A colorful cartoon of The Camille Playhouse, a theatre in Brownsville. The building is in soft yellows, greens, and covered in red and orange bushes. There’s a yellow border with the words “Camille Playhouse” in a bright green bubbly font, two palm trees adorning the sides, all on a light blue background.

The Camille Playhouse: A Magical Theatre in the Middle of Brownsville

Words by Souther Recio

Edited by Abigail Vela

The year was 1998; I was sitting in the second row off to the side, watching a variety show at the Camille Lightner Playhouse with my parents. At four years old, I was entranced by the energy in the audience, the laughter roaring throughout the crowd, and the performance being put on in front of me captivated me to my very core. I had caught the bug and knew I needed to be involved. I wanted to jump on stage at that exact moment to be part of the magic I was witnessing. As soon as I was old enough, my parents enrolled me in a summer workshop at the theater, and I got my first taste of the limelight.

Finding Community in Theatre

As someone who always felt like an outsider, the theater became my refuge. I got to exist in a space where no one ever said I was “too much.” 

 

 

I was hooked. For most of my childhood into my teen years, if you asked me where I was at any given time, the answer was probably “rehearsals.” As someone who always felt like an outsider, the theater became my refuge. I got to exist in a space where no one ever said I was “too much.” It was the first place I really felt at home in my own skin. Through this space, I could interact with kids from other schools I would have otherwise never gotten the chance to meet, and the friendships we built have been long-lasting. 

 

One such friend I can recall is Brandon Binder; although we were schoolmates, we also spent our summers together, sharing the stage. And it was the theater that rekindled our friendship over a decade later. Brandon Binder currently sits as Camille’s youngest Artistic Director. At just 28 years old, Binder has been able to pick the theater back up after nearly closing their doors during the height of the pandemic.  

South Texas Community in Play

The Camille Playhouse is in this 60th season, making it the oldest community theater south of San Antonio. Which is nothing to scoff at, considering they almost lost everything. During the spring of 2020, the community rallied together, hosting live-streamed cabarets and script readings through Facebook Live in a running series called “Live From A Livingroom – A Camille Cabaret.” These performances were a gift of hope in a time when many of us were isolated and scared. In writing this article, I revisited the live-streamed performances still visible on Facebook and found myself getting emotional. These cabarets brought together people who have come and gone from the theater over the years. Many of these folks now live all across the country, actively pursuing theater as their career, and it all started right here on the little stage at Camille Playhouse. On top of it all, they raised enough money to keep the lights on and continue bringing together the community in play. 

The Theatre’s Spooky Superstitions

Speaking of lights, the theater is a place that’s full of superstitions and traditions, including something called a ghost light. When the show is done, rehearsals have ended, and everyone has left the building, a single light is left– the ghost light. The origins of this superstition are murky, but some believe it dates back to when theatres were lit by gas lanterns. A dimly lit lamp would be left on to relieve pressure on the gas valves. It has since transformed into a tradition adopted by theaters worldwide. Today, the light is left on for the ghosts that haunt the stages– because, for some reason, every theater seems to be plagued with ghosts.

The Camille is no exception. My entire life, I’ve heard stories about the Lady In White and the Man In Black. You can sometimes catch a glimpse of them out of the corner of your eye, sitting up in the back row or walking backstage, usually up in the costume stock room. Some folks have been volunteers for the theater since the time their doors first opened, and they’ll swear up and down that they’ve never seen the ghosts. However, I have definitely seen the Lady In White glide across the upstairs railing backstage.

A cartoon take on American Gothic painting, with a white shadowy figure posing as the woman and a man in all black with white glasses and a yellow pitchfork next to her. A light beige building with red bushes in the background.
Illustration by Sandro Galicia, aka Face 2 Face Art.

How the Camille Playhouse Came to Be

Long-time friend and fellow performer Henri DeSteffano said, “Camille loved the theater, build her a theater.” And so they did.

The Camille Playhouse was founded in 1964 by Camille Sams Ligtner. Camille grew up in Rochelle, New York. She was in her senior year at Connecticut College for Women when she came to Brownsville with her parents to spend Christmas with her sister Gladys and brother-in-law Dean Porter. While visiting, she fell in love with a man named Larry Ligtner. The two married following her graduation, and she moved to Texas. 

The theater was one of her many loves. She was an active member of the Junior Service League Follies. Upon her passing in 1962, the theatrical community of Brownsville felt a significant loss. Long-time friend and fellow performer Henri DeSteffano said, “Camille loved the theater, build her a theater.” And so they did.  

The Importance of Community Theatre in the RGV

So often, people are quick to judge theater as something unimportant or “not for them.” But theater is for everyone, especially community theater. I studied theater in school and became somewhat of a snob about it all, looking down at community theater as something beneath me. But returning home and getting involved again gave me a huge epiphany. 

 

Community theater is probably one of the most pure forms of theater. It’s stripped of the pomp and circumstance. No fancy costume changes, no big grand set, just a room full of people who have a love of storytelling and want to share that with you. If you’ve never been to a live theatrical performance before, please take this as your formal invitation! Sit in the audience and be part of something magical. Let the cast take you away for a few hours and enjoy the spectacle like I did so many years ago. 

Red theatre poster with the words “Camille Playhouse Presents” in black font at the top and the title “Carrie” in large white creepy font. A shadow of a woman standing amongst flames is left of the text.
Photo courtesy of Camille Playhouse Facebook.
A black theatre poster with the words “Catrina Experience” at the top and details of the event for “Altars” and “Gala” presented within yellow and red paper cutouts.
Photo courtesy of Camille Playhouse Facebook.

The Camille is currently showcasing “Carrie The Musical,” followed by the yearly Catrina Fundraiser. I personally invite you to come see a show. Heck, send me a message, and I’ll go with you. This place and the people within it have been so important to me throughout my lifetime. I want nothing more than to share this little gem tucked away in Dean Porter Park with as many people as I can. 

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