Longtime volunteers reflect on years of service at Camille Lightner Playhouse

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John and Sue Kinch, who have been volunteering at the Camille Lightner Playhouse since 1969, reflect on their decades of service. (Courtesy photo)

BROWNSVILLE — Is there a spray can?

John Kinch remembers well the 11th-hour request to build a huge spray can for the Camille Lightner Playhouse’s production of “Hairspray.”

“It was an interesting set, but three days before the show opened, Ben said to me, ‘Where’s my spray can?’ and I said, ‘What spray can?’” Kinch said, recalling the years he volunteered at the Playhouse under Artistic Director Ben Agresti.

Kinch, 82, and his wife Sue have been volunteering at the Playhouse since 1969. John built sets, Sue ran lights and, charmingly, they met while volunteering at the theater. They’ve been at it consistently with a few absences here and there when family time made it necessary, but their loyalty to the Playhouse has been unwavering.

So powerful has been their presence and their devotion to Camille that the Theater Network of Texas recently named them “Volunteer of the Year.” But their volunteering covers years and decades of memorable highlights and dark challenges.

When Dean Porter Park was being redeveloped, some wanted to close down Camille until construction had been completed. The board of Camille Playhouse wouldn’t have it.

“The board fought and we stayed open,” Sue said. “They did all the construction work around us.”

“I was president of the Camille Board at the time, and they kept me on for more than one term because of that,” John said.

John, a New Jersey native, came to the Valley so many years ago to teach English literature. He had only arrived recently when he was asked to build a set for a production at Camille.

“Somebody knew I did a little scenic work, that I knew a little about that,” he said. “I think the first real one was ‘The Odd Couple.’ The director wanted something different, something abstract.”

John and Sue Kinch have been volunteering at the Camille Lightner Playhouse since 1969. (Courtesy photo)

The walls were such that they were just a suggestion of walls with 2 by 4 studs, so the audience could see the activities inside – including the restroom.

“It made for an interesting set because, when the players had to go use the bathroom, it became an atmosphere for these men to act out what they were doing in the bathroom,” he said. “They’d go in there and do what they were going to do, to the audience’s glee, because they’d stand there and they would shake and dance.”

He recalled also the directors with whom he worked over the years.

“I have very fond memories of the Joel Humphrey years,” John said. “He was our past president and artistic director from 1995 to 2000. Joel was multi-talented. He had come up in theater, and he was an experienced actor. He could build sets. He mentored me on that end of the business.”

Not only that, John said, he was very easy to work with. He made everything look simple.

Humphrey left, and in stepped Agresti, a very different breed.

“He was from New York,” John said. “He was culturally at odds with most people down here, and he was difficult to understand. Since I was from up there, I had a fun time with him. People from that area tend to lack sensitivity. They’re brash. He would just speak his mind and people would get insulted, but he wasn’t really being insulting.”

The “Hairspray” production and the spray can incident is but one of many memories John and Sue have of their Agresti years.

Just days before the production, when preparation is nearing completion, Agresti suddenly asked about the spray can.

Spray can?

“Well, there’s supposed to be a spray can that opens up and you step out and go down the steps to the stage,” Agresti said.

A view of the fly tower at Camille Playhouse from Dean Porter Park in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

He had mentioned the spray can exactly once to John. He never mentioned it again, so John figured it had been dropped.

Not so. Agresti needed that spray can, and John had to make quick work of it.

“I got it done,” he said. “It was very creative, and it worked, but just the idea of having something thrown at me at the very end.”

From that time on, “spray can” became a familiar phrase around Camille.

“Now these days when I’m working on a show I’ll say, ‘Now is there a spray can in this show?’” he said. “So that has always been a highlight right at the end of rehearsals.”

When Camille opened, it was the only venue in town, and it became the hub of Brownsville entertainment and social life. Mayors, doctors, lawyers – everybody wanted to be involved, Sue said.

“They were backstage, they were onstage,” Sue said. “They did the nitty gritty to make it happen: the costume design, the lighting, the carpentry. Everybody want to be a part of it.”

John and Sue saw how the “Nature of the Beast” has changed. Movie theaters began popping up and more entertainment venues created a complexity of social opportunities, and Camille wasn’t the only place to be.

No longer are the same faces dedicated to years of work in support of Camille. These days volunteers come for a more measured period of time and change places with new faces.

But still, the passion is there. A different kind of passion, but passion nevertheless, and that’s what keeps the Camille going strong, generation after generation after generation.

And the passion of John and Sue still resonates as much as ever, said Martie DiGregorio, president of the board of the Playhouse.

“I believe that John and Sue’s greatest accomplishment is their endurance of so many years,” Digregorio said. “During all the natural ups and downs of a community no-profit theater, working with at least ten different artistic directors and countless board directors is a testament to their unwavering dedication for local volunteer work. Both are perfectionists and passionate in their areas. They are the true backbone of Camille, and we love them dearly.”