Iconic Brownsville Theater Endures and Thrives

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Iconic Brownsville Theater Endures and Thrives

A bird’s eye view of the Camille Playhouse, which has been in Brownsville since 1964.
A bird’s eye view of the Camille Playhouse, which has been in Brownsville since 1964.

Look at the list of upcoming 2020 winter and spring showings of the Camille Playhouse. Now in its 56th season, you will see the Brownsville arts organization is not only enduring but thriving as well.

There’s Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” as part of Camille’s young actor’s company in early May. Before that production is Neil Simon’s “Lost In Yonkers,” running this month. It’s all part of a legacy of creativity and art at the theater at Dean Porter Park.

Executive Artistic Director Chris Ikner.
Executive Artistic Director Chris Ikner.

“We are the only permanent theater space like this south of San Antonio,” said Chris Ikner, the executive artistic director of the Camille Playhouse. “There’s nothing like this in the (Rio Grande) Valley.”

Camille began in 1964 at what was a cotton warehouse. It moved to its present location a year later before a park even existed in that part of Brownsville. One of its founders was Gladys Porter, who is also the namesake of the zoo across the street. The group of theater enthusiasts would later name the playhouse after Porter’s sister Camille Sams Lightner. Their portraits hang in the theater lobby.

Camille is a Brownsville institution and generations of families and children have enjoyed – and participated – in its productions over the many years. It features a 300-seat main theater that still dazzles. Its large backstage has dressing rooms, closets of costumes and dresses, and a large workshop area to build sets. In more recent years there was the building of the DeStefano Room, honoring another early founder of Camille. It serves as a place for rehearsals and smaller productions.

Looking out from the stage to the 300-seat theater.
Looking out from the stage to the 300-seat theater.

Community Connections

Ikner is a Georgia native who has managed Camille’s operations and productions for four years. He was drawn by the community’s connections to Camille and what it has come to mean to local families and the Valley as a whole. 

“We have families in which the Camille has always been part of their lives,” Ikner said. “It has kept the spirit alive here. You think about the fact that this arts organization has lasted through recessions and other challenges. It’s still here, thriving and moving forward.”

The Camille features six main productions on a yearly basis. They are broken up evenly between plays and musicals. There’s a summer stock season when actors come to Brownsville from other parts of the country. They are part of Camille productions and work with local actors and theater staff. Actors and others involved in the productions from lighting and sound to building sets all come from different backgrounds, Ikner said. 

Some may have been in theater in high school or college and then revisit those talents by being part of Camille productions, he said. Others have thought about a creative endeavor like those offered by Camille but were hesitant to previously give it a try.

“Theater teaches you the value of teamwork and working together toward a common goal,” said Ikner, who directs many of the Camille productions. “They come here and set new creative goals for themselves. They leave with a sense of growth and accomplishment.”

Early artistic rendering of the Camille Playhouse at Dean Porter Park.
Early artistic rendering of the Camille Playhouse at Dean Porter Park.

Ricardo D. Cavazos is a journalist and business executive who has over 30 years of experience as a reporter, editor and publisher and is currently managing allied health schools in the Rio Grande Valley and Laredo. Working for Freedom Communications, Cavazos served as editor of The Monitor for eight years and was publisher of The Brownsville Herald for 14 years. He also served as publisher of the Valley Morning Star for one year and launched two Spanish-language publications - El Nuevo Heraldo and El Extra. He is an Edinburg native currrently living in Harlingen.

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