The McCabe Theater, quietly hidden off State Road 60 on the Brandon/Valrico border near the Eagles Lodge, has served the community for almost 100 years.
The historic landmark will celebrate its centennial in 2015, and thanks to the generosity and enthusiasm of the surrounding community, the Village Players continue to call the McCabe home.
The players, now in their 35th year, welcome visitors to a family-friendly "Christmas Spectacular" that features a sweet blend of traditional Christmas songs and carols combined with light-hearted, original Christmas skits.
What makes the Village Players so unique is the desire to welcome new talent. Newcomers are encouraged to audition for the troupe's five to six major plays and musicals.
There are always new faces appearing on stage, and some are in lead roles, unlike other community groups that usually feature several core actors. Gail Pierce, vice president, producer and director of the Village Players, boasts of the group's reputation as a teaching theater.
"When I direct, I teach them skills they can use in any part," said Pierce, a Village Player since the age of 16. "When they walk away from here, they should be walking away with experience they can apply in any other theater.
"Since we love to teach the basics and we pride ourselves in producing quality shows, the Village Players has a seasoned group of artistic directors and several directors on our board because one has to be good at directing and teaching," Pierce added. "As long as we see improvement and it's not detrimental to the quality of our shows, we will continue to work with new actors and anybody who walks through the doors."
One of those special finds is artistic director Domin Pazo, who wrote the "Christmas Spectacular," arranged all the music and directs the show.
Pazo was fresh out of Brandon High School 26 years ago when he was spotted by Pierce and the Village Players' beloved late director, James McCabe, whom the theater is fondly named after.
"I've been here the longest," Pazo said. "It's a second home to a bunch of us. None of us get paid or anything. We just love the art; either a play or a Broadway musical, we do both."
The Village Players feature several young actors in this year's "Christmas Spectacular," including Marin Gray, a 15-year-old Blake High School student who is majoring in visual arts and is very enthused about the program and the teachers.
She moved here from Oregon and found the Village Players online.
"This is my first performance with the group and everyone here is a friend," Marin said. "The theater has always been my thing."
It is also a place to call home for recent retirees like Sheilia Stacy-Taylor, who moved to the Brandon area from West Virginia two years ago with her fiance. Stacy-Taylor has worked in the theatrical department at the University of Parkersburg, in West Virginia, and also as an actor and fundraiser for community theater groups. She gladly accepted the role of fundraiser for the Village Players along with occasional acting roles.
"What makes the Village Players unique is our camaraderie," Stacy-Taylor said. "Everyone is in it for the same mission. We've developed a great reputation and we try and cater to people of all ages. They come as far away as Sarasota, Lakeland and Holiday to see our performances."
Pat Tracy has brought a group of retirees from the Strawberry Ridge community in Valrico to the Village Players for 10 years. She made sure not to miss the "Christmas Spectacular."
"It's just fantastic to see such young talent being given a chance to perform," Tracy said. "I'm amazed they found so many talented singers."
Since the Village Players is a nonprofit organization housed in a 100-year-old building, it relies solely on the generosity of the community. Sponsorships, donations and helping hands keep the building that houses the theater intact. Recently, a Brandon business owner donated a large air conditioner, and with the help of sponsors and other donors, the group was able to replace the roof and buy new fans.
"We still need brickwork and woodwork done and someone to install some donated carpeting for the back of our stage," Pierce said. "If you can lend a hand for a couple of hours, give us a weekend of your time, or even join the fun-loving stage crew since we like creative and artistic people, let us know."
Kathryn Moschella can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.