The Whitney Players Theater Company is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. When Cindy Simell-Devoe and co-founders Jennifer Clapp, Joan Christensen and Sarah Vaughan started the nonprofit organization two decades ago, they hoped to fill a need in the community for a resident educational theater company. What the Whitney Players have provided to Hamden and its surrounding communities is much more than a community theater – it’s a place of support, belonging, and family.
It all began when Cindy left her role as assistant director at Albertus Magnus College’s Act 2 Theatre, where she had worked for 13 years. She wanted to start her own theater company, and decided to gauge interest in the community while directing local plays. She teamed up with choreographer Joan Christensen to put on The Magical Land of Oz at West Woods School in Hamden. Even for an elementary school production with 200 children, Cindy strived to make it a quality performance.
“I don’t ever think to myself, ‘Oh this is just a kids’ show.’ I don’t cut corners. I try to produce a children’s show that’s like a Broadway production.”
Cindy and Joan spent two summers at the High Lane Club in North Haven, where they directed and choreographed Guys and Dolls Jr. and Footloose Jr. Cindy continued to strive for professional quality shows. Costumes, set design, lighting, and sound were thoughtfully planned to attract and delight audiences.
“We wanted to make productions that we would be proud of, that the children would be proud of, and the families would be interested in.”
Cindy’s productions caught the attention of longtime advocate for the arts in Hamden, Mimsie Coleman. Mimsie encouraged Cindy to take the next step and start her own theater company to bring the joy of theater to Hamden and the surrounding communities. In 2003, The Whitney Players gained nonprofit status and became Hamden’s resident educational theater company.
"We're an organization that includes absolutely everyone," said Cindy.
In 2003, when The Whitney Players performed its first show, Damn Yankees, Cindy decided that all ages would be invited to participate. She brought in seasoned actors that she had worked with at Act 2 Theatre to work alongside children from the community. Everyone was given a role and an opportunity to grow their acting skills.
“Our core idea is that kids learn by working with older professional actors. The reason is that when children only work with other children, they tend to stay at the same level and not improve. But, when kids work with older, experienced actors, they strive to get better. And they do.”
As they enter their 20th year, The Whitney Players continue to welcome all who are interested in learning about theater. The company started out with an all-ages summer production. In addition, they now produce an 18-and-under winter production, a spring cabaret, a children’s summer program, and numerous educational workshops. From young children who are new to acting, to adult actors who have been in many productions, the company always makes a spot for everyone.
"We have 90 year olds on stage with 4 year olds. We have black people, white people – every ethnicity. We have people with special needs. We have fathers, daughters, mothers and sons. We have entire families. We have it all.”
Not only has the inclusivity of The Whitney Players created a unique learning environment, but it has also fostered a tight-knit community – one that Cindy calls her family. In the two decades that The Whitney Players has been operating, its family has grown significantly. Like any true family, they have supported each other through challenging times and celebrated each other’s achievements.
One of the biggest challenges the company ever experienced was the COVID-19 pandemic. In March of 2020, the Whitney Players had just finished the final dress rehearsal for their 18-and-under production of The Wiz, Jr. It was at that moment when the Town of Hamden announced that their auditorium would be closed to the public – the show would not go on. The costumes, set design, and sound system were paid for, and the tickets had already been sold. The toughest part for Cindy was telling the children, who had put their hearts and souls into the production, that they would not be able to perform. When it was clear that it wouldn’t be possible to reschedule the play, tickets had to be refunded. Instead of requesting refunds, two-thirds of ticket buyers decided to donate the price of their ticket to support the company. It’s a testament to the type of supportive community The Whitney Players has built.
The Whitney Players found creative ways to stick together throughout COVID-19. The summer before the pandemic, the company’s summer children’s program had 120 participants – their biggest year yet. In 2020, it was impossible to run the summer program, but the company still wanted to give young actors an opportunity to learn. Cindy held an acting workshop in her backyard for 10 kids, all masked and socially distanced.
