor, set builder, director, usher, and nearly any task needed at ACT. He and Peggy even performed together in The Good Doctor
, along with their son.
Peggy may have played some roles in ACT performances, but prefers to work behind the scenes. Currently, she is the volunteer office manager. She also works as an usher when needed, and is very active in the ACT Guild, which she founded in 2013. “I am so happy to see how ACT has grown and evolved over the years,” says Peggy. “There is so much talent in our group, and our members take pride in everything they do.”
Incoming President Marylee Long joined ACT in 1984, when she brought her daughter to the theatre for an audition. “Mary Hurt was the artistic and managing director at the time,” says Marylee. “She gave my daughter a small part in Annie Get Your Gun
, and we were hooked. I had been a drama major, and I know how important it is to encourage everyone to be a part of the performance. What I love at ACT is that everyone steps up to the plate, no matter what has to be done. And just when we’re finished with a play, we’re all ready for the next one!” Marylee has served on many committees and in a variety of functions, including directing, and her husband builds sets.
The ACT Guild
The ACT Guild was formed to aid, promote, and supplement all activities of the Amelia Community Theatre. The Guild members love theater and are dedicated to supporting exceptional theater in Fernandina Beach. Their volunteer activities include ushering, hosting opening night parties, serving refreshments, publicity and promotions, cataloging and organizing, fundraising events, and mailing. ACT’s theater-loving members have presented many popular and memorable events to raise funds for the theatre, including The Dinner of Dinners, Ladies’ Night Out, Pancake Breakfasts, An Evening of Christmas Entertainment, The Belle of Amherst with Sinda Nichols, The Festival of Trees, and Breakfast With Santa.
ACT encourages local residents to join the Guild, and welcomes all levels of participation. Annual dues are $10. ACT also has three types of theatre memberships, including Season Ticket Member, Program Advertising Member, and Donor Member. Memberships are renewable each year, with the membership year running concurrently with ACT’s season dates. They begin processing memberships on June 1; memberships expire on August 31 of the following year. All three types of theatre members have voting privileges at ACT’s Annual Meeting each July. “As a donor, you support our programs and projects in the community,” said Linda. “It’s an invaluable role that positively affects so many.”
For more information about being a member, to donate, purchase tickets, or check out upcoming shows, visit www.ameliacommunitytheatre.org or call (904) 261-6749.