Gainesville Community Playhouse Brings Together Local Theater Enthusiasts

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In early 2014, Susan Christophy began experiencing insomnia and entered a period of deep depression that lasted months. She had suffered from depression since high school but this time around it was different.

“Everything started to crash and when it crashed it didn’t stop,” she said.

Later that year she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. The day she was diagnosed she auditioned for the role of Fantine in “Les Miserables,” which she received after a successful audition.

Theater is so much engrained into Christophy’s life, as she has been with the Gainesville Community Playhouse since 2000 and has been a part of most of the productions, whether performing or working behind the scenes.

Rikki Baynard and Brittney Kelly teach the dance portion of the audition for “Annie.” Both have been in several of the Playhouse’s productions. (WUFT/Claudia Perez Brito).

“I’m the mole rat of the theater,” she jokes.

The Gainesville Community Playhouse began in 1927 as a children’s theater and offered acting classes for children as well as teaching them the technical aspects of a play. The first production was the “Pied Piper of Hamlin.”

In spring 2006 that it moved into its current building, the Vam York Theater, located in the Millhopper Shopping center. The building was funded and built after a multi-year campaign to raise $2 million, said Christophy.

This year the theater celebrates 90 years since its charter was established.

Susan Christophy, who became theater’s membership and choreography coordinator, said the people that work in the theater, with the exception of the technical director and house manager, are all volunteers and receive no compensation for their work. They spend approximately three hours every day of the week, Monday through Friday, at rehearsals in order to prepare the Playhouse’s productions.

Despite the long hours she spends at the theater “it’s been a blessing,” she said.

Susan Christophy now has a “calm acceptance” for her mental illness and largely credits the theater for helping her cope.

“My doctor says it’s my best addiction,” she said. “She says it’s my safest addiction.”

Josh Fulmer leads a vocal warm up. Fulmer is the vocal director for the Playhouse’s production of Annie. (WUFT/Claudia Perez Brito)

She said the Playhouse gives members of the community a place to learn and escape, aside from offering everyone a place to belong.

“Theater should be a mirror to society,” she said. “Theater is supposed to be showing us who we are, so we can create an open dialogue.”

Susan Christophy looks through a rack of costumes at the Gainesville Community Playhouse. Christophy often designs the costumes for many of the productions. (WUFT/Claudia Perez Brito)

Susan Christophy wears many hats for the theater and currently is choreographing, performing and making the costumes for the Playhouse’s upcoming production of “Annie.” She works alongside her husband, Dan Christophy, who she met in a drama class in high school. He serves as the playhouse’s technical director on most productions. The theater has become the family activity allowing them to bond closely with one another, Susan Christophy said.

Dan Christophy said part of working in a community theater is getting creative with the resources available to make an entire production come together. This means that he not only directs but also helps build sets and set up lighting. Another important part of his role is to teach those interested in learning about production.

“Anybody can come and participate, it’s open to our entire community but you also are able to impart knowledge on some people,” Dan Christophy said. This teaching is a way to help provide experience for those interested in pursuing careers in theater production.

His favorite part of the theater is the sense of community that is fostered within those who dedicate their time.

“Not everybody is somebody that fits into a box of a certain category, and the theater is definitely welcoming to all different types of people and gives them a place to belong,” Dan Christophy said.

Brittney Kelly, 26, has been performing in the Playhouse’s productions since she was 7 years old.

“This place is like my home,” Kelly said.

Susan Christophy teaches the cast of “Annie” the choreography for an ensemble musical number. (WUFT/Claudia Perez Brito)

She described herself as a class clown when she was a kid and noted the theater gave her an outlet to channel her energy into.

“Starting to do theater, it was like the perfect place for someone like me,” Kelly said. “It’s a really good place to feel accepted.”

Kelly said that even when she’s not on stage she loves to be involved. During the auditions for “Annie” she helped by teaching the dance portion of the audition.

Kelly hopes to be able to perform professionally in the future. She has always had a hard time keeping jobs because she doesn’t believe in staying at a job that you hate, she said.

“Ultimately the only job that I could stick with and love would be performing.”

Spending most of her time at the theater has given Kelly a sense of well-being as well as given her a set of lifelong friends.

“I kind of have felt more at home here than I did at my real home,” she said.

Rikki Baynard is one of those friends, she helped with the “Annie” auditions and has been in various productions alongside Brittney.

Baynard said she has deep respect for the theater because it is something that has always been there for her.

“It [theater] is an escape,” Baynard said.

The cast of “Annie” stretches on their second night of rehearsal before beginning to learn choreography for the musical. (WUFT/Claudia Perez Brito)

Baynard studied acting in New York City, an experience she treasures but admits was difficult because of the expenses and the nature of the auditioning process. A couple months following her graduation she decided to move back to Gainesville to have some stability.

“It’s tough,” she said. “You got to live to see another day in order to make your dreams come true.”

Baynard said she respects the theater and appreciates how it is something that will always be there for her when she is ready for it and will accept her with open arms.

Josh Fulmer, vocal director for “Annie,” has been participating in the Playhouse’s production since he was cast in “Oklahoma!” in the summer of 2016. Fulmer said Dan Christophy asked him to take on the role of vocal director, a role he was happy to step into.

“I just wanted to be as involved as I could because I fell in love with it,” he said.

The crowd watch the “Annie” auditions. (WUFT/Claudia Perez Brito)

Fulmer said he joined the theater because he was trying to find a hobby in Gainesville and musical theater was something he was passionate about since he was a child.

“It was so comforting to be so accepted,” he said. “It’s given me an outlet to connect with new people and build a family.”

Lisa Varvel, assistant director for “Annie,” originally got involved in the Playhouse when her daughter asked her to audition with her for “Les Miserables”.

“I told my husband ‘it’s just 3 months and then I’ll be done with this’ and I haven’t left since,” Varvel said.

Varvel said she thinks theater is important because art can be very informative.

“Most shows I’ve done are very reflective of what’s going on in society,” she said. “I think it’s good to bring those things out for people to see in an artistic form.”

Varvel said the arts and theater now more than ever need support from everyone in the community.

“Even if it’s just the man on the street,” she said.

About Claudia Perez Brito

Claudia is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-458-4434 or emailing cperezbrito@ufl.edu.

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