When their Holiday Cabaret couldn’t be held in person, The Whitney Players found a way to make the event virtual, but continue the tradition of feeding their audience a good meal. Cindy catered food, baked 500 dozen cookies, fried 36 eggplants, and organized a team of volunteers to deliver food to families and supporters of the company. The resiliency of The Whitney Players allowed them to emerge from the pandemic as united as ever.
The Whitney Players have supported each other through personal struggles. One of the theater company’s most poignant examples of this support was when a member was facing health issues. The actor who played the coach in their first production of Damn Yankees sang a song called “You Gotta Have Heart.” Years later, he called Cindy to say goodbye. He needed a heart transplant and didn’t know if he would get one in time. He did, and his first role when he returned to The Whitney Players’ stage was the wizard in The Wizard of Oz.
“When he had to give that Tin Man the heart every night, I knew what we do is so much more important than what people think," Cindy said.
While workshops, rehearsals, and performances are opportunities for participants to grow as actors, they also teach many important life lessons. According to Cindy, the Whitney Players are a family without favoritism and everyone is treated like a valued member, no matter their role.
"The person who gets the lead in my show must not act any differently from someone who’s the third person on the left. They have to work as hard to act and emote in the same way, and it brings humility."
The Whitney Players has also helped its participants, especially children, gain confidence and social skills. During the pandemic, when school was online, the company held virtual acting workshops for kids as a way for them to have fun and continue connecting with their friends. Once workshops were able to be held in person again, they helped the children readapt to socializing face-to-face. Throughout the years, The Whitney Players has been a safe space for people to come out of their shell, make connections, and find their passions.
“People think, ‘Oh, it's just community theater.’ No. What we do is a lot more than that. It’s changing people's lives. It’s even saving people’s lives. That’s why it’s so important." Cindy explained.
Cindy’s commitment to directing professional quality productions and providing ample educational experiences for The Whitney Players has played a significant role in the development of its actors. The accomplishments of alumni speak for themselves. Alums have appeared on episodes of Law and Order and Blue Bloods and toured with productions of Anastasia and Oklahoma. Linedy Genao, who played Anita in The Whitney Players’ production of West Side Story in 2011, received a business administration degree from the University of Connecticut and began a career in banking. She returned to theater after being encouraged to audition for a role and is now playing Cinderella in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Bad Cinderella on Broadway. Cindy says she celebrates the everyday victories of her kids just as much as the professional successes.
"Performances are great, but we celebrate all the accomplishments of all the kids."
While some alumni have continued their careers in theater, others have leveraged what they have learned from The Whitney Players and pursued a wide range of successful and impactful careers. One former Whitney Player is a dance and movement therapist. She uses her experience in the arts to connect with her patients on an emotional level. Another is the head of the video department for Sound Associates, a company that works closely with Broadway and off-Broadway productions.
Whether it’s through Facebook or a phone call, past and present members of The Whitney Players have stayed connected over the years, showing just how strong their family dynamic is. Some alumni are even getting the next generation of actors involved.
"Not only are they having babies, they're giving me their babies to direct," Cindy said.
The passion that Cindy and the rest of The Whitney Players Theater Company have for creating memorable performances, improving their theatrical skills, and supporting each other is undeniable. Their love for each other and love for the theater is what has sustained the theater company for the past 20 years, and hopefully, for many years to come.
"I love what I do. I smile, I laugh, and I see growth… I'll live forever if it means living on love."
2023 SUMMER PERFORMING ARTS PROGRAM
TWO WEEK PROGRAM
July 3rd-July 15th (no class on July 4) TIME: 9:00 AM TO 4:00 PM AGES: 7 TO 17 (younger siblings welcome) WHERE: Hamden Middle School (subject to change)
All aspects of theatre including music, dance, acting, theatre games, costuming, set design and two performances of Seussical Jr on July 15!
FOR MORE INFO, OR TO RECEIVE REGISTRATION FORMS, CALL 203-281-6007 Limited enrollment. Slots fill fast! Two week program-$595 Some need-based scholarships available
Sponsored by the Hamden Recreation Department