The Gift of Theater: An Interview with Cindy Stanbro
We got to talk with the new Altoona Community Theater executive director, Cindy Stanbro, about her love for the area of Central Pennsylvania and what brought her to Blair County.
Born and raised in Iowa, Stanbro’s love for theater resonated from a young age and has grown ever since. Majoring in theater in college, she moved on to having an internship which allowed her to gain equity points. Touring educational theater for a year made her want something new, something that didn’t require her to live out of a suitcase. The next move she made was to New York City, New York. She was networking with many in the business of theater, taking jobs both paid and unpaid. Eventually, she was able to have positions in both administration and production.
“With producing, you kind of get to be a part of everything. You have to know about acting, directing, you have to understand the business components. You get to be a part of everything, from conception to production. It’s really, really fun.” Saying those words, you could almost hear her smiling. Her passion for theater is one that makes her job not so much work, but a hobby that is always fun to do. After being involved with over 30 theaters in the past 20 years, she found that nestled in Central Pennsylvania was Blair County, a quaint area with so much potential and love for community arts. “This area is beautiful. I keep telling people around here, you don’t realize how pretty it is. You might take it for granted if you live here, but the hills, the colors, parks, trails, the access to the arts, it all makes it beautiful.” She remarks how the area is so close to bigger communities and cities, like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, and how these are just a hop, skip, and a jump away from big, professional theater productions. “It just feels like home.”
Yes, home. It is for so many and Stanbro finds it so unique, especially with how integrated the arts are into our normal, every day, lives. “Theater is just a part of people’s lives around here. I’ve been to a lot of theaters and if the Mishler was in New York, it would be a Broadway house for sure.” She goes on to admire how many people she’s met and how they’ve all had a little piece of ACT be a part of their livelihood. “They have a lot of good programming, too. ACT has so many engaged volunteers. It’s such a big part of the community. I haven’t run into a person who hasn’t been in a show, gone to a drama camp, or been to a performance. Some members have been a part of ACT for over 50 years. Can you even imagine?”
Another part that is moving for Stanbro is the level of acceptance, within ACT, of differences and people. “It’s like having church but without the religion. We all can come together and be creative together. It’s where those differences don’t really matter.” The love of coming together with the community is what ACT is all about but, sadly, due to the restrictions of the COVID-19 mandate, many of the coming-togethers had to stop. ACT was in the middle of producing the musical, Gypsy, when the stay-at-home mandate was issued by Governor Wolf. March and April had new changes every day. “The hardest part of all this,” Stanbro says, “is really this great unknown. When are we going to get to this green phase? What does that mean? Are we going to be able to produce at the Mishler soon after? How will we be able to make our patrons comfortable enough to return? The number of unknowns right now just makes it really hard to plan.”
Stanbro has taken a head-on approach to plan ACT’s future, by joining community discussion boards, talking with similar organizations to learn how they are coping and learning what they are doing to solve some of their problems. She remarks on how the number of shared resources makes there to be almost a light at the end of the tunnel. “Walls are coming down,” she says, “and we are all trying to reach the same goal, to have theater back again. In the meantime, we will wait to see what’s going to happen next.”
For now, ACT has rescheduled two of its big productions of the spring season, its spring musical, Gypsy, set to be performed July 9th to the 12th, and the Isaac Awards, moved from the end of May to July 25th and 26th. For those who don’t know, the Isaac Awards were created to highlight high school productions and its participating students. Set up like a smaller Tony Awards, students are awarded for best actors/actresses, set design, choreography, etc. With schools closing, many schools were unable to put on their spring production. A whopping 4 out of 20 schools were able to put on their musicals and Stanbro says the committee is trying to come up with a way to honor those students and their hard work. “We want to make sure we can allow the community to celebrate high school students and provide some sort of closure to the seniors who missed out on so much.”
With all the plans for the future, Stanbro found herself appreciating the things we had before the stay-at-home mandate was placed for our area. “I didn’t realize how much I appreciated seeing people and being able to have the freedom to do things. I try to plan and organize, bury myself in business, but it sometimes doesn’t seem real, like we’re stuck in Groundhog Day!” She waits, eager for that normalcy to return. She appreciates the time we have now and says others should, too. “Don’t rush things right now. Enjoy the moments we have to ourselves and at home with loved ones.”
Looking ahead, we asked what ACT’s future would look like, including what kinds of shows she would love to see on the Mishler stage. “Smoke on the Mountain would be a production that I think ACT could do amazing things with.” The gospel musical about the Sanders family brings together the quirky, flawed, and regular people of a small town for fun and for the purpose of learning that no one is really, in fact, perfect. While looking at potential productions, Stanbro is working diligently with the artistic committee at ACT to find new ways to get new people involved. She hopes to create a new series of shows where the busy, overscheduled folks who love theater, can have the chance to be a part of another production. She and many others see the interest in growing and hope that adding this new component to ACT will do just that.
We asked Stanbro what her favorite part of her job is. Her answer will make you smile. “Bringing joy to people’s lives.” Pause for the smile. She goes on to explain her answer. “I see theater as a person standing out on a street corner, handing out presents. The gifts we hand out at the theater are ideas and thoughts. It doesn’t really matter if you agree with the ideas or that you do anything with those thoughts. It’s the fact that, as artists, we get to hand out these ideas and bring people together, if only for a moment.”
Her goals for ACT are to not only be back to normal, whatever normal is, but to be, once again, providing theater to the deserving community of Blair County. She’s excited to see how theater evolves and what will come of the pandemic for artists out in the world. “After 9/11, there were so many different pieces written about that tragedy. I’m interested to see how theater evolves. Theater might take longer to get back, but once we do, interest is going to explode.”
Cindy Stanbro continues to make business plans for ACT’s future. There are many goals she hopes to meet, new people she hopes to see and she hopes that change is going to be a good thing. “I want to make sure we are honoring ACT’s history in Blair County but, at the same time, evolving with the changing interests and the community as a whole.”
ACT’s production of Gypsy is set to go on July 9th through the 12th. The Isaac Awards is hoping to be held on July 25th and 26th. They still plan to have summer drama camps and their upcoming Rails and Ales BrewFest at the end of August. Keep a lookout for events on their website below and all social media. A huge thank you to Cindy Stanbro and to Altoona Community Theater for the opportunity to be able to talk about an amazing local arts organization!