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50 Years of Community: The Heartbeat of Harlingen Community Theatre

Updated: May 29

(This article was written by Beth Marie Cantu and appeared in the June 2024 issue of Explore Harlingen Magazine.)

Photo courtesy of Beth Marie Cantu.

“Let’s try that again.” The man at the piano flips back a few pages in his music score. He repeats his instructions to the people on the stage, which is littered with mismatched chairs and reusable water bottles. They all sing the same phrase they’ve been working on for the last quarter of an hour, but this time, there’s something better. Enough to make the man at the piano shout out in joy. Once they’re done, he lets out a loud whoop, and the crowd dissolves into giggles and chatter, but what quiets them down is when the man turns to the audience and calls out: “What do you think, Miss Kathy?”

Somewhere in the audience, behind a folding table littered with scripts and stacks of paperwork, Miss Kathy beams like a proud mother. “Beautiful! Did you hear how that filled up the auditorium?” The cast members smile at each other, ready to move onto the rest of the song, but Mike Ensign, the music director, isn’t ready to move on quite yet. “Let’s do that one more time.” The cast groans good-naturedly as he plays their starting notes.

It, in fact, was not the last time he’d have them sing that particular part of the song, but they all knew that was the kind of meticulousness that would make their show great.

The Harlingen Community Theatre (HCT) embodies the magic of local arts and community unity. The journey of HCT, now celebrating its 50th season, reflects a rich history of resilience and growth. From humble beginnings as the Briggs-Coleman Country Playhouse to its current establishment on Fair Park Boulevard, HCT has overcome challenges like nomadic performances and warehouse spaces without AC, thanks to the unwavering support of the local community.

Photo courtesy of Beth Marie Cantu.

But what truly makes HCT unique is its commitment to nurturing local talent. As a nonprofit community theatre, HCT prides itself on producing four to five Broadway-quality musicals or plays annually, showcasing the diverse talents of the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) who are referred to as their “shining stars.” From children to adults, the cast members are all local performers who bring their passion and dedication to each production.

At the heart of HCT's success are passionate individuals like Mike Ensign, a board member and dedicated music director, whose passion for educating and performance fuels the theatre's vibrant productions. “The theatre gave me a home and family when I was missing my own,” he states fondly. Having relocated from Northern Illinois to the Harlingen area to teach at the local schools, Ensign joined the theatre for a production of Godspell in 2014 on a whim, and now he can’t picture his life without it.

Kathy Eunice, affectionately known as "Miss Kathy," embodies the soul of HCT, with her enduring love for the theatre spanning decades and touching the lives of countless community members. “I started working with the theatre first back in 1976 when the company was in the Briggs Coleman Schoolhouse,” Miss Kathy reminisces fondly. “I volunteered to work concessions with my friends in LEO Club at Harlingen HS. My stage debut was in the mid-80s production of the King and I.” Miss Kathy, when she is not working as a music teacher at Austin Elementary School, serves as the board chairperson and a frequent mainstage director for the troupe. Even when Miss Kathy isn’t serving as the director for a show, she stays close by to help monitor, give wisdom and words of encouragement, and acts as a surrogate mother, nurse, and confidant to all who happen to step through the doors of HCT.

Photo courtesy of Beth Marie Cantu.

Beyond its mainstage productions, HCT opens its doors for a variety of events, offering its space for rentals to groups such as dance performances, choral concerts, piano and voice recitals, beauty pageants, and even weddings. This inclusive approach not only enriches the cultural landscape of Harlingen but also provides opportunities for diverse artistic expressions.

One of the hallmarks of HCT is its commitment to fine arts education through initiatives like the Summer Youth/Teen Theatre Intensive. Led by licensed fine arts educators from the area, this camp offers a holistic theatre experience encompassing set/prop building, acting skills, music training, and stage presence. The culmination of this camp is a performance of a musical, fostering camaraderie among young artists and nurturing the next generation of stage performers and enthusiasts.

Photo courtesy of Beth Marie Cantu.

HCT also encourages people of all ages to join their shows. “We are a learning theatre, and we’ve had everyone from ages 8 to 80 on our stage!” Ensign proudly states. “Whether you have experience or not, we would love for you to be a part of our family. If we can swing it, we try to include everyone we can into each show.”

As HCT embarks on its 50th season with productions like "Moana Jr." and "Grease," it invites the community to join in the celebration of art, talent, and togetherness.

For HCT, the community isn't just an audience; it's family, the lifeblood that sustains the theatre and keeps its legacy alive. The Harlingen Community Theatre relies entirely on ticket sales and generous donations to fund upcoming shows and sustain its operations, ensuring its continued success and vibrancy. “The (COVID-19) pandemic nearly destroyed us, but thanks to the generosity of our shining stars, we were able to keep our heads afloat, just barely surviving,” states Ensign. “Many local theatres are for profit or have trust funds set up to sustain themselves. We are not quite as fortunate.”

“The community impacts our theatre by providing us with our talent base,” adds Miss Kathy. “The community has been a valuable asset over the years. They are family!”

After several years of struggle, the HCT family found a light in the darkness with their most recent production of Fiddler on the Roof. The success of the production had local theatre enthusiasts reeling, with 4 out of 6 performances fully sold out.

“We had to turn people away at the door, which hasn’t happened since our final production before the shutdown in 2020. It ended just the week before the world stopped moving,” states Alex Pilcher, longtime HCT shining star who typically helps run the front of the house alongside her grandmother, Johnnie Hahs.

And as the curtain closes on another successful rehearsal at HCT, the cast slowly trickles out, giving hugs and saying goodbye, despite knowing they’ll be returning the next night. Even though the building is empty, the dedication and passion continue to linger in the air. The shining stars, both new and returning, know that the next day will bring something different, something new, and draws them so much closer together, as a community and a family.

To learn more about upcoming shows, tickets, volunteer opportunities, or rental information, reach out to HCT via email at or check out their website


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