Last fall, Altoona Community Theatre lost their long-time executive director to a sudden illness. Their new theatre season begins September 19-22, with a production of Neil Simon’s “Lost in Yonkers,” at Altoona’s Mishler Theatre. It’s an emotional time for the theatre group, as they remember an old friend, and welcome a new leader.
Steve Helsel was, for decades, the first and only executive director of Altoona Community Theatre, also known as “ACT.” Members of the theatre speak of him as a leader, a whirlwind of creativity, and a good friend to everyone.
“He was just so fun and so easy to be with. He just felt like home to a lot of people,” says Karen Volpe, who recently retired from the Blair County Arts Foundation. She had known Helsel since the 1970’s.
“He was always a very calming influence on people,” Volpe says.” He was always the ∫ in every situation. I think in all the years I knew him, I saw him lose his temper maybe 3 times.”
“He was a friend to everybody in ATC, you know, and we miss him,” says Tom Liszka,
professor emeritus of English from Penn State Altoona. Liszka says besides being the executive director of ACT, Helsel often worked on the shows, too: as a director, actor, lighting designer, or set designer.
“Steve was extremely creative,” he says. “He often made it up on the spot. You’d come in, and we were going to block a scene – that means to tell people where they’re going to walk around on stage. He would be sitting there, and he’d say, ‘OK, well why don’t you go over there’ and he didn’t have it written down. And it always turned out beautifully.”
“It still now feels odd that he’s gone, because he was such a presence,” says Jonathan O’Harrow, webmaster for Penn State Altoona, who had known Steve for around three decades.
“I’ve heard him described as a gentle giant,” O’Harrow says. “And I feel that’s the perfect way to describe Steve, because he was a big person. He was tall, he was round, had that big sort of booming voice. But he really was sort of an angel of the theatre in that he was one of the more welcoming people I’ve ever met in my life.”
After Helsel’s death from a brief illness, the board of Altoona Community Theatre took their time conducting a national search for a new executive director. And they settled on a theatre professional named Cindy Stanbro.
“We feel like we have a leader. And I feel good about that,” says Marlene Liszka, a retired theatre professor from Penn State Altoona. Liszka is a theatre tech specialist, who has worked with Helsel on many shows.
“I miss Steve terribly. Terribly,” she says. “But Cindy is wonderful for this institution.”
Cindy Stanbro seems full of energy, with long, dark hair and a ready laugh. She says she first got interested in theatre in high school.
“My mom told me I had a big mouth - I should be on stage,” Stanbro says, laughing. “So I tried out for a show, and I just really fell in love with it.”
After finishing her degree in theatre, Stanbro soon found herself doing behind-the-scenes work in New York.
“And I really fell in love with the producing components: all the organization, and the planning and the designing,” she says. “Because you get to have your hands in a little bit of everything. You have to know acting, you have to know directing. You have to know lights, and you have to understand people. It’s like this whole orchestra, this symphony that we call theatre. I fell in love with it.”
After New York, Stanbro moved to Iowa, where she and her husband started their own theatre company. She had lived in Pennsylvania before, and when she saw Altoona Community Theatre’s job opening, jumped at the chance to return – and she’s glad she did.
“The community has been amazing,” Stanbro says. “All the members got together the first week I was here, and they had a membership meeting. They brought presents. Just little bits of – pieces of Altoona, of Pennsylvania for me. And they just wanted to meet me. And I thought ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be fantastic.’”
Stanbro has big plans for the future of Altoona Community Theatre.
“There is so much history here. So I want to make sure that we’re honoring that. I want to grow the education program, and do more classes for all ages throughout the school year. Grow and do some more internships, workshops, children’s youth theatre.
Another thing I’m hearing around here is that there is a desire to do more theatre. More different shows. And so we’re trying to figure out what sort of partnerships we need to have with other organizations here. And how can we serve the community.”
As she speaks about her late predecessor, Steve Helsel, Stanbro’s eyes begin to tear up.
“I’m really grateful for this opportunity,” she says. “It’s very clear how much Steve meant to the community. I’m trying to make sure that I honor him, and respect his legacy. Altoona Community Theatre is here because Steve loved people. And so I’m going to make sure I try to honor that as much as I can moving forward.”
With Cindy Stanbro as executive director, Altoona Community Theatre steps into a new era this weekend as the new season opens with a production of Neil Simon’s comedy, “Lost in Yonkers.”